Guide to Applying to Master’s Programs

Home/Guide to Applying to Master’s Programs

Across many professions, a graduate degree is absolutely essential in order to ensure long-term career advancement and success. Business people can advance further into management and executive roles, educators can find themselves in leadership or administration roles, and graduates with a science or engineering background can go on to be doctors or leading experts in their field. It all starts with an application, however. Despite the differences between today's wide array of master's degree programs, the application process itself is actually pretty similar for those pursuing everything from an MBA to a law degree and beyond.

The key to success for today's graduate students is to proceed through the entire application process logically and with a commitment to exceeding the school's application deadlines. The prepared applicant should have a well-developed plan that enforces entrance exam test dates, in-person meetings for letters of recommendations, and more. By creating a helpful timeline, proceeding logically, and learning to relax throughout this extensive procedure, aspiring master's degree students will be able to successfully and professionally complete their applications while maximizing their chances of acceptance to a program. This organization will also come across quite well in personal interviews, personal statements, and other areas where a student's orderly approach will be recognizable to seasoned admissions personnel.

Finding the Right Schools

The key to success at the graduate level is to find both a school and a program that align with your long-term career goals and interests. Consider what you'd like to learn about a field, what you hope to gain personally and professional from a master's degree, and which schools might help you achieve those goals. When seeking out a master's degree program, look for coursework that furthers understanding of a given profession and creates even greater interest in the field within a school that commits to the highest instructional quality. Learning how to identify which schools offer those benefits is a fundamental part of applying to the right graduate school and degree program.

Peer Advice: Graduate Students on the Application Process

Take it from other successful applicants: Applying to graduate schools is demanding and requires the right strategic approach. Though certainly stressful, the application process has already been completed by many other people who have gone on to earn master's degrees. Use their advice, ranging from pre-application steps to social media behaviors, as a general guide to ensuring the best chance at admission to a prestigious program. Not only might you learn from the wisdom of those who have gone before you, but solidarity with other graduate students who truly understand your experience may be comforting as you navigate this crucial process.

Expert Advice: What Schools Look for in a Master's Degree Application

Just like undergraduate programs, those at the graduate level typically enforce a pretty extensive application process. Candidates will often have to submit resumes, test scores, personal statements, writing samples or portfolios, professional and academic recommendations, and an official application. Some schools will even require interviews. The key to success during this phase of the process is to determine the specific application requirements for each school, and to take advice from professors and industry experts on the best way to present yourself. Ask a trusted instructor to edit your personal statement and seek advice about formatting your resume. The successful student plans ahead, assiduously prepares application documents, and adheres to all deadlines.

Getting Organized: Create a Timeline

Each master's degree program to which you apply will have unique (albeit similar) application requirements and deadlines. The best way to ensure that each requirement is met is to make a timeline at least a year in advance, covering things like entrance test dates, approaching professors for recommendation letters, financial aid deadlines, and final application deadlines. Most applications are completed online, but in some cases, schools will request forms by mail, so it is important to plan for surface mail processing as well. By planning out the entire process in advance and making a logical sequence of events, applicants will maximize their chances of completing the application and earning a spot in the class. Read more about digital tools and management apps to help keep your information current and organized.

What To Know About Required Testing and Managing Your Scores

Almost all of today's best master's degree programs require students to submit entrance exam scores alongside their other application materials. Each program will require a different type of test, whether it's the MCAT for medical school, the GMAT for business school, or the GRE for other programs. Look at this requirement early on and plan to take the test well in advance of filing an application. Many graduate entrance tests are offered throughout the year, but in some specialized cases, an exam is given only once or twice per year, so make sure to be aware of your test's frequency and location. Many schools place great emphasis on entrance tests, so it is important to study long before test day to make sure that you receive the best score possible. The cost and stakes are both high, but in many cases, if you begin early enough, you often have the option to re-take the test several times before you officially apply.

Writing Your Personal Statement

Admissions counselors want to learn more about the academic and professional qualifications held by each applicant, which is why a personal statement is almost always required during the application process. Your personal statement (sometimes called an application essay or statement of purpose) should reveal your accomplishments, background in the field, and what you hope to gain from the school's graduate program. Although it's wise to work from the same basic essay, make sure to create alternate versions for each school. It's important to convey your interest in the school's specific program, to state why you are interested in the school, and to show how you would be a good match for the program. A well-written statement should be personally focused, professionally written, and free of clichés, gimmicks, or common statements that the admissions committee has read all too often. Make it unique!

Handling Recommendations

Good letters of recommendation can greatly improve students' chances of admission to a master's degree program, while a bad one can certainly have a negative overall impact. The key is to start early and arrange for an in-person conference with a professor who is most likely to give a glowing review of your work. A well-written, thoughtful email may also suffice in this era of digital communication. Be sure to approach potential recommenders early and allow plenty of time (at least one month) for the letter. Ideally, you should choose a professor with whom you have recently taken a class, and received a good grade. Remind her/him of which class you attended, provide her/him with a copy of work you completed in the class, and indicate the names of schools which may contact her/him by email. Alternately, you may look into online portfolio services such as Interfolio which allow your recommenders to upload one letter which is then dispersed to multiple schools. Be sure to send each recommender a note of thanks!

Writing a Resume/CV

Just like applying for jobs, submitting a resume or CV (curriculum vitae) to a graduate program requires tailoring the content to the exact program for which the student is applying. A resume developed for an MBA program, for instance, would focus on the applicant's undergraduate work, internships, leadership experience, and professional interests in the business world. Other applicants would focus on content specific to the fields of education, technology, engineering, or numerous others. Limit your resume or CV to one or two pages, but give the admissions committee the insight they need into past professional experiences so that they can make an informed decision. As with your personal statement, seek help from instructors or other professionals to ensure that the resume or CV is error-free and properly and aesthetically formatted.

Applying For Financial Aid and Scholarships

Financial aid always requires students to submit their FAFSA by the school's priority deadline. Typically, that deadline falls between March 1 and April 1 for most schools. In addition, many master's degree programs offer an array of scholarships to offset the amount of loans students will need to commit to in order to finance the cost of tuition. Students might be considered for these scholarships automatically after filing their FAFSA, but most schools do require separate scholarship applications to be filed in order for students to be eligible for funds. Peruse the school's website for information about scholarships or fellowships, and once you've committed to a program, contact the school to find out if there are other sources of funding, even for subsequent years. Emerging from your master's degree program without student loans and other debt is not only desirable, it is very possible with the proper research and planning.

Preparing For Your Interview

Prepare for a graduate school interview is in many ways similar to an actual job interview. Research the school's programs and rankings, and be ready to discuss why its program is the best for long-term career prospects and professional interests. Dress professionally and answer questions with a professional demeanor. Have a few questions prepared for the interviewer as well, largely to show them a significant amount of interest in their programs. By making this a professional, two-way exchange, you will maximize your potential for acceptance.

Accepting Offers and Dealing with Rejection

Students accepted to a master's degree program should consider, prior to accepting an offer of admission, whether the school will be affordable, valuable over the long-term of a professional career, and helpful enough to ensure the student's success. If so, it's an offer worth accepting. Those denied admission might want to consider the potential reasons: Was the application late? Was a key material overlooked? Either way, a thank-you letter and a bit of gratitude should be sent to the school's admissions committee. Never burn a bridge; nothing precludes students from applying for the next term with more success.

With a thorough understanding of what it takes to file an application for admission to a masters program and follow it up with all of the necessary materials, today's graduate students will give themselves a fighting chance for even some of today's most prestigious programs. With a thorough understanding of the expectations and requirements of each school, and a dedication to organizing your material and adhering to deadlines, you will successfully navigate the master's degree application process and accomplish the first steps toward achieving your personal and professional goals.