Discover the primary grad school admissions requirements and the best ways to increase your chances of getting into grad school
There are a number of reasons you might be thinking about grad school. Maybe your dream career requires you to earn an advanced degree for licensure or certification. You certainly won’t be able to become a doctor, lawyer, or psychologist without completing grad school first.
On the other hand, perhaps you want to get into grad school because you’re eager to receive specialized training and experience in your chosen field. Gen ed requirements will be a thing of the past, and you can devote your entire focus toward your passion. Or maybe you’re entering a competitive job market and you know having an advanced degree will give you an edge over other applicants. After all, only 13% of the U.S. population holds a graduate degree, so it’s a smart strategy to make yourself stand out in a job search. Or perhaps you know a bachelor’s degree can only get you so far in your career field, and you want the type of upward mobility graduate school can provide.
Whatever your reasons are—and each one is valid—you have your sights set on furthering your education. You just need to know how to get into grad school first. What steps do you need to take? How do you make yourself a competitive grad school applicant? What do grad schools look for? How do you increase your chances of getting accepted to a prestigious grad school program that will help you achieve your ambitious career goals?
In this guide, we’ll answer all those questions and more. Continue reading to learn about grad school admissions requirements and how to get into the grad school of your dreams.
How hard is it to get into grad school?
Depending on your high school performance, declared major, and the schools you applied to, getting into your undergraduate institution may or may not have been hard for you. The same applies to grad school—getting in will be difficult for some and less challenging for others.
Consider the differences between applying to undergrad and applying to grad school. Excelling academically in college is much more difficult than excelling in high school. To illustrate, earning a 4.0 GPA in high school is impressive, but maintaining a 4.0 college GPA for four years is a near miracle.
Furthermore, graduate school admissions committees expect their applicants to have extensive extracurricular experiences relating to their subject field. For example, most pre-med students participate in research, shadow doctors, volunteer in medical settings, and engage in community service to improve their chances of getting into medical school. Becoming a competitive grad school applicant requires more effort than becoming a competitive undergrad applicant.
Another reason getting into grad school is difficult is because seats in graduate programs are limited—either by funding, faculty availability, or restrictions of the program. Some grad programs will only accept ten new students each year. So even if only two hundred hopefuls apply, competition for those ten seats will be fierce.
We’ve established that yes, getting into grad school is challenging, but the degree of difficulty varies dramatically depending on which institutions and programs you’re considering—just as it does with undergrad. If you’re looking at Ivy League or Ivy+ institutions, you can be sure it will be hard to get accepted.
Types of graduate programs tend to vary in admission difficulty as well—but not always in the ways you’d expect. For example, Duke University’s PhD in Biology program has an acceptance rate of 19%, making it highly competitive. But Duke’s PhD in Literature program has an acceptance rate of only 4%, which is similar to what you’ll find at some of the top medical schools in the nation. Science isn’t always the most competitive program around.
Even so, a few rules of thumb exist in grad school admissions. In general, you can expect doctorate degree programs to be harder to get into than master’s programs. For example, it’s more challenging to get into medical school than to get accepted into PA school. Whether you apply to an MBA program, hope to get accepted to a prestigious law school, or dream of getting into dental school, expect to face strong admissions competition. You need to prove you have what it takes to excel in graduate study and advance to the next stage of your career.
What are the best ways to prepare for grad school?
The most successful grad school applicants follow specific strategies to become competitive for their dream graduate programs. Let’s examine how to get into grad school using these tried and true techniques.
Know grad school requirements and start planning early. While evolving career plans can make this strategy challenging, it’s most advantageous if you decide early on you want to attend grad school. If you set on this path as a college freshman or sophomore, you have the time to follow grad school requirements and make yourself a competitive candidate over several years.
Take additional applicable coursework beyond the minimum requirements. Most grad schools set minimum required coursework for their applicants within the main subject area. For example, an MBA program may require you to take an Intro to Business class. However, if you’ve also taken Global Economics or Advanced Marketing, you’ll demonstrate your commitment to and knowledge of the business field.
Seek relevant experiences. Graduate schools want to enroll students who are confident in their career choices and will make significant contributions to their fields of study. You can show your potential by gaining experience in your intended field—through internships, research assistantships, volunteering, or paid work experience. Prioritize opportunities where you can demonstrate your leadership skills. And you’ll gain an extra admissions advantage if you’re able to co-author publications as an undergrad.
Engage with your college’s Career Services department. Most Career Services offices will host networking activities, grad school fairs, and information sessions for their students. Take advantage of these resources, especially if you’re able to connect with grad school admissions officers and get the inside admissions scoop.
Refine your grad school list during your junior year. Don’t wait until senior year to determine where you’ll be applying. You won’t have sufficient time to devote to your applications. Instead, identify the programs you plan to apply to while you’re a junior so you can spend the summer before senior year pre-writing your essays.
Reach out to current or former grad students to seek advice. Once you’ve solidified your application list, ask current or past members of the program to share their admissions tips. You could use your existing network or venture out on LinkedIn.
Consider taking a gap year before applying to grad school. Some graduate programs prefer to enroll students with more work and life experience than they can gain during undergrad. For example, the average MBA student has five years of work experience before enrolling. On the other hand, students usually start law school immediately after earning their bachelor’s degree. Research the type of program you’re interested in to see if work experience is strongly valued before deciding if taking time off is the right choice for you.
What are the requirements to get into grad school?
While different types of graduate programs will prioritize different qualities and experiences in their candidates, it’s fair to say that for the most part, grad schools use the same set of admissions factors to evaluate their applicants. As we said before, understanding these factors early on will help you know how to get into grad school and increase your chances of being successful. Let’s take a look at the most common grad school requirements and why they are important.
Undergraduate GPA. Graduate coursework is more challenging than undergrad, so it’s reasonable for grad school admissions committees to be concerned if their applicants have what it takes to be academically successful in their program. Having a strong undergraduate GPA is the best way to prove you can handle the rigors of grad school.
So what GPA do you need to get into grad school? It depends on the type and competitiveness of the program. To get into prestigious medical schools, you might need a 3.95 GPA. On the other hand, a 3.2 GPA might be enough to get accepted into a less-competitive MSW program. A good rule of thumb, however, is you want to have a 3.5 GPA or above if grad school is in your future—so you should earn A’s and B’s in your undergrad coursework. Be aware that admissions committees will consider your major GPA and performance in required classes more heavily than your total GPA.
Standardized tests for graduate admission. There are many different types of tests used in the grad school admissions process. The purpose of these tests is to assess applicants’ knowledge in specific subject areas deemed necessary for the graduate program. If you perform well on these tests, it’s assumed you’re ready to excel in the grad school curriculum.
The most general test is the GRE, which can be used for admission into many types of graduate programs. Medical schools require the MCAT, law schools require the LSAT, and MBA programs typically require the GMAT. Learn what test is required for your potential grad programs, as well as what a competitive score is. Invest your time in studying and preparing for your test. Consider taking prep classes or seeking individual tutoring to maximize your scores. You’ll want to take your admission test early. Leave yourself plenty of time to retake it for a better score before the application deadline.
Letters of recommendation. Beyond your academic stats, your letters of recommendation might be the most influential aspect of your application to grad school. Your potential grad school professors want to know if you’re the right fit for their program. Who better to ask than their peers in higher education?
You’ll want to be extremely mindful of which professors you ask to write recommendations for you. How do they relate to your academic field? Having your Biology professor write a recommendation for your law school application is less impactful than if your Political Science professor wrote one. This is why it’s important to connect with professors—particularly those within your career interest.
Give your recommenders plenty of time to write their letters—preferably between six weeks and two months. It’s wise to provide the professors with a brief academic resume that details your achievements within the department and especially within their classes. This can help jog their memories of your impressive qualities if it’s been a semester or two since they taught you in the classroom. You’ll also want to tell them about the program you’re applying to and what it values in its applicants so they can take care to emphasize those qualities in their recommendations.
Grad school admissions essays. Most graduate programs will ask you to either write a personal statement, respond to a specific prompt, or submit a statement of purpose. Personal statements are usually broad and open-ended, allowing you to share your academic and career goals, as well as your motivations for choosing that specific field. On the other hand, statements of purpose are typically more academic-focused and ask you to explain your specific research interests and future projects.
It’s important to highly tailor each one of these essays to the specific graduate programs you’re applying to. Mention departments you hope to engage in or specific faculty whose research lab you would like to join. Take the time to study each grad school’s unique mission and values. Then show how your qualities, experiences, and goals align with the school’s mission in your essays. This is the best way to demonstrate how you’ll positively benefit a graduate program.
Resume or Curriculum Vitae (CV). Many grad schools will ask you to submit a resume or CV with your application. This is a chance for them to grasp the wider picture of who you are as a working and studying individual. A resume is more work and industry-focused, so you might expect it as a requirement for an MBA program. On the other hand, a CV should emphasize your academic accomplishments, and might be appropriate if you’re applying to a PhD program and have several publications or presentations to disclose.
Like you did with your essays, you’ll want to tailor your resume or CV specifically for your grad school applications. Consider what qualities your dream grad schools want to see in their applicants and find ways to demonstrate those through your work and academic experiences. Don’t be afraid to seek guidance or a second opinion when designing your resume. You can have your undergrad Career Services office look it over and offer suggestions for improvement. You don’t want to miss this opportunity to put your best foot forward.
Grad school interview. If you’ve successfully created a strong grad school application with all the above components, you’ll increase your chances of receiving an invitation to interview for grad school admission. The admissions committees liked your stats, experiences, and recommendations, now they want to assess your personality and fit for the program face-to-face.
Each program will have a different interview process, so be sure to know what you’re walking into ahead of time. Preparation for a group interview will look slightly different than for an individual interview. Who will your interviewers be? Faculty, admissions staff, current students, or a mix? Gather as much information as possible so you can prepare yourself to excel.
Research each grad school extensively before arriving at the interview. Be ready to share which classes, programs, and faculty members you are most excited to engage with. Compile a list of questions for your interviewers to show your curiosity and interest in the program. Making a strong impression in your admissions interview is how you can improve your chances of getting into grad school.
Now that you know how to get into grad school, you’re ready to begin the work of becoming a competitive grad school candidate. Earning a graduate degree will invite you into a small subset of the population who impact the world as highly-skilled professionals and industry leaders. By following these guidelines and suggestions, you can greatly increase your chances of getting into grad school and unlocking the doors to your successful future.