Graduate School: Tips on a Successful Application

Are you thinking about graduate school? Do you want to apply to a special program? Every year, we receive applications to our Social Work Program (BSW) and Applied Sociology Masters Program and get to see some really good applications and some that need a little more work. Student success is a primary goal of our department – we want you to get into that graduate school or special program or get that job!

We’ll be posting a series of blogs about different aspects of a typical application. If you have any questions about anything in these blogs, feel free to email us at To start you off, here are some general tips on the process.

General Tips

1.  Follow directions! If the application asks for three references and a 1,000 word personal statement, make sure you have three references and that your personal statement is at least 1,000 words. Too often, we receive a 1 page statement (closer to 250 words) and not all references. You may have to follow up with your references to make sure that they send in the reference form or go online to complete an online referral form.

2.  Ask questions! If a direction isn’t quite clear, or you think you might qualify as an exception to a rule, but aren’t sure – ask! Email or call the place you are applying and find out what you need to do to be successful. As a department, we always welcome questions from applicants, and most other institutions are the same. Additionally, this is another opportunity for you to make a good impression on the program as an active, engaged and intelligent applicant.

3.  Research Programs! Make sure that you spend some time really looking at all of the different options out there. Think about what you want to do, and then find the best fit for you. A nationally recognized Sociology graduate program with a strong emphasis on gender issues might not be the best choice for someone who wants to work in medical sociology. Is it a quantitative or qualitative program? Do they emphasize applied or theoretical work? Do you want to finish a Ph.D., or are you only interested in a Masters right now? Do they offer financial support, or will you have to pay for it all out of pocket?
Figure out what you want out of a program and then do the research to find the best ones for you. You’ve just spent years learning how to do research – put those skills to work for you!

4.  Talk to your professors! What are their recommendations? Where did they go to school and why? What programs do they think are good? Do they think you need an advanced degree to do the work you want to do?

Our faculty are a great resource and they enjoy mentoring students. Make an appointment or go to their office hours. If you haven’t talked to professors outside of class, you may be surprised by how easy it is to talk to them.

5.  Keep track of deadlines! These are so important. Make sure you know when each application is due, and then meet those deadlines. If you are applying anywhere that requires a test score, like the GREs, make sure you know what the dates of that test are and how quickly your score will be available. If you want to take a prep class for the GREs or another test, count backwards from the test date to give yourself enough time.

6.  Proof-read everything! It’s important to make a good impression from the outset. Typos and misspelled words makes it look as though the applicant is sloppy and doesn’t really care whether or not they are accepted to the program. If you’re not the best proof-reader of your own work, ask someone else (even multiple someones!) to read through it for you. This includes making sure you haven’t skipped a section. We’ve had students not turn over a double-sided page and miss a whole section of the application – make sure this doesn’t happen to you!

Some of the best programs receive hundreds of applications for a few openings; you don’t want to give them a reason to toss your application into the deny pile.

7.  Every contact counts! Emails, phone calls, texts, tweets, facebook posts, etc. – if they are with the program to which you’re applying, they all count. Be polite and courteous. If you receive an email asking for further clarification or telling you something is missing, respond right away, even if it’s just to say that you have to look into it and will get back to them later. Treat emails like real letters; don’t just respond with a “Yes” or smiley face. Include a greeting and a closing. Remember that you’re not corresponding with a buddy, you’re interacting with people who will be part of deciding whether or not you are accepted into their program.

8.  References are important! The vast majority of programs (including ours) prefer academic or professional references. If you’re applying to a graduate program, the definite preference is for academic references unless there’s an explicitly stated clinical/applied part of the program. If you can’t think of three professors who would give you a good reference, start looking! Speak up in class, talk to faculty outside of class, go to office hours.

9.  Use your Personal Statement wisely! Your Personal Statement (sometimes called Statement of Intent) is your opportunity to introduce yourself to the admissions committee and convince them that you would be a great addition to their program. If there is any part of your application that may be a little weak, address that weakness and explain how you will improve. Tell them why you like their program and why you would be an asset to them. Talk about your aspirations and what you hope to do while in their program and your plans for what you will do with the degree they offer.  This is also your chance to show off that you can write well.

10.  Be sure to follow up! Let’s say you’ve followed all of these suggestions and have been accepted into graduate school. Time to celebrate, right? Of course! However, please do remember that if you are completing your undergraduate degree, most graduate programs require that you submit an official transcript once your degree has been posted. Also, most schools want you to finish setting up your email with them and start checking it regularly. There may be housing questions and financial aid issues that need to be addressed, and you’ll most likely need to sign up for classes and maybe even meet with an advisor. So, follow up on everything to make sure you’re completely prepared once you arrive on campus.

On the other hand, let’s suppose that you didn’t get into the school you really wanted and you want to apply again next year. Follow up, then, too! See if you can talk to anyone at their program about your application. You may find out that they just needed to see coursework in a specific area, or that your personal statement wasn’t as strong as they wanted. Maybe it’s an applied program and they really want their students to have worked in the field for a couple of years before applying to graduate school. Whatever the reason(s), if it’s something you can fix or a weakness you can strengthen over the next year or so, you’ll have something to work on and you may get into the program next year.

That’s it for now. Keep an eye on the blog over the next little while – we’ll be taking deeper dives into the Personal Statement, References, finding Funding, and looking at all of this from a student’s perspective.

Happy Thanksgiving! We hope everyone has a wonderful and safe holiday.


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