Graduate School Application Process

Each program may have its own version of the application process, but most will include several of the following standard components.

A biographical information form (or “application form”) will ask for basic information such as your name, address, and phone number, but may also include prompts for research interests, work or research experience, skills and other“resume type” information.

A resume may not be requested if the application form is detailed and comprehensive. You may wish to include one anyway.  When using your resume to apply for graduate school or other academic endeavors, make sure it is tailored accordingly. If you have significant experience in your field you may wish to submit a curriculum vitae, or CV.  

A personal statement is an essay whose function is to a) explain who you are and what motivates you to pursue your course of study, and b) to demonstrate your writing skills. This essay is a very important part of any application; make sure that you follow directions carefully, as different departments may ask you to comment on different aspects of your background or on your reasons for choosing their program. 

Joe Schall, former writing tutor at Penn State and author of Writing Recommendation Letters: A Faculty Handbook and Style for Students Online has developed a new handbook entitled Writing Personal Statements Online.  This five-chapter handbook provides students with detailed advice on weighing the grad school decision, generating detail for personal essays, and writing style.  The final two chapters discuss specific scholarships and other graduate school opportunities and include sample personal essays.  The book also includes an internal search engine and plenty of "Self-Study" boxes with recommended links where students can go for further instruction on particular topics. 

Needless to say, you should allow plenty of time to craft this essay before you send it in.  You should be prepared to do several drafts of your essay and show it to someone whose judgment you trust.  There are plenty of web sites devoted to this issue as well (e.g. Graduate School.)

A statement of research interests may be requested as a separate essay, or, in many cases, it is incorporated in a single application essay together with the above mentioned personal information. Again it is critical that your writing be impeccable, and that you show yourself to be someone who:

  1. is likely to thrive in and finish the program of study,
  2. has the necessary academic preparation,
  3. has a good overview of the field,
  4. understands what the program has to offer,
  5. has ideas about the direction she would like to take in her studies, and
  6. is realistic.

This part of your application should make sense to a specialist in your field, and it is a good idea to ask a professor or other mentor to read it critically.

Mount Holyoke transcripts can be requested from the Registrar’s office, and can be picked up, sent to you or mailed directly to the institution to which you are applying. If you have taken any college-level courses at other institutions (this includes study abroad), make sure you send along those transcripts as well.

Standardized test scores are requested for most Ph.D. programs and many M.A. programs. By far the most commonly used test is the Graduate Records Examination (GRE). Some programs ask for the general test only, while others require a subject test as well. You should ideally take the GRE (or other specified test) early enough so that you know your score by the time you compile your application. When scores are said to be optional, you should have them sent, rather than opting not to.

Letters of recommendation for graduate study are usually written by professors who know the applicant well. Ideally the faculty member should be in the field (or a related field) to which you are applying. A common number requested is three. 

A writing sample is commonly requested by Ph.D. programs in the humanities and social sciences. You need not write anything new to use as your writing sample. Rather, you might use a good paper you have written for a course—the more topically relevant, the better—and perhaps include a brief explanation of when and in what context the paper was written.

If you are applying to a writing program and have already done a good amount of writing, you might submit a few pages of a novel, a short story, or poetry, as relevant. If you are applying to architecture school or a program in the fine arts, you will be asked for a portfolio which will consist of copies and/or photographs of your best work. And if you already have a publication you may wish to send a copy of that, if it is related to your field.