Career Development Center

Applying to Graduate and Professional Schools


It is important to start gathering information early to be able to complete your applications on time. Most people should start the process a full year and a half before their anticipated date of matriculation. There are, however, some exceptions to this rule. The time frame will be different if you are applying for national scholarships or if your undergraduate institution has an evaluation committee through which you are applying to a heath-related program or law school. In such a situation, you may have to begin the process two years before your date of matriculation in order to take your graduate admission test and arrange for letters of recommendation early enough to meet deadlines.

Application deadlines may range from August (a year prior to matriculation) for early decision programs of medical schools using the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) to late spring or summer (when beginning graduate school in the fall) for a few programs with rolling admissions. Most deadlines for entry in the fall are between January and March. You should in all cases plan to meet formal deadlines; beyond this, you should be aware of the fact that many schools with rolling admissions encourage and act upon early applications. Applying early to a school with rolling admissions is usually advantageous as it shows your enthusiasm for the program and gives admissions committees more time to evaluate the subjective components of your application, rather than just the "numbers." Applicants are not rejected early unless they are clearly below an institution's standards. The timetable that appears below represents the ideal for most applicants.

Six months prior to applying

  • Research areas of interest, institutions, and programs.
  • Talk to advisors about application requirements.
  • Register and prepare for appropriate graduate admission tests.
  • Investigate national scholarships.
  • If appropriate, obtain letters of recommendation.

Three months prior to applying

  • Take required graduate admission tests.
  • Write for application materials or request them online.
  • Visit institutions of interest, if possible.
  • Write your application essay.
  • Check on application deadlines and rolling admissions policies.
  • For medical, dental, osteopathy, podiatry, or law school, you may need to register for the national application or data assembly service most programs use.

Fall, a year before matriculating

  • Obtain letters of recommendation.
  • Take graduate admission tests if you haven't already.
  • Send in completed applications.

Winter, before matriculating in the fall

  • Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the CSS Financial Aid Profile, if required.

Spring, before matriculating in the fall

  • Check with all institutions before their deadlines to make sure your file is complete.
  • Visit institutions that accept you.
  • Send a deposit to your institution of choice.
  • Notify other colleges and universities that accepted you of your decision so that they can admit students on their waiting list.
  • Send thank-you notes to people who wrote your recommendation letters, informing them of your success.

You may not be able to adhere to this timetable if your application deadlines are very early, as is the case with medical schools, or if you decide to attend graduate school at the last minute. In any case, keep in mind the various application requirements and be sure to meet all deadlines. If deadlines are impossible to meet, call the institution to see if a late application will be considered.

Application Materials

To obtain the materials you need, send an email or a neatly typed or handwritten postcard requesting an application, a bulletin, and financial aid information is all that is necessary. However, you may want to request an application by writing a formal letter in which you briefly describe your training, experience, and specialized research interests. If you want to write to a particular faculty member about your background and interests in order to explore the possibility of an assistantship, you should also feel free to do so. However, do not ask a faculty member for an application, as this may cause a significant delay in your receipt of the forms.

National Application Services

In a few professional fields, there are national services that provide assistance with some part of the application process. These services are the Law School Data Assembly Service (LSDAS), American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS), American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service (AACOMAS), American Association of Colleges of Podiatric Medicine Application Service (AACPMAS), and American Association of Dental Schools Application Service (AADSAS). Many programs require applicants to use these services because they simplify the application process for both the professional programs' admissions committees and the applicant. The role these services play varies from one field to another. The LSDAS, for example, analyzes your transcript(s) and submits the analysis to the law schools to which you are applying, while the other services provide a more complete application service. More information and applications for these services can be obtained from your undergraduate institution.

Meeting Application Requirements

Requirements vary from one field to another and from one institution to another. Read each program's requirements carefully; the importance of this cannot be overemphasized.

Graduate Admission Tests

Colleges and universities usually require a specific graduate admission test, and departments sometimes have their own requirements as well. Scores are used in evaluating the likelihood of your success in a particular program (based upon the success rate of past students with similar scores). Most programs will not accept scores more than three to five years old. More information on these tests.


Admissions committees require official transcripts of your grades to evaluate your academic preparation for graduate study. Grade point averages are important but are not examined in isolation; the rigor of the courses you have taken, your course load, and the reputation of the undergraduate institution you have attended are also scrutinized. To have your college transcript sent to graduate institutions, contact your college registrar.

Letters of Recommendation

Choosing people to write recommendations can be difficult, and most graduate schools require two or three letters. While recommendations from faculty members are essential for academically oriented programs, professional programs may seriously consider nonacademic recommendations from professionals in the field. Indeed, often these nonacademic recommendations are as respected as those from faculty members.

To begin the process of choosing references, identify likely candidates from among those you know through your classes, extracurricular activities, and jobs. A good reference will meet several of the following criteria: he or she has a high opinion of you, knows you well in more than one area of your life, is familiar with the institutions to which you are applying as well as the kind of study you are pursuing, has taught or worked with a large number of students and can make a favorable comparison of you with your peers, is known by the admissions committee and is regarded as someone whose judgment should be given weight, and has good written communication skills. No one person is likely to satisfy all these criteria, so choose those people who come closest to the ideal.

Once you have decided whom to ask for letters, you may wonder how to approach them. Ask them if they think they know you well enough to write a meaningful letter. Be aware that the later in the semester you ask, the more likely they are to hesitate because of time constraints; ask early in the fall semester of your senior year. Once those you ask to write letters agree in a suitably enthusiastic manner, make an appointment to talk with them. Go to the appointment with recommendation forms in hand, being sure to include addressed, stamped envelopes for their convenience. In addition, give them other supporting materials that will assist them in writing a good, detailed letter on your behalf. Such documents as transcripts, a resume, a copy of your application essay, and a copy of a research paper can help them write a thorough recommendation.

On the recommendation form, you will be asked to indicate whether you wish to waive or retain the right to see the recommendation. Before you decide, discuss the confidentiality of the letter with each writer. Many faculty members will not write a letter unless it is confidential. This does not necessarily mean that they will write a negative letter but, rather, that they believe it will carry more weight as part of your application if it is confidential. Waiving the right to see a letter does, in fact, usually increase its validity.

If you will not be applying to graduate school as a senior but you plan to pursue further education in the future, open a credentials file if your college or university offers this service. Letters of recommendation can be kept on file for you until you begin the application process. If you are returning to school after working for several years and did not establish a credentials file, it may be difficult to obtain letters of recommendation from professors at your undergraduate institution. In this case, contact the graduate schools you are applying to and ask what their policies are regarding your situation. They may waive the requirement of recommendation letters, allow you to substitute letters from employment supervisors, or suggest you enroll in relevant courses at a nearby institution and obtain letters from professors upon completion of the course work. Program policies vary considerably, so it is best to check with each school.

from: Peterson's Guide to Graduate and Professional Programs: An Overview, 2002

Learn about Graduate Application Essays

Helpful Links