Applying to Grad School—the Design Edition

At least five accreditation levels exist for design. A certificate is a non degree-granting program of study, lasting from a few months to a year. An associate degree is a two-year degree at a college or university, while a Bachelor’s Degree extends design study to four years and can result in a BA, BFA, or a BDes degree. There are also Master of Arts (MA), Master of Fine Arts in Graphic Design (MFA), and Master of Design (MDes) degrees. For the MA, degree requirements include completion of a research or theoretical study (and lead to teaching at a K-12 level). MFA students tend to complete a creative dissertation or portfolio. MDes programs are either course based with a major final project, or a mix of course-based requirements with a thesis or final paper. These degrees take from two to three years to complete, depending on the programs and graphic design schools. In Canada, the MDes degree is a terminal degree, while elsewhere PhDs in Design do exist.*

In design, it is still quite common to submit a portfolio, alongside transcripts, forms, and reference letters, as part of the application package. That is true for all levels of entrance, from certificate to doctoral. Some programs also include an interview component (such as the Information Design program where I work), while forgoing the portfolio.

For graduate programs you’re likely to encounter two levels of vetting. First, you will be assessed by the office of graduate studies (or equivalent) to see whether you qualify for graduate-level study. They will look primarily at your transcripts. Passing through this stage depends on the capacity of the institution (some design grad programs, for example, only accept 2 to 4 students per year) and the fierceness of the competition. If you pass through that stage, you will likely be assessed by a committee of design faculty (and, possibly, faculty from neighbouring disciplines such as printmaking or art history—the makeup of this committee depends on the faculty within which “design” is located at the institution you’re applying to). If a portfolio is required as part of the application process, these will be the folks looking at it, alongside your grades and reference letters.

Reviewers need a good reason to rank you ahead of other good students for one of the few spots they can fund. In fact, what you want is to create an application that gives them no other option but to accept you. I will attempt to give you some advice on how to make your application irresistible.

1. Pre-Work: Do Your Research

Research the program you are applying to—the length and type of study (course, project, or thesis-based; culminating in a gallery show, thesis, or project defence), program’s focus or approach to design education, number of full-time faculty, faculty members’ individual specializations and research areas, location of the department (Fine Arts, Arts, Science, Communication Studies, Business), number of graduate students, opportunities for teaching or research assistantships, and scholarships or awards vs. amount of tuition. Most graduate programs still have a kind of “apprentice” model to them, and you will likely be working with one or two professors on your own thesis, dissertation, or project in those professors’ areas of specialization. Look at faculty profiles and research statements. Read the titles of projects successfully completed by their graduate students. Tweet at or email past students and ask about their experiences.

2. Tailor

As my good friend, Professor Gailey, says: “A good grad program will not admit students who want to work on a topic that none of their faculty can properly supervise.” If you’re interested in critical design or feminist HCI, find a program and a faculty member who is doing (and, ideally, teaching) this kind of design. In your application statement, say something like, “I would like to work with Professor A, whose work on WXY is relevant to my interest in XYZ.” Most design departments are quite small, so finding more than one person who’s interests align with yours may be challenging; however, if you can, mention more than one faculty member to show that your interests fit with what the faculty are doing (just in case the first person is about to go on a sabbatical or retire).

3. Letters of Recommendation

Get letters of recommendation from faculty who (1) have taught you; (2) in who’s classes you did well in; (3) *ideally* who will remember you; and (4) who teach in design or design-complementary fields (this also depends on your area of interest; for example, if your focus is usability, courses in psychology and research methods are a great fit).

Some design programs may welcome recommendation letters from people who are not assessing your academic ability—those you’ve worked for in industry, for example, on design projects that are in alignment with your interests or that show your capacity as a designer. Most faculty will not agree to write a letter for you if they do not have a generally favourable impression of your work; once they say yes to writing you a recommendation, you’re usually pretty safe in feeling confident their letter will be positive.

When asking for a letter of recommendation, make sure to send: (1) a description of the program you’re applying to and a link to their web page (not just the institution’s general web site); (2) your CV or resume; (3) your best project from their class; and (4) a more recent project that demonstrates what you’ve done since. Basically, you want to give them ALL THE HELP in crafting a glowing, accurate, and relevant letter.

4. Portfolio

Follow portfolio instructions! If they say to send physical slides or a DVD of your work, then that’s what you should send (although I might pause for a minute to consider whether I truly want to travel back to 1979 for my grad studies). If you encounter an archaic portfolio requirement, meet it and include a small, printed portfolio book as well.

Some design programs will look for breadth of experience as demonstrated through variety and complexity (so, they will ask for a sample of your drawing, writing, design for a client, and a piece of self-directed design). Other programs will look for samples that are relevant to the subfield you want to study and to their program’s focus or vision for design. The committee won’t expect you to already be an expert in the field you want to study, but they are likely to expect that you already are a decent designer. This likely means demonstrating a command of typography and form, the capacity to write, “creative” thinking, and excellent presentation skills and attention to detail.

5. Proof Read!!!

Another great piece of advice from Professor Gailey: “Find someone who knows how all of this works and get them to read your statement(s), cv, etc. before submitting.” Ask a designer to look over your materials to check your typography, layout, and attention to detail.

6. Try, Then Try Again

Try to remember that graduate programs are competitive. Design programs, in particular, are typically quite small and able to admit a tiny number of applicants. Consider applying for more than one program at a time, since most have a once-a-year entrance process. In Canada, be ready to relocate since we only have a handful of graduate programs in design. Finally, it’s possible that your success (or lack of) can be dependent on things outside your control.

Still Curious?

I work as a Professor in Information Design at Mount Royal University, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. You can see some of my work, or find out more about me, at http://milenaradzikowska.com. I am on twitter as @drradzikowska.

*This first paragraph will soon appear in our co-authored book (with Dr. Stan Ruecker): Design + DH (forthcoming in 2019 via Intellect Books.)