How to Write a Successful Grad School Application

Oct 25, 2019 · 6 min read

First off, congrats on making it to the final year of your undergraduate degree! That is a huge accomplishment, be proud.

Secondly, congrats for making the decision to go to grad school! I can tell you that it will be one of the toughest but most rewarding experiences of your life.

In the final year of my undergraduate degree, I decided to apply to grad schools in three different countries: Canada, England, and the United States. I applied to an MA in Classical Languages (University of Alberta), an MPhil in Classics (Cambridge), an MPhil in Linguistics (Oxford), a PhD in Linguistics (Cornell and Harvard), and a PhD in Indo-European Studies (University of California, Los Angeles). I was lucky enough to have friends who had already gone through the process of applying to grad school and they passed onto me all their wisdom. I hope to pass on their knowledge and the pieces of advice I wish I would have had a year ago, to help you write a successful grad school application.

General Things:

(Triffo Hall, home of the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research)

These are hard. Really hard. Make sure that when you are writing these, that you don’t just do it the night before the application is due. Give yourself time to write, rewrite, and rewrite it again. Also don’t be afraid to write different ones for different schools. I changed each one of mine for each program I applied to as each program was slightly different and each professor I applied to work with studied something different. It helps to make you application more focused and more specific and looks much better to a committee! It shows them that you’re serious about the application, the program, and the supervisor.

I made the mistake of not looking up how to format an academic CV or what to put in it. It’s quite different from a normal job resume. I recommend Googling what an academic CV should include/look like and building from there! Make sure to include all awards/scholarships you’ve won, if you’ve been a part of any clubs, any conferences, and anything else relating to your academic career. If you don’t think you have enough for your CV, check out the Career Centre’s advising appointments!

[Check out YouAlberta’s Guide to Building Your CV/Resume, and start before grad school applications!]

Choosing your references can be really tough. I recommend asking professors who know your work at a senior level. By that, I mean someone you took a 400 level course with. If you do an undergraduate honors thesis, that supervisor would be perfect. A lab supervisor is another good choice!

Either way, make sure it’s someone who knows your work really well and make sure that you give them plenty of time. I’ve been told that the more time you give them, the more willing they will be to do it and better the letter will be (and they’ll be very grateful that they have lots of time to prepare)!

Canadian Schools

Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

The Canadian school application I did was to the University of Alberta! While writing this story, I was lucky enough to meet with Kelly, who works in the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research (FGSR — which is the faculty you will be in as a grad student at the U of A). She gave me two incredible pieces of advice for those applying to the UofA:

This affects how fast your application will be processed in some departments, AND early funding opportunities!

If you received transfer credit from another institution, make sure that you include that transcript in your application! She said that a lot of the time people don’t include their transcripts for work that they’ve done as transfer credits, and this delays the admission process. Make sure that you include any post-secondary experience you’ve completed in your application!

At the University of Alberta, graduate applications are reviewed for admissibility by the departments offering the program. Applications are then sent to the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research for the official admission letter. So, Kelly advises that if you have any questions the best thing to do is to reach out to your department before you reach out to FGSR. Often FGSR will redirect you to your department if you have questions since they will know more about their own, department-specific deadlines and requisite application materials required for admission.

(Also, except for FGSR travel awards, all awards are departmental as well).

American Schools

I had been warned by my honours supervisor that I would need to write the exam before applying, so I wrote it in August of the year I started applying to grad school. I took three months to study. It was a tough exam (and I had to pay to write it). I definitely think you could study for less time and be quite successful on the exam, but start as soon as you possibly can. Usually you need to write it at least a few weeks before the deadline for your program.

I ended up applying to three different PhD programs in the US even though I only had an undergraduate degree. It turns out that this is pretty normal. From my experience, some US schools don’t even have a master’s program, and even if they do you don’t need to do it in order to apply to, or even get into, a PhD. Usually students choose to do a master’s degree in the States because they don’t want to commit to a PhD, but want a bit more education before entering the workforce.

British Schools

Photo by delfi de la Rua on Unsplash

Oxford had the earliest deadline of all the schools I applied to! I can’t speak for other British programs, but I would check to make sure that their deadline isn’t months before the American and Canadian deadlines just to be safe.

At Oxford and Cambridge, you are accepted into a program (like Classics or Linguistics) and then accepted into a college. You must be a part of a college in order to attend the school, and the colleges often have a lot of funding so make sure you check it out! Both Oxford and Cambridge had separate applications for funding. And, if you are applying for college funding, (that is, funding from the college that you are applying to) that is it’s own application too (I sadly missed a huge funding application for one of the colleges I applied to because I didn’t know there was a separate application for it).

I had a Skype interview for Cambridge and it was both intense and hard. The interview was department-specific and I was interviewed by two specialists in the field I wanted to study in. Make sure that you prepare for the interview, look over the classes that you’ve done, the statement you wrote, talk to someone in the program about what their interview was like (if you can) and, once it’s over, don’t fret over it. I honestly thought mine had gone horribly and then a few weeks later I woke up to an acceptance letter.

Applying to grad programs is terrifying and the rejection letters can really hurt (my rejections from Harvard, Cornell, and UCLA all did), but if you don’t get in, keep applying. Sometimes you don’t get accepted simply because the person you applied to work with doesn’t have a spot open for another grad student, not because you weren’t good enough.

Good luck, I wish you all the best with your graduate school applications!


Student life: You live it. We share it.


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Student life: You live it. We share it.

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