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Applying to a Master’s Program: Online and Campus Based

What do I need to apply to a program?

Personal Statements

Most applications include a section where candidates are asked to compose a brief essay. The majority of these essays concern the student’s academic and professional plans and goals, although some schools do not require a personal statement for admission into graduate-level programs (Arizona State University Online is one example).

Letters of Recommendation (LOR)

An effective letter of recommendation is approximately one page in length, and speaks to an individual’s academic achievements, professional merit, and/or certified skill-set. According to U.S. News & World Report, students should only approach individuals about writing an LOR if they meet the following criteria:

  • The individual is credible
  • The individual can effectively speak to the student’s academic performance, professional merit, and/or certified skill-set
  • The individual has credentials that allow them to evaluate the student “in a meaningful way”

In most cases, the best candidates for letters of recommendation are former employers and undergraduate professors whose work is closely aligned to the field of study. If an individual is applying to a graduate-level chemistry program, then undergraduate science professors will probably be able to write a more relevant letter than instructors from other departments.

As a general rule, students should never seek letters of recommendation from family members or friends ― although classroom peers often make excellent candidates for LORs.

Test Scores

Educational Testing Service (ETS), the organization that offers GRE exams, submits up to four GRE score reports to graduate degree programs at no charge to the exam-taker; additional score reports cost $27 apiece.

Other entrance examinations abide by a similar system; students who sit for the the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), for instance, are allowed to submit score reports to five different schools free-of-charge, and are required to pay $28 for each additional report.

What should I do before applying to grad school?

In a recent article, U.S. News & World Report contributor Dr. Don Martin urged prospective graduate students to investigate potential programs roughly one year before they plan to submit an official application ― and two years before the program is scheduled to begin.

Begin with a cursory search of different degree programs. Some students know precisely which field they’d like to study at the master’s level, while others may be considering multiple fields. In either case, conduct a series of comprehensive, unique searches that focus on one particular aspect of the program, such as:

  • Time commitment
  • Cost of tuition
  • Additional expenses (such as housing)
  • Admission requirements
  • Geographic location
  • Overall reputation of the program and the institution

Spend some time carefully researching each one, and feel free to contact professors, departmental employees, and other faculty members with specific questions. Narrow down the list to three or four strong candidates by the time applications become available.

How does the application process go?

According to The Princeton Review, the process for researching and applying to master’s degree programs should begin roughly one and a half years before the student plans to begin attending courses.

Assuming an applicant chooses to begin graduate school during the fall of the next year, this timeline should provide more than enough time for all of the essential pre-enrollment tasks:


  • Begin investigating different programs, paying attention to factors like:
    • Tuition costs
    • Length and credit requirements
    • Instructor qualifications
    • Curriculum strength
    • Student outcomes
  • Take a practice GRE general exam to assess strengths and weaknesses in different sections. If initial scores are subpar, consider a GRE test preparation course.


  • Contact undergraduate professors and counselors for advice about the best master’s programs ― and potentially writing a letter of recommendation.
  • Begin contacting professors, admissions officials, and other faculty members at the most promising schools.
  • Begin studying for the GRE subject exam if it is required for any of the master’s programs.
  • Try to sit for the GRE general exam by the end of August. If the final score does not meet the requirements of top candidate schools, then retake the exam as soon as possible.


  • Narrow down the list of schools to a few promising candidates, and research the academic work of one or two professors in each program.
  • Contact individuals about writing letters of recommendation (if this hasn’t been done already) and craft a solid personal statement draft. Consider sending each LOR candidate a current resume, transcript copy, and other resources they can refer to when composing the letter.
  • Begin contacting students, professors, and faculty members at all candidate schools. Ask specific questions pertaining to program curriculum, demands, costs, and other important points.
  • Request official undergraduate transcripts in October.
  • If required, register for the GRE subject test (usually offered in November).
  • Submit a final draft of the personal statement to at least one authoritative person working in the same field of study as the master’s program ― and use their notes to make improvements on the essay.


  • Submit all completed applications by the end of December. Be sure to make copies of each submitted application, and contact institutions to make sure all letters of recommendation have been received (if the recommender submitted them directly).
  • In January, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and begin exploring different options for loans, scholarships, grants, and other forms of financial support.
  • During the months of February and March, The Princeton Review suggests one thing: “Try to relax.” These two months are essentially a waiting period for program admission and financial aid eligibility.


  • Most acceptance letters will be mailed out in the early spring.
  • Carefully review each one’s financial aid package; prospective students may appeal the final amount of student aid they receive from a given institution.
  • Once a final school has been selected (see more here on how to make this decision), reply to the institution and affirm plans to enroll during the fall semester/quarter.

What do I do after I’ve sent in my applications?

Once the FAFSA form has been filed and all applications have been submitted, students should spend some more time researching financial aid opportunities. Financial aid will generally be more limited for graduate students than undergraduates, but master’s degree earners should still investigate the following opportunities:

Scholarships, Grants and Fellowships

The U.S. Department of Labor maintains, a comprehensive listing of scholarships, grants, and fellowships for college students at all grade levels. Other online aggregators that allow users to navigate awards by subject, grade level, and other criteria include,, and Additionally, many higher-learning institutions offer scholarships, grants and fellowships that are reserved for enrolled students.


Three types of federal loans are available to graduate students:

  • Direct unsubsidized loans do not require recipients to demonstrate financial need; rather, the student’s college or university will determine how much aid he or she receives. Direct unsubsidized loan recipients are expected to pay the loan balance with interest as soon as monies have been disbursed; those who choose to wait until the program has ended to repay the loans are required to pay the interest that has accrued since the money was first received.
  • PLUS loans are available to graduate and undergraduate students. Under this arrangement, the federal government essentially acts as the lender; for this reason, individuals with an adverse credit history will usually be ineligible. PLUS loans cover all tuition and other academic expenses not covered by other forms of financial aid.
  • Perkins loans are reserved for students with “exceptional financial need,” and are available at a relatively low interest rate of 5%. The recipient must be enrolled at an institution that participates in the Federal Perkins Program, so students should contact their school’s financial aid office to find out if they qualify for Perkins Loans.

Graduate students also have the option of securing loans through banks, credit unions, and other private lenders. However, most academic experts warn against borrowing loans of this sort. Unlike federal loans (which offer fixed interest rates), private loans will be offered at variable interest rates ― and the rate may increase at any time. Other perks of federal loans, such as forgiveness or deferment options, are generally unavailable from private lenders, as well.

How do I decide which program to enroll in?

Students should carefully review all of the schools that issue acceptance letters in order to determine their best choice in terms of financial feasibility, career goals, and program strengths. Refer to the ‘Questions to Ask Yourself About a Program,’ and don’t hesitate to contact school officials once again if there are any further questions.


Sometimes students are unable to attend degree programs to which they have already been accepted. The student can “defer” their enrollment for a period of time as determined by the institution. Some institutions keep a student’s name on file for a predetermined amount of time (traditionally, one year); if the student is still unable to enroll after that window period has ended, then he or she will usually be required to reapply. As a precautionary measure, research the deferment policies of all the schools that accept you.

How do I deal with being rejected from a program?

The majority of graduate students will receive at least one rejection letter during each application cycle. Rather than taking these denials to heart, Dr. Don Martin of U.S. News & World Report suggests a nine-step approach to each master’s program rejection:

  1. Don’t take a rejection personally; admissions committees must choose a relatively small number of applicants from a large pool, and sometimes candidates lose out to individuals with higher qualifications.
  2. Write a thank-you note to the admissions office of each school that issues a rejection. Express gratitude to the individual who personally reviewed the application and took the time to evaluate it.
  3. Review the application for errors and/or missing materials, and contact the admissions office if it’s possible that a mistake may have been made during the evaluation process.
  4. Nicely request the admissions committee to take a second look at the application; sometimes, applicants are admitted after their information has been re-reviewed.
  5. Make sure the letter of rejection was not issued in error. These mistakes are rare, but they do happen from time to time. In order to be extra cautious, students who receive acceptance letters are encouraged to do the same.
  6. Request feedback on the application; any additional advice will aid future application attempts.
  7. Weigh the costs and benefits of reapplying.
  8. Maintain a “patient and professional” attitude with admissions officials and other faculty members.
  9. Finally, keep one thing in mind: “Disappointment is temporary.” Dr. Martin emphasizes that rejection letters are a “minor setback,” as opposed to a permanent blow to one’s career goals.

Additional Resources for Applying to a Program

  • 7 Tips for Completing Grad School Applications: This starter guide from US News helps future graduate students ensure they have covered all of their bases in applying to programs. A former admissions dean provides tips.
  • Grad School Application Timeline: The Princeton Review has a detailed timeline of what you need to do, when, in order to successfully apply to grad schools.
  • The “Kiss of Death”: This research analysis of psychology program admissions revealed characteristics or “mistakes” that lowered the probability of applicants being accepted to the program. While it pertains to the psychology department, in particular, the findings may be relevant to all students.
  • How to Write a Personal Statement: Essay Edge publishes a detailed, section-by-section plan for writing your personal statement for graduate school. It includes dozens of links to resources that will help you with everything from outlining to theme choice to editing.
  • Purdue OWL on the Personal Statement: Purdue’s Online Writing Lab, long used by students for issues of style, grammar, theme and format, also includes tips for writing the graduate personal statement. It includes questions to ask yourself as well as practical advice.
  • Avoid Common Essay Mistakes: Peterson’s provides a list of common, and avoidable, mistakes students make in writing graduate school admissions essays or personal statements.
  • Avoid Application Mistakes: Taking a wider lens, the American Psychological Association lists mistakes you’ll want to avoid as you move through the entire graduate school admissions process.
  • Fix Mistakes in Submitted Applications: If you’ve submitted a graduate school application and then discovered your mistake, US News advises you not to panic. They offer seven tips for reacting and making the best of the situation.
  • Grad School Tips: This entire site is devoted to preparing you to apply, enter, and thrive in grad school. Sections include information on grad school tours, getting recommendations, and paying for your studies.