The Catholic University of America


Applying to Graduate School

Why go to grad school?

The decision to attend graduate school should reflect a genuine interest in a specific subject area. Graduate studies will involve more seminars, papers, presentations, projects, and perhaps internships. Most degree programs offer highly specialized curricula which permit students to gain an in-depth knowledge of a chosen field; however this may serve to narrow career options to that particular area of study. Carefully consider all your options.

When to go?

The time to attend graduate school varies according to each individual situation. Most medical and dental students begin professional school immediately after receiving their bachelor's. Conversely, many business and arts and sciences programs encourage prospective students to have some professional work experience. The experience gained in the work force environment may serve to clarify your decision, and also teach you valuable skills which could be applied to your chosen field.

Where to apply?

After making the decision to pursue a graduate education, the next step is finding a school that will accommodate your goals. Consider the following factors:

  1. The quality of the program
  2. The size of the school and department
  3. The location of the school
  4. The facilities of the institution
  5. The entrance requirement
  6. Projected costs
  7. The availability of financial aid

How Does One Judge the Quality of a Program?

  1. Assess the academic abilities of enrolled students, considering: achievements, skills, geographic representation, and work experiences in comparison to your own.
  2. Review various critiques and biographies of faculty members: sources such as The Directory of American Scholars and American Men and Women and Science are very helpful. Consult with a faculty member in your academic concentration for an evaluation of the various universities' teaching staffs. Review their publications, professional accomplishments, and awards the instructors have achieved.
  3. Get a feel for the campus. Contact the chairperson of the department to which you are applying, and arrange a time and date for your visit. When there, visit the areas where students congregate. Information of this nature can be gathered from a variety of resources, including but not limited to Peterson's Guides, Barron's Guides, Guide to American Graduate Schools, various university catalogs, and when available, faculty course evaluations published by student organizations on campus.

Getting Organized

Select two or three schools which you feel are relatively certain to offer you admission. Then choose several schools that have more competitive programs, but that are probably within your reach. Do not be afraid to send an application to a "dream" school which you think is a long-shot. However, bear in mind the application process can become very expensive. Admission requirements most often include the following:

  1. Scores of standardized tests required by the university, e.g. the GRE
  2. Official transcripts
  3. Cumulative grade point average
  4. Letters of recommendation
  5. A completed application form
  6. A personal statement of purpose
  7. An application fee, which can range between $25.00 and $75.00.

To obtain the necessary application materials, send each university a neatly typed or handwritten postcard requesting an application, a bulletin, and a financial aid packet.


Nearly all universities require at least one graduate admissions test as part of their application process. 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). The tests that most graduate schools require are the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or the Miller Analogies Test (MAT). Professional schools may require that applicants take a separate admissions exam, such as the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT). A university's exam preference should be stated clearly in its application directions. Resource materials and registration forms for most graduate admissions tests are available in the Career Services Office. Call ahead of time to ensure that an ample supply remains. Students interested in registering for the MAT should visit the Counseling Center, located in 126 O'Boyle Hall (319-5765).

International students whose native tongue is not English should register to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Since success as a graduate student will depend on one's ability to read, write, speak, and understand English, it is essential that you demonstrate your comprehension and communication skills. TOEFL brochures are available in the Career Services Office, the Counseling Center, and the Office of Graduate Student Services (300 McMahon, 319-5057).

Test Taking Tips

  1. Begin review of certain subjects early, e.g. algebra
  2. Cramming is unlikely to alter your score significantly
  3. Familiarize yourself with the test styles by answering sample questions posed in the test registration booklets.

If you are planning to attend graduate school in the fall following your undergraduate graduation, REGISTER FOR THE TEST IN THE BEGINNING OF YOUR SENIOR YEAR. Keep in mind that local test centers fill quickly, so be sure to sign-up early. Plan to take the exam at least nine months prior to enrollment. Some universities admit students through a program known as "rolling admissions," which provides admission consideration on a first-come-first-reviewed basis. In these cases, applications are evaluated at any time until the class fills to capacity. In these cases, submit an application a.s.a.p. This should encourage you to consider taking the required admissions exams early in the fall of your senior year.

Official Transcripts

In addition to standardized test scores, most universities will require an official copy of your undergraduate transcript. This information includes the most recent record of your undergraduate course enrollment and your cumulative GPA. Most universities will accept only an official transcript bearing the embossed seal of the undergraduate institution. Moreover, they usually insist that the official transcript be provided in a sealed envelope. Transcripts can be obtained from the Registrar's Office. It is to your advantage to anticipate deadlines and request that your transcript be forwarded at least three weeks in advance of the closing date. Photocopies of transcript materials are rarely accepted.

Letters of Recommendation

Most graduate schools require two or three letters of recommendation from faculty members. Non-academic recommendations from professionals and former supervisors are often welcomed as supporting credentials, but not in place of those from faculty.

Ideally, a good reference should know you well in more than one aspect of your life and have a high opinion of your academic and personal potential. The letter writer should be familiar with the schools' programs to which you are applying, and be regarded by the admissions committee as someone whose opinion and judgment should be given weight. Don't worry, no single person is likely to satisfy all these criteria, but do your best to find those individuals who come closest to the ideal.

If your prospective writers respond in a suitably enthusiastic manner, make an appointment to talk with them about your goals and objectives. Provide them with supporting materials such as a resume or transcript, and specify the date by which you will need the letter. Be aware that the later you ask, the less likely it is for them to act upon your request in a timely fashion due to various obligations associated with the end of the semester.

The Career Services Office is partnered with Interfolio ( to provide a credential file service for students and alumni to support applications for graduate school and employment. A credential file contains letters of recommendation and on occasion, copies of transcripts.

Personal Statement of Purpose

Writing the essay or personal statement is typically one of the most difficult aspects of the application process. Your objective must be a succinct statement indicating your goals and an enthusiasm for the field you have chosen.

Generally your essay should include:

  • Reflections of motivation and commitment to a field of study
  • Reasons for deciding to pursue a graduate education
  • A brief discussion of what your personal uniqueness would bring to a specific program

BE POSITIVE, HONEST, AND WITHIN THE PRESCRIBED LENGTH! If you intend to apply to a number of schools, and even if you do not, it is a good idea to keep a copy of your personal statement(s). Once you have written one version, you may find it useful for reference as you revise it to conform to the specifications of another school's application. In addition, you may be asked about your statement during the course of an interview.

Getting Started

Start the ball rolling early! It is important to begin gathering information as soon as possible in order to complete your applications on time. Most deadlines occur between January and March for the fall's entering class. In all cases, prepare to meet deadlines! Applying early to a school with a rolling admissions policy allows more time for admissions committees to evaluate the subjective part of your application, rather than just the "numbers" from your transcripts and tests scores. It also demonstrates to the committee your enthusiasm for the program. Applicants are not rejected early unless they are clearly below an institution's standards. The timetable provided below should serve as a guide for your participation in the graduate school admissions process.

Junior Year, Spring

  • Research areas of interest, institutions and programs.
  • Clarify personal objectives.
  • Talk to advisers about application requirements.
  • Look into national scholarships; prominent fellowships and awards, such as the Mellon, the Rhodes, the Fulbright, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for the Humanities, and others, are handled by the Office of Dr. Ingrid
  • Merkel, University Honors Program, 111 McMahon,(202) 319-5520.
  • Identify potential letter writers and discuss your plans with them.

Junior Year, Summer

  • Write for application materials.
  • Register and prepare for appropriate graduate admissions test (Register early-the Fall exams are usually the most crowded).
  • Review for graduate admissions test by taking sample tests.
  • Visit institutions of interest if possible {check in advance to see if key faculty are available}
  • Check on application deadlines and rolling admissions.

Senior Year, Fall

  • Obtain letters of recommendation.
  • Take graduate admissions examinations.
  • Mail completed applications, preferably before Thanksgiving; keep in mind that, in general, the earlier your application is received, the earlier you will be considered for financial aid. Register for Graduate and Professional School Financial Aid Service.
  • Visit institutions of interest.
  • Write application essay and ask for faculty critiques.

Senior Year, Spring

  • Check with all institutions prior to closing date to ensure that all of your application materials have arrived.
  • When accepted, visit institution before making your final decision.
  • Send deposit to the institution of your choice.

Graduate schools have established a variety of procedures for filing applications, so be sure to read each institution's instructions carefully. Some may request you to send all application materials in one package, while others may actually require a two-step application process. This latter system involves a preliminary review of the applicant's credentials prior to admittance into a second screening. Mail all materials at least one week in advance of the deadline. Be sure to contact the admissions office to verify the arrival of your materials.

Making Your Decision

At most institutions, once the graduate school office has received all of your application materials, your file is sent directly to the academic department to which you are applying. The faculty committee or the department chairperson makes a recommendation to the chief graduate school officer who is responsible for the final decision. The student's total record is examined closely. The weight assigned to specific factors fluctuates from program to program, but few institutions base their decisions purely on test scores and grade point averages.

If you have been selected to more than one graduate program, consider the following factors before stating a final decision:

1. QUALITY OF A PROGRAM Reputation; Admissions Standards; Faculty Commitment; Accreditation
2. REQUIREMENTS Number of Courses Offered; Language Requirements; Computer Requirements; Internships
3. FINANCIAL AID Fellowships; Assistantships; Loans; Grants; Scholarships; Work Study
4. FACILITIES Libraries; Laboratories and Equipment; Athletic Facilities; Classrooms; Computer Facilities; Student Centers; Research Centers
5. LOCATION/SIZE Urban/Rural; Student Populations; Student/Faculty Ratio; Graduate Student Housing; Safety of Neighborhood
6. COST Tuition; Room; Board; Books; Travel; Additional Fees

If you experience difficulty trying to arrive at a decision, do not hesitate to contact your academic advisor. Many schools require a deposit within thirty days and will not accept your payment after that deadline. A late mailing on your part may nullify or postpone an institution's offer of acceptance.

Deferring admission may be an avenue you want to explore. It is important that you contact each school under consideration to determine its deferral policies. In many cases, accepted applicants can defer admission for one year.