If you have made the decision to attend graduate school, then you are ready to start the preparation process. (Read Going Grad to help you decide whether or not grad school is the right option for you.) Preparing for and applying to graduate school takes time, so be sure to start the process early! Here is what you should know about going grad.
Because different schools have different requirements, you should begin researching schools of interest early in your undergraduate career. Talk with your advisors and other faculty members about graduate programs offered at various schools. Keep in mind that admission to graduate school is competitive, so you may want to apply to as many different schools as you can afford (there are application fees). Be sure to visit schools in person or take virtual tours of the schools to get a feel for the campus and to help you decide upon a list of schools in which to apply.
Just like you had to take the SAT or ACT to be eligible for undergrad admission, you also have to take entrance exams to be admitted into graduate school (for most schools and programs). The requirements for entrance exams can vary from school to school and from program to program. Common admission tests include: Graduate Record Examination (GRE), Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), and Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Depending on which program you want to pursue will determine which test you should take. Consider taking a class to help you prepare for testing (if you think you need it), and be sure to take a few practice tests. It's generally in your best interest to take the actual test during your junior year of undergraduate study, so you will have time to retake the exam to improve your scores if need be.
Statement of Purpose/Personal Statement
The main purpose of the personal statement is to persuade the admissions committee that you are an applicant worth admitting. The content of the personal statement will depend upon the program to which you want to apply. If you want to apply to a PhD program, your personal statement should focus on your researching skills and history. If you want to apply to a Masters program, your statement should focus more on why you want to pursue a degree. When writing your statement of purpose, you should focus on your qualifications as well as your commitment to your chosen field. What experiences or events led you to pursue this program? Were you influenced by any particular person? How relevant is the program to your long term goals? Don't forget to mention why you chose the university to which you are applying. You will probably write several rough drafts of your personal statement. Once you have a draft that you like, ask others to proofread it for you. There should be zero grammatical errors!
Letters of Recommendation
Having strong recommendations is crucial for graduate school admission. That's why you need to cultivate relationships with your professors and other faculty members early in your undergrad career by attending office hours, asking questions during class, doing independent research, and so forth. Recommendations help the admissions committee understand how others view you academically, personally, etc. When you ask people to write a recommendation for you, be sure to give them ample time to complete it; two months should be sufficient. Provide them with recommendation forms or instructions for filling out the online recommendation form, resumes, a draft of your statement of purpose, a copy of your best work in the course, stamped and addressed envelopes (if not using the online recommendation process), etc. If you plan to take some time off before you go to graduate school, go ahead and ask your professors for letters of recommendation while you are still fresh in their minds. When you are ready to apply to grad school, then you can contact the professors again and ask them to update your letters.
Many programs award assistantships or fellowships to graduate students. Most assistantships and fellowships include full or partial tuition waivers and applicable fee waivers. These are very competitive, so check with the departments early on for application requirements. To be eligible for grants and loans, you need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It can be completed online at www.fafsa.ed.gov as soon as possible after January 1st of the year for which you are requesting aid. Keep in mind that graduate students are considered independent, which means you will not have to report parental information on the FAFSA. Since you probably earn less than your parents and have fewer assets, you may qualify for need-based aid, such as grants. Please note: As of July 1, 2012, subsidized loans are no longer available to graduate and professional students; unsubsidized loans are still available. If you reach your maximum loan limits with Unsubsidized Stafford loans, then you can take out a Grad PLUS loan, which is a loan for graduate students. With this loan, you can borrow up to the cost of education at a particular institution minus any other financial aid. Taking out a Grad PLUS loan is a great alternative to putting that difference on a credit card or getting a private loan because the Grad PLUS will usually have a lower interest rate.
Applying to graduate school takes a lot of time and effort. Be sure to keep a calendar of all application deadlines and submit the applications according to program requirements. Best of luck in receiving admission to your program and school of choice!