How to Apply to Graduate School: Step-by-Step Guide

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Prepare to apply to graduate school with this step-by-step guide to a seamless application journey.

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Applying for graduate school can be a great opportunity to reflect on your past accomplishments and career aspirations, and consider how you can bridge the two. It also requires attention to detail and time management skills.

To complete your grad school applications, here are the broad steps you’ll take:

  1. Build your graduate school list.

  2. Create your application timeline.

  3. Compile your application components.

  4. Prepare for grad school interviews.

  5. Choose the right program for you.

The most labor-intensive step will be compiling your application components, which can include writing personal statements, creating your resume, requesting letters of recommendation, and taking entrance exams. In this article, we’ll go through each piece of the typical grad school application process and common components, as well as offer additional resources for compiling an application that fully reflects your capabilities.

Building your graduate school list

Before you apply for grad school, you’ll have to decide which programs you want to apply to. Presumably, you have some ideas about what you are looking for in a program, such as your desired major, type of program, or location.

As you consider various programs, it can help to categorize them as dream, target, and safety schools.

  • Dream schools (or reach schools) are the schools you’d like to attend if qualifications and cost didn’t matter.

  • Target schools are those that generally align with your qualifications—such as undergraduate GPA and test scores—and you can reasonably afford to attend.

  • Safety schools are the schools at which your qualifications would put you at the top of the applicant pool and you can confidently afford.

Applicant pools vary from year to year, so while data pertaining to previously admitted students can be a helpful way to gauge your qualifications, you can’t know with certainty how competitive applicant pools will be for your desired programs in the year you apply. To account for this, experts recommend applying to schools across each of these categories in order to give yourself the best chance of finding the right program for you. 

Learn more: Should You Go Back to School? 7 Things to Consider

How many grad schools should I apply to?

Experts generally recommend applying to four to six grad schools, but some people advocate for many more. The number of programs that you apply to is ultimately up to you. You may consider factors like how competitive your desired program tends to be, how immediately important grad school is to your career growth and goals, preferences you have regarding location or faculty, and how much money you’re able to spend on application fees.

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Creating an application timeline

Grad schools tend to follow similar application procedures, but requirements, expectations, and deadlines may vary from program to program. Once you know which schools you’ll be applying to, you’ll be able to determine the exact application components that you’ll need to complete and when you’ll need to submit them. You can usually find this information on your desired programs’ websites under an ‘admissions’ or ‘prospective students’ tab.

When creating your application timeline, note any program prerequisites in addition to application requirements and deadlines. If you haven’t met all of the prerequisites, you may need to build those into your timeline.

When to apply for grad school

Generally, experts recommend spending between six months and a year on your grad school application. This should give you enough time to gather materials from external sources—such as letters of recommendation and transcripts—take entrance exams, and develop your resume, personal statements, and other application components. However, this is a broad recommendation, and you may need more or less time to confidently compile your application.

To build your unique timeline, consider each of the application components you need to complete and how long you’d like to spend on each. Then, mark the application deadlines on your calendar and work backward to create a schedule that gives you ample time to work on each piece.

Remember to consider your ideal work style as you build your schedule. Perhaps you prefer to fully complete one piece of your application before moving onto the next; or maybe you like to work on outlines for all components before moving into later development stages.

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Common application components

Applications may vary from program to program, but there are some pieces that grad programs typically include in their admission requirements. Here, we’ll go through some common grad school application components.

Application forms

Application forms tend to be straightforward documents where you fill out information such as your name, address, previous education, and experience. Unlike the undergraduate application process, there is no widely used standard application form (such as the Common App) for grad school applications.

If your application forms include short-answer questions, remember to treat these as opportunities to further highlight your strengths and aspirations.


You may be asked to elaborate on your experience with a resume or CV. Much like you’d tailor your resume for each job you apply for, tailor your resume for your grad school application. In addition to your education and experience, you may opt to include sections for research projects, awards and honors, and extracurricular activities.

Learn more:

Personal statements and essays

Your personal statement is an opportunity to share, in your own words, why grad school—and this particular program—is the right next step for you. You may have a specific prompt to follow, or you may be asked to write a general statement of purpose. Read the instructions carefully to ensure you are providing the exact information requested, and as always, remember to edit and proofread your essays before submitting.

Learn more:

Entrance exams

There are several types of graduate school entrance exams. The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is among the most widely used exams, as it’s a general knowledge test. However, if you are planning to go to business school, you may consider the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT); for law school, you’d likely take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT); and for medical school, you’d probably want to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).

Even still, some programs don’t require entrance exams. Check your desired school’s admissions site to determine whether exams are optional or required. If they’re optional, think about whether taking the exam will enhance your application, and if you have the capacity to adequately prepare for the exam. Generally, experts recommend dedicating between two and six months studying for graduate school entrance exams.

Learn more:

Letters of recommendation

Many graduate programs require applicants to submit letters of recommendation from former teachers, bosses, or colleagues. When deciding who you should ask to write your recommendations, consider people who are familiar with your work style, can speak to your strengths, and are familiar with your long-term goals.

Learn more:

Academic transcripts

In order to qualify for many graduate programs, you’ll need to have already earned a bachelor’s degree. Some programs—such as medical school—also require that you’ve completed certain coursework, and if you didn’t take those courses as part of your undergraduate education, you may need to complete a postbaccalaureate—or postbacc—program. Graduate programs may also have minimum grade point average (GPA) requirements.

In order to demonstrate that you’ve completed the academic prerequisites, you can have your previous institution(s) send an official transcript to the schools you’re applying to. Your official transcript will typically list the dates you were enrolled in their school, your academic major, a complete list of courses you took, and your grades and GPA. Often, you can request your official transcript through the Registrar’s office. Check your previous school’s website to find out if you can request online, by phone, or in person, and be sure to ask if there are any fees associated with your transcript request.

No degree? Try performance-based admissions

You have options when it comes to graduate school admissions. With programs that offer performance-based admissions, you can gain entry into a graduate program by passing a set number of pathway courses, thus proving your capabilities in your desired area of study and getting a head start on your degree progress.

Learn more about programs that offer performance-based admissions on Coursera.


Scholarship and financial aid forms

Submitting scholarship and financial aid applications is typically optional, but scholarships, grants, or, in some cases, loans can be helpful financial planning options. Take note of any financial aid options your desired programs mention on their website—particularly under the tuition and financial aid sections—and seek out scholarship opportunities from other avenues, such as your employer or professional groups.

Learn more:

Low-cost degree options

Traditional master’s degree programs in the US typically cost between $54,000 and $73,000, with the average cost being $65,123 as of August 2023 [1]. Fortunately, there are less expensive options. For example, online master’s degrees tend to be less expensive due to lower overhead costs and tend to have more flexible attendance options.

Learn more about affordable degrees available on Coursera.


Preparing for grad school interviews

After you’ve submitted your graduate school application, you may be invited to interview with admissions staff or program faculty. Typically, this is another way for university staff to continue learning about your experience and goals. It can also be an opportunity for you to further develop your understanding of what you can anticipate should you enroll in this graduate program.

Since you’ve already thought about your experience and goals during the written application portion, you’re well positioned to talk about them—but it’s still a good idea to practice speaking about them and adequately prepare for your interview before heading into it.

Learn more:

Choosing the right grad school for you

Congratulations! You’ve aced your applications and interviews, and now your acceptance letters and scholarship offers are rolling in. It’s time to decide which program is right for you—a decision that will be entirely unique to your goals and circumstances.

Some common factors to consider when choosing a graduate program include how well your career goals align with the program offerings, financial and time constraints, and other logistical considerations like school location and typical class times.

Learn more about master’s degree programs:

Learn more about specific master’s degrees:

Getting started

Explore master’s degrees on Coursera. Earn your graduate degree in computer science, business, data science, or public health from top universities like the University of Michigan, the University of Illinois, and Northeastern University.

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Article sources

  1. Education Data Initiative. “Average Cost of a Master’s Degree,” Accessed October 6, 2023.

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This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.