Getting Started with Graduate School Applications

Are you applying to graduate and/or professional school, but not sure where to start? Applying to graduate/professional school can feel intimidating and understanding the typical key components can help you get started with the process. This post will help break down what to expect when preparing graduate and professional applications.

components of grad school

Image Credit: Content by Smiti Nathan (based on previous work by Karen Clothier and comments by Justin Lorts) and design by Yadiel Rodriguez (with edits by Smiti Nathan and blue jay by Andrea Zhang).

Components of Typical Graduate and Professional School Applications


Deadlines are one of the first things you should research when applying to graduate and professional programs. Some programs have rolling deadlines, but most are fixed. If you miss them, you will have to wait until the following year’s cycle to apply.

Centralized Application

While the Common Application is widely used for undergraduate college applications, centralized applications depend on the type of graduate or professional program. For example, medical and law programs in the US often use a centralized application (IMPORTANT NOTE: fees associated with centralized application programs are in addition to the application fees charged by each school). On the other hand, doctoral (Ph.D.) programs often do not have a centralized application across programs.

Application Form/Questionnaire

An application form or questionnaire is quite common across graduate and professional school applications. This component typically asks basic demographic questions and might ask you to input parts of your work history and academic history. Make sure to peruse the form ahead of time, so you know what to expect.


Every school will want a copy of your transcript. In the past, some schools allowed applicants to initially upload an unofficial transcript. If the applicant was accepted into the program, then they would have to supply an official transcript. Since official digital transcripts are becoming the norm, programs might want an official transcript from the outset. We recommend having a digital copy of your latest official transcript on hand when you apply.

JHU Students: 

How to access and order your JHU transcript:

Entrance Exam

Entrance exams are common across graduate and professional school applications. They require time, energy, and money. However, with an increased focus on equitable application processes and COVID-19, many programs are now waiving exam requirements for upcoming application cycles or eliminating them altogether. Make sure to check to see if an entrance exam is still required for your desired programs. Here is a crowd-sourced document that lists various graduate programs and schools that are not requiring the GRE:

Personal Statement

The personal statement is a critical component of graduate and professional school applications. Some programs, like MBA or medical schools, require essays that have more clearly defined prompts. The goal of personal statements is for applicants to articulate their journey and why they want to pursue graduate study. For more information on crafting a compelling personal statement, check out this presentation by the Director of the JHU Writing Center, Robert Tinkle, Ph.D.: JHU Students: The JHU Writing Center offers support for students who are writing personal statements or essays for graduate or professional school applications. Check their website for more information:

Letters of Recommendation

Typically, 3 letters of recommendation are required for graduate school and professional school applications. Common recommenders are professors and faculty you have worked within a classroom or research setting. In addition, supervisors in a job, internship, or activity that could be connected with the type of study you would be pursuing would also be viable recommenders. It’s important to let your recommenders know well in advance (4+ weeks) of your intent to apply to graduate school. In addition to asking if they can write you a recommendation, you should discuss timetables regarding deadlines, reminders, drafts of application materials, and any other considerations. Recommenders often request to see a draft of certain application materials, typically your personal statement and CV/resume to tailor their recommendation.

Field Specific Writing Samples

Writing samples are commonly requested for academic masters and doctoral program applications. Often, programs want you to include a lengthy piece of writing pertinent to your intended field. A senior thesis or a term paper is often a good starting point. Remember, you can and should edit this document. JHU students can consult the Writing Center to fine-tune writing samples.

Application Fee

Typically, there is an application fee imposed by each school or program (in addition to fees for entrance exams, official transcripts, and centralized applications). These costs can be quite sizable and prohibitive. Increasingly, programs are offering fee waivers based on need, as well as students who simply ask. Be sure to check both the university, department, and group/lab (if applicable) websites to see if this option is available, as well as inquiring directly via email.

JHU Resources

JHU offers a wide range of resources to support you as you prepare your graduate and professional school applications. These include:

  • Handshake: In addition to job and internship postings, you can find upcoming relevant Life Design Lab programs to help support your graduate or professional school application.
  • OneHop:  This is our mentoring platform. You can use the ‘Explore the Community’ feature to locate alums who can help inform your application (e.g., current and past graduate students in specific fields and programs).
  • Pre-Professional Advising: The Office of Pre-Professional Programs and Advising supports students pursuing careers in the health and legal professions.
  • Writing Center: The JHU Writing Center offers support for students who are writing personal statements, essays, and writing samples for graduate or professional school applications.
  • National Fellowships Program: The National Fellowships Program can offer support and resources to explore and apply for select national fellowships that can fund graduate or professional study.

Closing Thoughts

As you apply to graduate and professional programs, it’s important stay vigilant and maintain your own checklist. While this post provides a quick overview of what to expect, be sure to check the specific requirements of each program you plan on applying to as processes may vary and there might be other components for your field (e.g., interview). If you’re not sure whether applying to graduate programs is right for you, check out Considering Graduate School? 6 Life Design Activities to Help You Decide Good luck!

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