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How to Apply for a Master's Program

Posted on April 15, 2020
coffee cup with the word begin on it
For some, the decision to apply to a master’s program is easy – perhaps something that has always been in the cards — but for others, it may be more a more difficult decision. Once you have made the decision to further your education, you should plan on setting aside time to begin the process. Completing a graduate school application is not a quick task, in fact, it might take months from start to finish. 
This is the third post in a series dedicated to advancing and changing careers and this will focus on tips for applying to graduate school. Once you have a short list of schools and programs that you are interested in, the next step is to evaluate their application processes. Before you begin, here is a rundown of the grad school application and our advice on how to successfully apply for masters programs. 


Completing your graduate school application may seem daunting at first. But if you organize the requirements for applying to a master’s degree of each institution and outline the process and materials needed, you’re well on your way to success. Though it may vary slightly across universities, here are the most common steps to applying for grad school:

1. Narrow or choose a short list of schools/programs to which you would like to apply

While every decision is personal, there are some key elements one should consider, such as:
  • Finances – are there scholarships, tuition reimbursement options, financial aid available?
  • Program features — Does this school offer the kind of coursework and delivery I am seeking? Is the program more theoretical or applied? What are the requirements for graduation (a research project or a written thesis)?

  • Faculty — Are faculty bios provided? What kind of experience does the faculty have and could there be potential research opportunities to learn alongside them? Are they currently working in your field?

2. Evaluate graduate admissions requirements for each school

There are standard master's degree admissions requirements for most schools, such as:

  • Determined GPA from an accredited institution 
  • Transcripts
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Personal statement
  • Resume or portfolio
However, some schools also have additional requirements, which may include:
  • Standardized testing scores (GRE, TOEFL if applying from a foreign country)
  • Sample work
  • Minimum work experience (for example, at least three years in a particular sector)
For example, in Goodwin’s Master of Science in Professional Studies the application requirements include: 
  • 3.0 GPA from an accredited institution
  • Two letters of recommendation, three preferred
  • 500-word personal statement
  • Resume
  • Can submit optional: GRE scores or work/projects that demonstrate a specific skill

3. If required, complete and submit standardized test scores

Not all graduate programs require standardized test scores. But, if they do and you have not taken them, you need to set aside enough time to study for, take the test and receive the scores to submit in time for the application deadline. One thing to consider if you are not a skilled test taker, “Is it worth the time and money?” An institution may have a high test score requirement that may be difficult to achieve. Conversely, if you have high test scores, and these scores are suggested, but not required, you should go ahead and submit them.

4. Complete the application form

A master’s degree application is typically an online 2-3 page form that will ask for demographic/personal information, work experience, academic history and legal or criminal history. While this form may seem time-consuming to complete, it is only a small portion of your entire application. Be consistent and accurate across all of your applications. Your “completed application” must include the form as well as all supplemental documents.

5. Reach out to former faculty, colleagues, or leadership for letters of recommendation

Image of a pile of business cards

You should seek letters of recommendation from individuals who can accurately and enthusiastically speak to your experience, skillsets, work ethic, academic ability and career goals. Letters of recommendation typically are requested directly from the institution. Students supply name and e-mail address of their recommender and a form is sent directly to the writer. However, students should ask in advance those whom they plan to list as a reference to ensure the person has the ability and time to write a recommendation. It is important, as the applicant, to stay on top of the status of these requests, which can be monitored in your online application. Though the recommender may receive reminders from the institution, it’s not always the case. You don’t want to miss a deadline because a letter of recommendation was not received. For more on asking for letters of recommendation, read our blog post on the topic.

6. Request all transcripts from former academic institutions

Your transcripts serve as an academic benchmark and thus, you must request and submit transcripts from every academic institution you have attended. For example, if you completed two years in community college, then transferred to a four-year college where you ultimately earned your degree, you must submit transcripts from both institutions.
You may already have access to an unofficial transcript. Please note that admissions decisions will only be made with official transcripts that must come directly from the registrar’s office of your former academic institution. While many transcripts are submitted electronically there is often still a charge, which is incumbent upon you to pay in advance.
Finally, don’t let a lower GPA deter you from applying to grad school. Some schools require very high GPAs, though some may be forgiving of one or two low grades, especially in the case of extenuating circumstances and the ability to demonstrate growth.

7. Update and submit your resume or portfolio

Schools look at your resume to determine skillsets and experience in the field. Thus it’s important that your resume be up-to-date including current work experience. It is highly recommended that you edit your resume to reflect the program to which you are applying. For example, when reviewing Master of Science in Nonprofit Management applications, I expect to see some nonprofit experience, even if it is only at the volunteer level.
Some programs may require or suggest you submit a portfolio, such as art-based programs (theater, studio art, design, architecture, writing, etc.). It is recommended that you review that content with someone in the field to ensure what you are submitting not only best represents you, but also represents techniques and skills relevant to the field.

8. Craft your personal statement

Every school will be slightly different in their expectations in their essay or personal statement. Unlike undergraduate studies, you are typically not being asked to respond to a prompt. But rather, you are asked to outline your experiences, goals and contributions as it relates to the field and the specific program to which are applying. One thing to consider is to include how you will use the knowledge, skills, network and resources you gain through the program to not only enhance your career, but how you will give back to others in this sector or industry—and how your work can advance the field.
Similar to your undergraduate common application essay, it is paramount that you have an external reader (or two) review your statement. It is perfectly acceptable for them to make suggestions and provide comments. This part of the process will help you craft a well-written statement that highlights your personal contributions and achievements in your field. During each pass of review and revision, read your statement out loud to catch careless errors and monitor readability. Ask yourself as you read your essay, “Could anyone else in the world have written this?” If the answer is yes, consider revising—and here are some tips on how to edit your own work. 

9. Prepare supplemental materials as required

Like all other application materials, any supplemental pieces—such as writing samples, projects or presentations—ensure that they are well-written and showcase you and your skillsets. It’s important to follow submission guidelines with regard to file sizes and formats. If you are unsure about these requirements, reach out to your admissions contact.

10. Review all materials before you hit the submit button

There are two major considerations before pressing the submit button.
  • Ensure all documents, this includes file names, are addressed to each individual institution correctly. For example, you don’t want  a personal statement with the file name of one university when you are submitting it to another. Or worse, have the personal statement mention the wrong institution or program. 
  • Put on your editor hat. Do one read through of all documents for clarity, consistency and making sure they adhere to the requirements. The second pass is strictly for spelling and grammar to catch any commas that should have been periods. Or worse, a “they’re” that should have been “their.” There, there.

11. Prepare for interviews as requested

Many graduate schools do not require interviews or even offer them. If one of the institutions to which you are applying does, then you need to prepare for that interview which may be face-to-face or virtual. In preparation, come up with questions YOU have for the institution. Remember, they are not only evaluating whether or not you’re the right candidate for their program, but you are also evaluating if the school or program is right for you.

12. Evaluate offers

As acceptance letters start arriving, you will need to evaluate which school or program will best suit your needs. Some things to consider are: location, platform, finances, program features, career services, reputation, size, delivery method (online, in-person or a hybrid), work/life balance, part-time or full-time. These are deeply personal decisions and you will need to weigh the pros and cons of each to determine which will be the right school for you. For example, you may have preferred a face-to-face program, but you realized the faculty in an online program at another institution are more active in the field and aligned with your unique interests or career goals. Once you have decided, be sure to accept the offer and any required deposits or further documentation within the timeline required by the inst.


Lightbulb drawn on a sticky pad placed on a cork board

So you’ve spent the last year researching and looking at a wide variety of schools and programs—and taken the required standardized tests as needed—and are finally ready to apply. 
Graduate school application deadlines vary greatly. Typically, most institutions offer a fall term start, and some may offer spring or summer starts. At Goodwin, for example, our Master of Science in Nonprofit Management program only has a fall start, but the Master of Science in Project Management program has a fall and spring term start. The start dates determine the application deadlines, so be sure to follow the right timeline based on when you would like to begin your studies. Another thing to consider is whether the admissions process is traditional or rolling, which will impact your submission timeline. 
It generally takes an average six weeks to complete the application process, including receiving letters of recommendation and transcripts. Make sure to account for the timelines needed for each element of your application. For example, a transcript usually takes two weeks from the time of request for it to be received by the institution to which you are applying. However, during the height of a standard admissions season, that process may take as long as four weeks, so take into account when you are requesting materials. 
While some individuals have submitted completed applications in record time (two weeks!), it is always better to err on the side of caution, and I recommend planning for at least six weeks. You want to be sure you are not rushed so you can present your best application and pad out your time for any fires that need putting out, like a recommender drops out two weeks before the deadline.
Best of luck on your journey!


Anne Converse Willkomm
Assistant Clinical Professor
Department Head of Graduate Studies
Goodwin College
Drexel University

Posted in professional-development-career-tips