It's honestly mind blowing how little students are taught about applying to graduate school despite the fact that the job market is beginning to require this higher level of education more than ever before. In my graduate search, I realized how little I knew. As a result, I learned a great deal about applying to graduate school. To save people the pain I went through to learn how to apply to graduate school, I will let you in on a few things you might not know before doing your own research. This is a general and non-exhaustive list so that people looking into a wide variety of programs can benefit.
Before even thinking about browsing schools, you need to be aware of any tests that are required to be admitted into certain programs. If you are going into academia, you will likely have to take the GRE. If you are going into the medical field, you'll probably have to take the MCAT.
2. Tests scores are IMPORTANT.
These tests are meant to determine how well you will handle graduate school. Unlike the ACT/SAT, average scores don't mean you will get into the program you want. The average score of all test takers is not always so important. It is more important to know what the average score of people being admitted into the program you are interested in is. For example, the average score for the GRE last time I checked was: Verbal - 151, Quantitative - 152, and writing - 3.7. The average score for people being admitted to my program of interest: Verbal - 160, Quantitative - 162, and writing - 4.5. Also understand that your score on this test may be weighed heavily for one program, but not another. It is important to do the proper research on any required tests and to call admissions counselors to weigh out their importance before preparing to take the test.
3. Graduating with a bachelor's degree is not enough.
Yeah, you may be a big shot in your family for graduating with a bachelor's degree, but the graduate admissions board doesn't always believe that is enough. Yeah, I know what you're thinking, you've worked so hard on your studies. Well, if you're serious about graduate school, you might need to think about getting involved in activities that will beef up your resume. Internships, research assistantships, precepting positions, etc. Volunteer work is great too, but find some way to relate it back to the graduate program you are interested in. It is always important to make sure that the work you do outside of the classroom relates to what you aspire to study later, even if it is a job.
4. There are requirements that may not be made clear on the school website.
I had this problem when applying to one of my graduate programs. I thought it was strange that no personal statement was required for the program, but I couldn't find the requirement anywhere. The day before my application was due, I was sent an email with a list of requirements I had never seen before. It turns out that a personal statement was required, and I regret not calling an admissions counselor to make sure I was aware of everything earlier.
5. Recommendations are crucial.
It is really important to figure out who you would like to recommend you for a program before you begin applying. In addition, make sure to talk to them in advance so that they have ample time to write a great recommendation for you. Finally, don't just have your favorite professors or bosses recommend you. If you are applying for a math Ph.D., you should have math professors or anyone you've worked with on research in math recommend you. Your favorite English professor might have nice things to say about you, but that doesn't matter to the admissions board because the English professor doesn't know a thing about what it takes to be a mathematician.
6. Your life story isn't important in personal statements.
I had to learn this one the hard way. I thought that maybe some of my hardships in life would help to demonstrate my ability to overcome adversity and succeed, but most admissions committees don't care about this. A lot of people have been through tough times, and although it's cool that you survived, it doesn't say much about how well you might do in a certain graduate program. Instead of focusing on what you've overcome to be successful, you have to focus on what you've done that makes you a good fit for the program. Unfortunately, talking about your hardships only reduces your opportunity to talk about the stuff schools really care about.
7. Do your research when it comes to personal statements.
For the programs I applied to, I had to know very specific information such as what professors I wanted to work with and what their research interests were for my personal statement. In addition, I had to email those professors to make sure they were accepting students in the Fall. If they weren't, it really wasn't worth my time to mention their research interests in my statement. The main purpose of these statements is to place students with professors who match their interests, so it is important to make sure your own interests line up with at least one professor at the school. If this is not the case, you may want to consider looking at different schools or programs.
8. Applying to graduate school is expensive.
Some graduate programs offer application fee waivers, but even then applying can be pricey. It costs me $7 to send my official college transcripts, and $27 to send my GRE scores. Even if I only apply to four schools and get all of my application fees waived, it will still cost me $336 to apply to schools if I am accounting for the price of taking the GRE. If you plan on applying to graduate school, start saving money ASAP. I only ended up applying to four schools because the expenses were simply too much.
9. Graduate school isn't for everyone.
Although they say graduate school can open up many doors for a person's career, it can also close them. There's no reason to pour four or more years of your adult life into something that you aren't 100% passionate about. Most graduate programs are a stepping stone into academia, and if you aren't into reading articles and doing research, academia won't be your cup of tea. Additionally, having this kind of education can make you overqualified for jobs you might like more. It's important to be sure you want to go in the direction grad school will take you before applying.
10. Graduate school will be there when you're ready.
Schools aren't going anywhere! There's no need to rush yourself into applying if you aren't ready. I did this, and I can tell you that it was not fun. In fact, I think I am less likely to get into some of the programs I applied to because I wasn't fully prepared to apply.