Applying to Graduate School: Timeline & Tasks
Applying to graduate school is time-consuming and expensive. Many graduate schools will require you to complete an application and submit a personal statement, 3 letters of recommendation, official transcripts, a resume and/or curriculum vitae, and financial aid forms.
Get started early! The entire process in which you select schools, take entrance exams, and prepare application packets can take about a year - starting, ideally, the first semester of your junior year.
Our Timeline for Applying to Graduate School has information about all stages of the application process!
You took the SAT or ACT for entrance into college. If you want to go to graduate school, you may need to take another entrance exam.
Graduate school entrance tests are field-specific: The LSAT is for law school, the MCAT for medical school. The Graduate Record Exam (GRE) is the most common entrance exam for most other fields.
You cannot know, for sure, which exams you'll need to take until you begin exploring requirements for specific graduate programs. If possible, begin investigating graduate programs early in your junior year so you can determine which test(s) you'll need to take and when.
The GRE General Test is, essentially, the SAT for grad school - it measures your overall scholastic ability (your verbal and quantitative reasoning), critical thinking, and analytical writing skills.
The GRE General Test is required by over 90% of psychology doctoral programs and over 80% of master's programs in psychology. Many fewer programs require the GRE Psychology Test.
Whether you'll need to take only the GRE General or both tests depends on the requirements of the particular graduate schools to which you wish to apply.
If you want to start graduate school in the fall semester, just a few months after you've completed your Bachelor's Degree, then we recommend you take the GRE General Test during the summer between your junior and senior years. Why?
- If you take the General Test during the summer and you don't like your score, you'll still have time to study and retake the exam in fall of your senior year.
- If you're satisfied with your General Test score, and if you need to take the Subject Test, then you can focus on your Subject Test during the first semester of your Senior year.
The GRE General Test is offered year-round by appointment on the IU Bloomington campus and at many other locations. You'll register online at the GRE website, select a test location, and schedule an appointment when you register. Also see IUB Testing Services - call 856-0684 with questions.
GRE Subject Tests are given three times a year. In 2014-2015, they will be given in September, October, and April. IU Bloomington offers the test on all three dates. Look for GRE Subject Test Dates & Test Centers.
We encourage you to invest serious study time spread out over several months to prepare.
We also encourage you to answer this question for yourself using an empirical method:
- Take a full-length practice exam during your sophomore or junior year. See: An Eye-Opening Experience (Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2004).
- Explore schools that offer graduate degrees that fit your interests and determine the required or average GRE score for students who've enrolled in those programs - this information is sometimes available on the program website or you can look it up in graduate school guidebooks.
- Considering the gap between your practice score and the score you want, decide what strategies you'll use to try to improve your score.
- Study actively for at least one month and then take another practice exam to see if you've made the improvement you desire. If not, then re-evaluate your strategy.
GRE General Test:
- GRE General Test Prep offers free and low-cost tools.
- Examine GRE test prep books in the Psychology & Neuroscience Academic Advising Library or the Career Reference Collection.
- Learning Express Library has practice tests and tutorials free to all IU students.
Locate the "College Center" and look for "Prepare for Graduate School Admissions Exams". Create a Learning Express Library account so you can track your progress. (For security reasons, create a username and password that are unique for Learning Express, don't use your IU username and password.)
IU Lifelong Learning offers a GRE prep course twice per semester and once during the summer.
The course is based on The Princeton Review's Cracking the GRE and cost $330 (not including books) during Fall 2013. If you investigate the prices of other comparable prep courses, $330 will start to sound like a bargain.
GRE Subject Test - Psychology:
- GRE Psychology Test - scroll down for the Practice Book.
- Examine GRE test prep books in the Psychology & Neuroscience Academic Advising Library.
- Review a challenging Introductory Psychology textbook.
- Apply to become an Undergraduate Teaching Intern for an Introductory Psychology course the semester before you're going to take the subject test.
Letters of Recommendation
Your letters of recommendation will reflect your academic and pre-professional accomplishments during your college career. So, the quality of your letters will depend on the experiences you select and how well you perform.
Most graduate schools will request 2-3 letters of recommendation written by faculty members.
The best letter writers are people who have personally witnessed your capabilities and who can, therefore, speak about your potential.
Your letter writers will be asked to rate you on a variety of traits: Academic achievement; intellectual potential; quality of writing/speaking; creative thought; maturity; work ethic, motivation; leadership; integrity, character; reaction to setbacks; interpersonal skills; emotional stability and more.
- Start by earning good grades in challenging classes. Communicate your enthusiasm and knowledge about the field to faculty. Visit office hours to ask questions and discuss what you're learning in your classes and on your own.
- Become a research assistant in a faculty member's lab. Demonstrate interest in the research process, write good reports, and contribute during lab meetings. Stick with projects until they're completed even if there are setbacks.
- Work as teaching intern, completing the work you're assigned carefully and on time. Ask questions about teaching methods. Practice teaching by tutoring students, leading review sessions, or teaching one class.
- Complete an internship experience for which you have a faculty supervisor - a service-learning or field experience course.
- Discuss your co-curricular experiences with faculty - your ability to set and achieve goals as a volunteer or leader of a student group or during a semester studying abroad.
- You're Writing Your Own Letter of Recommendation (Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2008)
- It Takes More Than Good Grades! (Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 1998)
Patricia Keith-Spiegel and colleagues (Complete Guide to Graduate Admissions, 2000) report that graduate school admissions committees rank the most valuable sources of recommendations as:
- A mentor with whom the applicant has done considerable work - research, teaching, internships.
- The applicant's professor, who is also a well-known and highly respected psychologist.
- An employer in a job related to the applicant's professional goals.
- The chair of the academic department in which the applicant is majoring.
- A professor from another department from whom the applicant has taken a relevant upper-division course.
Your professors will want you to request letters at least 3-4 weeks before they are due.
What should you do?
- Getting a Good Letter of Recommendation (Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 1998).
- Getting Recommendation Letters for Grad School.
If the professor says that they will be able to write a strong letter of recommendation for you, provide them with:
Information about yourself.
Hopefully, your letter writers know you pretty well. Why provide an information packet? To remind them of details they may have forgotten and fill them in on things they may not know. Provide:
- A copy of your college transcript (unofficial) on which you indicate the class(es) you took with them.
- Entrance exam scores. Access them online and print the screen.
- A copy of your resume. Include volunteer positions, student & professional groups, part-time jobs or internships - especially those relevant to the career you're working towards. List scholarships, other honors, study abroad.
- A curriculum vitae - if you've participated in a research lab long enough to have authored a poster or pubication or given a presentation at a conference. If you've participated in a research lab, but don't have enough material for a CV, then put your research experience on your resume. Important: Provide the name of the faculty member in whose lab you worked, information about the specific research project on which you worked, and what you accomplished.
- A copy of the personal statement you've written for your graduate school application.
- A cover page reminding the professor -- honestly, without exaggeration -- what you've gained from taking their courses or working with them outside of class. Remind them of any notable papers or projects you completed and what positive impact the experience had for you.
Information about the programs to which you're applying.
- A list of all of the schools to which you're applying. List for each school how the letter is to be submitted (online, email, snail mail) and the deadline for that school.
- Important: In your communications with your letter writers, emphasize the deadline by which the very first letter must be submitted. If you're submitting all of your materials to the professor via email, highlight the first deadline in each email you send them. If you printed materials to give them, put that date on the front of a folder/envelope and put all of your materials in the envelope.
- If letters are to be submitted online: As you open an application account at each school and enter your recommenders' names and email addresses, the recommenders will be sent link(s) to those schools. Make sure that you've done your part so that faculty get the links they need at least one week before the due date for the first letter. Remember to click the box next to either "will waive" or "decline to waive" your rights to see the letter (more below).
- If the letters are to be printed and mailed directly to the school or returned to you, provide fully addressed, stamped envelopes and include any forms from the schools that must be completed by the recommender. Typically, there is one form that will include both a waiver statement and rating table that the professor must complete and submit with your letter. Remember to fill out the top of that form and sign it and indicate whether you "will waive" or "decline to waive" your rights to see the letter (more below).
Waivers: You'll need to indicate that you either "will waive" or "decline to waive" your rights to see your letters when you complete your application.
If your letter has to be submitted as hardcopy, the school will request that you download and fill out a waiver form to give your letter writers. If your letters are to be submitted online, there will be a box that you'll need to check when you complete your online application to indicate your choice.
Good advice from Getting Recommendation Letters for Grad School:
"Most recommendation forms will ask you to sign a voluntary waiver that means you are surrendering your right to view the recommendations written on your behalf. Many professors feel uncomfortable writing an open letter, and some even balk at doing so, if you don't waive your rights to view the letters. Some grad school selection committees may weigh lightly any non-restricted letters in your application. So, waive your rights to read the letters. You can generally trust that letters produced by those who have agreed to help you will be positive (and, again, you can help see to that, by giving your references plenty of help once they agree to write a letter)."
Reminders: Good advice from Getting Recommendation Letters for Grad School:
"Because professors tend to be preoccupied with their own academic work, it's a good idea for you to remind them, gently, about one week before your application deadline, that you need them to finish your letter. Remind them again, as the deadline closes in. Most professors will respond to that prodding in a friendly fashion. They know their letter is essential, and they once went through the same anxiety-producing process of tracking down letters and preparing portfolios and so on. Be assertive in a friendly way, until you know their letter is in the mail."
Virtually all graduate programs will ask you to submit a personal statement. Think of it as your "professional statement" - it should reveal your career goals and your experience, skills, and abilities relevant to succeeding in the graduate program of your choice.
Your personal statement may be the most important brief essay you ever write, so don't skimp on revisions. Take it to Writing Tutorial Services to get help with organization, expressing your ideas clearly, and for a grammar/word usage/spelling check. Ask your letter of recommendation writers and professionals employed in your desired career to read your personal statement and suggest improvements.
- Organizing Your Personal Statement (Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2009).
- How to Avoid the Kisses of Death (Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2007).
- Writing the Personal Statement.
Resume or Curriculum Vitae (CV)
Resume: Reflect on what you've done as a student and turn those experiences into accomplishment statements to create a resume targeted for the graduate program in which you're interested. Include volunteer positions, student & professional groups, part-time jobs or internship experiences relevant to your career of interest. Also list scholarships, other honors, and study abroad programs. If you've participated in a research lab, provide the name of the faculty member in whose lab you worked, information about the specific research project on which you worked, and what you accomplished.
Curriculum Vitae: A CV is a resume of your academic successes and research experience. If your goal is to attend to a research-oriented graduate program and if you began participating in a research lab early enough that you've authored or co-authored posters or papers or presented research results at a conference, then you may have sufficient material for a CV.
- The Curriculum Vita: A Student's Guide (Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2005).
- Tips on Creating an Academic Vita and a sample vita.
You'll need to send official transcripts from all of the colleges you've attended to each graduate school. Be sure to request them early. Order your official IU transcript from Student Central on Union.
Some schools require interviews and others request them. Most schools that request interviews rate them as being very important in determining whether students will be accepted.
- Applying to Graduate School: The Interview Process. (Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2007)
- Graduate School Preparation: The Interview.