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Applying to Grad School - 10 Steps

Written by: Nikki Simon

October 10, 2023

Step 1. Understand why you are pursuing graduate studies

  • Don’t do it just because you think you should or have to – wait until you have a genuine interest or a goal in mind.

    • I can assure you that grad school will be far more enjoyable if you actually want to be there!

  • If you need to take a break between undergraduate studies and grad school, then take that break. You’re young! Rebuild your energy stores, save some money, explore your interests and develop an idea of where you see yourself going in the future!

Step 2. Understand what is required/expected of you as a grad student

  • On a fundamental level, you need to understand that grad school is not the same as undergraduate studies.

  • Grad school is very self-motivated – you are a professional. Different supervisors support their students in different ways, and some may be more hands-on than others. If you haven’t already, you need to establish good time management skills, and work habits, and understand the value of networking every opportunity you get.

Step 3. Find a potential supervisor or supervisors whose interests align with your interests (and ethics align with your personal ethics)

  • Look at their body of work.

    • If interesting to you, know it well enough to be able to have a conversation with them about it.

  • Consider their reputation.

    • Though reputation isn’t everything – an individual with a poor reputation or practices can mar how you are viewed by association and if your ethics don’t align, it will make for an uncomfortable learning experience.

Step 4. Understand the program

  • What are the requirements to get into the program? Do you meet them?

    • These could be specific undergraduate degrees or a minimum GPA

  • What documents will you need to apply? Will there be an application interview?

  • How long is the program?

    • Some programs are only 1 year, and some can be 2+

    • In some instances, the length of time it takes a student to complete their degree comes down to their own work ethics.

  • Is it course-based? Thesis-based? Hybrid? Is that a good fit for you?

    • Keep in mind to apply for some PhD programs they require you to have completed a thesis during your Master's!

Step 5. Understand the finances

  • Do you have a grasp of the tuition, living expenses, and fees where you hope/intend to go to school?

    • Look into all of these before you even contact a potential supervisor. If you absolutely can’t afford to go to a certain school in a certain country, there is no point in getting your hopes up.

    • Keep in mind that education as an international student is often more expensive!

  • If you find the expense to be more than you can afford, don’t give up!

    • Explore options for funding (see Step 6).

    • Consider options for part-time work in and around campus or in the department. These could include research assistant or teaching assistant positions.

    • Lastly, though not ideal, see if there is a way to accommodate long-distance education. (for international students)

Step 6. Understand your options for funding and know the deadlines

  • There are always multiple options for funding, and they can come from inside or outside of the institution; many are even specific to international students.

    • Institutions will typically have a page outlining various options for you.

  • Oftentimes, the deadline to apply for funding is before your deadline to apply for graduate studies, so make sure you apply in time!

Step 7. Contact potential supervisors long before applying (by this, I mean way more than a week!)

  • If they don’t answer right away, don’t panic!

  • See if they are even taking on grad students – sometimes, they already have too many and can’t afford to take on more.

  • Let them know of your interests and your interest in the work they are doing.

    • Do you have a project in mind that you’d like to tackle, and can they/are they willing to support that work?

    • Do they have a project they are willing to give you to work on?

  • Build a rapport and confirm (to the best of your ability) that they are someone you would be comfortable having as your supervisor.

    • If you feel comfortable, you could even have discussions with them about their supervisory style; don’t be afraid!

Step 8. Make sure you have everything you need!

  • Up-to-date CV

  • References

    • Choose your referees wisely – does the work you did under them make sense within the context of what you plan to do in grad school?

    • Make sure they are acceptable within the application guidelines.

    • Contact potential referees at least 4 weeks in advance; if you don’t correspond often, remind them of the details of your working/learning relationship.

    • Make sure your referee is aware if there is anything specific that needs to be included, and highlight what you think may be important.

  • Transcripts – typically from every post-secondary institution you attended.

  • Statement of intent

    • This statement is typically one page used to express your goals for pursuing graduate studies (why Step 1 is important!)

      • Follow the prompts.

      • Get personal.

      • Know your audience.


Step 9. Ask for advice/feedback

  • Ask one of your referees, an advisor, or even a friend or sibling who has already gone through this process to look over your documents.

    • You don’t have to do everything alone, and you don’t have to feel embarrassed about asking for advice!

Step 10. Pay attention to application deadlines and apply as early as possible

  • Make sure you apply well before the deadline - if you miss your deadline, you will look bad! It doesn’t instill a lot of confidence in your ability to manage yourself.

  • Be aware that the deadlines will be different at every institution, and institutions in other parts of the world have semesters that begin/end at different dates/times than here in Canada.




Don’t take success for granted, and learn from rejection

  • Success is fantastic! But understand that getting into a grad program is only the first step, there is much to be done to make it to the finish line and it takes continued time, effort and determination.

  • If you didn’t make it into your program, don’t give up! It isn’t necessarily a reflection of you or a slight on your past accomplishments.

    • Wait a couple of weeks and reach out to the admissions staff for the institution, see if they will sit down with you and offer feedback on your application.

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