For most graduate programs, you will be required to take the Graduate Record Exam, or GRE. This is similar to taking the SAT when you were applying to college. All the information you need can be found at:
It is highly recommended that you practice before taking this test. There are practice books available and preparation courses as well.
Letters of Recommendation
Most, if not all, graduate programs require two to three letters of recommendation. These should be written by faculty from your undergraduate experience who know you well and think highly of your work. Choose carefully: the letters are very important. Meet with the professor to update him or her on your activities, accomplishments and goals. Explain why you are interested in the specific programs to which you are applying. The more detailed information your professors have about you, the stronger the letters they can write. It may also be appropriate to ask for a letter from an employer, especially if the work you have done for that employer is directly relevant to the area of graduate study, or if it can highlight specific skills you have gained that the graduate admissions committee may be interested in.
It is a good idea to do your homework on the program you are applying to before writing your application. Find out about the faculty in the program; who is doing research or practical work (such as clinical work in social work) that interests you? Are there one or two faculty members in the department that you would be eager to work with once you arrive? Be sure and mention this in your application essay.
You will be given a choice between seeing your letters of recommendation before they are sent or “waiving your right” to view them. It is recommended that you waive your right to view the letters. Graduate admissions committees may feel that a letter written when the writer knows the student will be seeing the letter might be less than honest. Their confidence in the veracity of the recommendation is generally stronger if the student has waived their right to see the letter. This creates an atmosphere in which the recommender can be totally honest. Hence, pick recommenders who you feel confident will write very strong letters for you, and waive your right to see them.
Give your letter writers ample advance notice of the deadline for submitting the letters. Do not ask them with only a few days to spare! Provide the letter writer with all of the relevant information, such as whom to address the letter to, the address, the deadline, any forms if provided, and your most recent curriculum vitae. Do not make your letter writer have to dig or request the information he or she needs to do this favor for you. It is your application and your future: take charge of it.
Writing the Essay
Some graduate programs will have specific topics or questions they want the applicant to address in the essay. Others may ask for a generic statement of purpose explaining why you wish to go to graduate school. Read the instructions carefully and abide by all guidelines provided by the university’s graduate admissions office and the program you are applying to.
Unlike the essay you probably wrote for your undergraduate admissions, the graduate school application essay should be as specific as you can make it. Demonstrate in your essay that you have chosen the program you are applying to because of its specific characteristics, i.e., the courses it offers, the faculty who teach there, the focus of the program, the reputation of the university (not because it is “close to home” or “inexpensive.”). Show that you have done your homework and chosen wisely.
Graduate admissions committees are looking for students that are committed to the program and have a high chance of finishing the degree. Your essay is your chance to show that you have the commitment, dedication and skills to be successful. Highlight your accomplishments in your undergraduate years that will help you be successful or are directly applicable to graduate study. Use your essay to demonstrate your maturity: graduate school is very different from undergraduate study and requires independence and self-motivation for success. If you have worked in the years since you finished your undergraduate degree, explain to the committee what you have learned and gained from your employment experience, and how it has led you to the decision to return to school.
Your essay should be impeccable in terms of grammar, spelling, structure, etc. Have a professional or a friend proofread your essay!