So you’ve decided to apply to graduate school, and better yet — graduate schools in the US! The prospect of applying to graduate courses in America can be both exciting and daunting, particularly if this is your first time applying for graduate school altogether. Rest assured, there are thousands of overseas applicants in your position, and plenty of help available to make applying in the US easier, simpler and less daunting.

This post is part of a three-post series I’ve designed to help you tackle applying to graduate school in America for either MA or PhD programmes. To make this easier, I’ve divided the posts into three important stages: before applying, applying and post-application. Each post will contain easy step-by-step guides for each stage of applying to graduate school, which will include tips for getting good references, tackling the GRE and writing your statement of purpose.

As part one in this series, this post will focus on what you need to do before you begin applying to graduate schools. These posts aim to provide a helpful overview for applicants, but if you have any specific questions, please don’t hesitate to leave any comments or queries in the comment section of this post, and I would be happy to help you as best I can.

Give yourself time

From my personal experience, I would suggest leaving yourself a year to work towards applying to the graduate schools of your choice. You’ll need to allow yourself plenty of time to compile and complete a well-rounded, good application that will situate you in the tight competition for course spaces. The best way to plan your time efficiently is to draw up a timeline of the deadlines you’ll need to meet in the run up to the opening of online applications. Make sure you leave yourself enough time to complete all the different tasks you will need to finish before you begin the application process – there is no time to leave things until the last minute! And remember, although American graduate school applications have a similar timeline to their counterparts in the UK, you must also prepare for the mandatory entrance exams you will need to sit before submitting your applications. All applicants will need to complete the GRE (Graduate Records Examinations), while non-native English speakers must also complete the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) before applying. Note: other admissions examinations may be required for graduate courses that are not MAs or PhDs, check here for a full admission tests list.

What do you want to study?

Do you know what graduate programmes are available to you? Have you decided what you’re looking for through graduate study? US universities offer a plethora of programmes to prospective graduate students. Graduate programmes in the US are often very different to their counterparts in the UK, both in terms of structure and content. For instance, Masters Degrees in the US tend to be 2-year programmes, as opposed to the usual one-year Masters we have in the UK. Many students have also noted differences in course structure and content between American and UK graduate programmes. American graduate courses have been described as ‘well-rounded‘, where even PhD programmes have taught courses (combined with research) and encourage students to assist with teaching undergraduates regularly.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to figure out what you want to study before you begin your applications. This may sound obvious, but fully understanding your chosen discipline(s) and research topics is vital for a strong application. While it is not always necessary to have a concrete research proposal before you apply, demonstrating that you’ve done your research and are fully prepared to undertake graduate study goes a long way.

Choose your universities and programmes of study

The US boasts a wide range of graduate programmes in universities across the country. With so many choices, it can sometimes feel overwhelming to choose only a couple of universities to apply to. Personally, I found that mapping my universities and programmes of interest on excel or on paper was a very helpful way to curate my final choices. I divided my table by the different criteria I used to choose the universities and programmes that best fitted my interests and needs, namely:

– University

– Application deadline

– Location

– Application requirements

– Degree title(s)

– Department contact details

– Faculty who I want to work with

– Department interests

– Total tuition fees (per annum)

– Scholarships

– GRE Institution code

After taking all these criteria into account, I was then able to narrow down my choices to five universities and programmes where I found my academic interests and other needs were strongly represented.

Prime your referees

Approach professors and lectures who you’d like to write your letters of recommendation well in advance of applying. I approached my three referees a year before applications opened, and I’m relieved that I asked them in advance! It’s important to remember that academics are incredibly busy and that their hectic timetables often render them forgetful when it comes to tasks like writing references for their students. As a result, it is important to stay in contact with your referees throughout the year. Staying in contact with your referees is also vital for them to write an excellent reference for you – they need to know you as a student and as an individual to write a reference that really sets you apart from other applicants.

The best way to get an excellent reference from your referees (apart from being active and engaged in their classes) is to make the process as easy as possible for them. To do that I would recommend composing a proposal for each of your referees that outlines and includes: your graduate interests, academic and extra-curricular commitments, how you developed your graduate interests, your CV, a summary about yourself and your ambitions, what you would like them to include in their reference, and details of the universities and programmes you are applying to and who you want to work with.

Make sure that your referees are aware of your application deadlines and are familiar with the process of submitting their references to the online application. The process of reference submittal is usually similar to graduate application reference systems in the UK, but it is better to double check that they understand the procedure in advance so that there isn’t any last minute confusion. Moreover, ensure that your referees know how to write a good US reference for you. References written for US universities often require a lot more personal detail than UK references. A good resource that you can share with your referees detailing what is expected from them for US universities can be found here. Follow these links for more information on: reference requirements and preparing your referees, and a sample reference letter.

Think funding

The cost of tuition for graduate programmes in the US are usually much higher than their counterparts in the UK. Depending on the programme you’re applying for and whether you intend to pay the full tuition fees yourself, it is vital that you determine your funding options before you apply. Funding can come in many forms and from many different sources: most PhD programmes in the US provide full funding to their students for five years, however, university scholarships for Masters Degrees are often limited and may only cover part of your tuition fees. Scholarships and other forms of funding may be available through the university you are applying to, as well as through external funding bodies such as the Fullbright Commission (who specifically award scholarships to UK students hoping to study in the US). For international students (non-US citizens), most universities recommend applying for external as well as internal (university-based) sources of funding as scholarships and other awards are highly competitive. Remember to also select your universities and graduate programmes carefully depending on the funding they offer and how much you can afford to pay.

Research faculty and departments in line with your graduate interests

To find the most suitable graduate programme in line with your research interests, you need to have a firm understanding of the research and papers the department is producing and the individual faculty whose research interests correspond with your own. Spending a good amount of time on this research will benefit you in the long term – it will demonstrate to both universities and faculty that you are serious about your research and that you are the right fit for the department to accept you as a student.

Get in contact with faculty you want to work with

Getting in touch with faculty who you are interested in working with before you apply to universities is a good way to understand what faculty and departments are looking for in prospective students. Contacting faculty directly could also give you the opportunity to discuss your research interests in more detail with someone you hope to work with – and while I can’t guarantee that contacting professors will improve your chances of admission, it’ll give you the opportunity to ask more specific questions about the department and the research it produces, as well as the programme and the graduate cohort. A sample email to a graduate supervisor/professor can be found here.

Prepare for and book your GRE and TOEFL exams

Make sure you begin revision for any entrance exams you need to take well in advance of your application deadlines. I would recommend beginning your revision 6 months or so before you begin the application process, particularly as these exams may be unfamiliar to you as someone based in the UK. Make sure you register with the ETS website to book a date to sit the GRE (and TOEFL). Most universities recommend sitting your exams 6 weeks at least in advance of your application deadlines so that the scores are received with your application on time. Don’t worry too much though, there are plenty of revision guides available online to download or buy on the ETS website and through retailers like Amazon. In my experience, the most important preparation you can do for your GRE is to complete as many practice exam papers and questions as possible while also memorising plenty of vocabulary for the verbal section. Make sure you double check whether your institution requires a GRE general test or a subject-based test.

Draft your statement of purpose (SoP)

You’re going to need to draft and edit your statement of purpose several times before submitting it — so start early! Remember to get feedback from as many people as possible, particularly from your referees. To get an idea of what a statement of purpose looks like for your discipline, read through some sample SoPs online and make note of similar themes that appear. It is also important to check through the FAQ pages and application guidelines of your department or graduate division for more information about specific SoP requirements for particular universities.

Create an application checklist

Most universities have roughly the same application requirements:

– Your university transcript

– Writing sample

– Statement of purpose

– Three letters of recommendation

– CV

– GRE (and TOEFL) scores

However, it’s important to write a detailed application checklist for each university you apply to as the particulars of each requirement may vary per institution. For instance, one university may require an SoP of 2500 words, while another asks for your SoP to be 2 pages and double spaced. It’s better to be meticulous when it comes to the details of your application than to have your application returned or rejected for inaccuracies.


If you have found this blog post useful, then check out the other three blog posts in my Grad School series at:

Is Graduate School Still Elitist?

Applying to Graduate School in America: How to Apply

Applying to Graduate School in America: After applying



Need teacher?

Did you like this article?

5.00/5, 1 votes


As an Englishman in Paris, I enjoy growing my knowledge of other languages and cultures. I'm interested in History, Economics, and Sociology and believe in the importance of continuous learning.