Applying for Grad School

Four Pillars of Your Graduate School Application

There are many facets to a graduate school application. Most graduate schools will place the most weight for admissions on the following four criteria:

Application and Transcripts

Read each program’s application instructions carefully, as many of them require two applications – one to the program, and one to the university or graduate division.  Be sure to accurately provide all requested information. Request your transcripts directly through the Registrar's Office at UCSB. Also, be sure to send any additional institutions' transcripts as well. There is usually a fee for each transcript. Be sure to allow several weeks for the processing of your request. 

Admissions Exams

Check with each program for its graduate school admissions exam requirements. Plan on taking the one you need at least three to four months before you need to submit your applications. Review Graduate Exam Information  for more specific details.

Statement of Purpose

This is your opportunity to convince the admissions committee that you are qualified to pursue graduate study. Be prepared to write an essay or statement on your background, experience, and interests as they pertain to your study in the field. It also gives the committee a sample of your ability to write, so be meticulous about spelling, grammar, organization, and writing style. Have several people, including your letter writers, review your Statement of Purpose for clarity and composition. 

Letters of Recommendation

All graduate schools will require anywhere from two to five letters of recommendation. Applicants will want the majority of their letters to be from professors and/or professional work references.

Statement of Purpose

What is a Statement of Purpose or Personal Statement?
It is typically a two to three page essay demonstrating how your undergraduate studies have prepared you for graduate level work.

  • Statement of Purpose focuses on how your personal, volunteer, and/or work experiences give you a mature and realistic view of how your future goals fit into this particular program.
  • Personal Statement focuses on how your personal experiences and character development has provided you with the maturity and resilience to proceed into graduate school. 

What is the structure of a Statement of Purpose?
Many programs will provide a prompt or list of questions for you to respond to.  Be sure to read each program’s application section carefully for an outline of what needs to be addressed in your essay. Typically, the structure will consist of the following categories:

  • Introduction: Discuss what lead you to want to pursue graduate school and your short-term and long-term career goals
  • Experiences and Skills: Showcase coursework, volunteer, internship, and research experience and how those experiences have given you the skills to excel in graduations chool
  • Conclusion: Explain specific details about why you want to attend that university/program and how it relates to your future career goals

What should I avoid in writing my statement of purpose?

  • Little White Lies: “This program is my first choice…”
  • Flattery: “This program is the finest in the country…”
  • Overgeneralizations
  • Philosophical: “Life in the universe is ever-changing…”


Too general: “My work as a teacher’s aide was challenging.”
Better: “My work as a teacher’s aide in bilingual third grade classroom included planning and implementing lessons in English and Spanish, organizing recess activities, and working individually with students who needed extra help with reading and writing skills."

Too general: “I think I can contribute a great deal to the program.”
Better: “I also plan to use the analytic skills developed in my undergraduate studies in Philosophy and the critical reading and writing skills developed in my studies of Literature to contribute to the law school’s journal, and to teach legal writing in the undergraduate pre-law program.”

Where do I get feedback on my revised draft?
CLAS offers statement of purpose reviews and consider making an appointment with a career counselor by calling (805) 893-4412 to discuss content.

Letters of Recommendation

All graduate schools will require anywhere from two to five letters of recommendation. Applicants pursuing graduate school immediately after their undergraduate work will want the majority of their letters to be from professors, while those entering graduate school after several years of work will rely on their professional work references.

Graduate School Interviews

Many graduate programs interview students as a significant part of the application process. These programs have identified important areas around which they will attempt to gather information about you. Use the following as a reference guide to think about these areas in relation to yourself. Try to assess ways in which questions may be posed to you to cover these areas.

  1. Your Personal Qualities - Appearance, poise, confidence, ability to communicate, sense of humor and proper use of the English language will all be assessed by the interviewer. They will seek to understand your operating style, and whether tolerance for diversity has been manifested through life experiences, as well as whether you are sufficiently flexible to manage the substantial changes that lie ahead.
  2. Motivation and Career Goals - Can you describe the values that you possess that will sustain motivation in difficult times? Who are the role models that have been most significant in influencing your career choice of graduate work? What are your short-term and long-term career goals? 
  3. Industry Experiences and Knowledge - What experiences have prepared you for graduate school? What do you know about your chosen career? What other professions have you ruled out in coming to this choice? What is the level of awareness of some of the important ethical issues facing the field you are entering?
  4. Program/University Knowledge - How do you see yourself fitting in the program or university? What knowledge do you have of professor's research?

Questions will most often be presented in an open-ended, abstract manner, which means there will be few that you can answer with a “yes” or “no” response. When the question is asked, if you don't understand it, seek clarification. There will also be a time for you to ask questions about the program/university, ASK QUESTIONS!

Be sure to avoid:

  • Any negativity - do not speak negatively of any experience or other profession
  • Too specific career goals or research interests - have an idea of where you would like your career to go, but also be open to that plan changing
  • Too casual appearance or demeanor - remember you are always interviewing, even during meals and with current students

Deciding Among Offers

Re-examine the criteria you originally established when you were first applying to your chosen schools, and reflect on the following questions: 

  • Which offer most closely matches your academic and career goals?
  • Which offer provides the best financial support?
  • Are you willing to live in the community where the school is located for the length of time required?
  • Will your social and lifestyle preferences be met?
  • Does the program fit your learning style and particular strengths?
  • What does your “gut” tell you? (Both logic and emotion play differing roles for applicants. Your decision should be based on what is right for you.)

Financial Support

Financial support may be a very important criteria for your graduate school decision. Talk with your institutions about the following options:

  • Grants, fellowships, and scholarships: This is "free" money provided by government programs, educational institutions, foundations, corporations, and other private sources. 
  • Assistantships: Examples are getting paid for teaching, research, or administrative responsibilities.
  • Loans from governmental, institutional, or private sources: The majority of funding is administered directly from the graduate department or university. Complete FAFSA, the school's financial support application, and all requirements early in the application process.

Take a look here for a good listing of local, national, and college-specific scholarships.

America's Career InfoNet Scholarship Search

This website allows you to search more than 5,000 scholarships, fellowships, loans, and other financial aid opportunities.