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Graduate School Advising

How to find graduate programs

There are infinite factors to consider when choosing a graduate program. You can’t anticipate everything, but you can avoid some amount of misery if you think through the questions listed below. Many of the answers can be gleaned from program websites (especially using this graduate program information form, which will guide you in taking notes on the information you can usually find there), but it would also be beneficial to talk to professors, current students, program graduates, program dropouts, etc., either by collecting their e-mail addresses or, ideally, by visiting the program.

Augsburg faculty: Start by asking Augsburg faculty for recommendations of compatible programs.

Competition: What are your chances of getting in? Do you consider it a safety school, or is it beyond your reach? Just right?  Look for average GPAs and GRE scores for the last year’s class, or e-mail the Program Coordinator and ask for them.

Rankings and reputation: Rankings aren’t everything, but you want to be sure that the school isn’t harshly and consistently spurned. Here are some ways to measure reputation:

  • The reputation of a graduate program is tied to the quality and quantity of faculty research in the department. Are the faculty receiving grants? Publishing? With students? Are they presenting at conferences? Are students presenting at conferences? Do they have a role in national organizations in the field?
  • The reputation of a program can also become apparent when graduates enter the job market. What percentage of graduates from this program find jobs? In their field? Within six months? A year?

Program focus: Is the program’s overall focus compatible with your interests? Are there professors doing research you’d like to work with? Is there a broad range that would give you room to explore?

Social and political climate: How big is the program? Are most of the students your age? Are there turf wars within the department (current graduate students can alert you to these)? Does the program take a collaborative or a competitive approach to learning (or some balance between the two)? How flexible is the program in meeting students’ needs? How available and accessible are the faculty members?

Money: What financial aid is available? Is there guaranteed funding? For how many years? What is the average dollar amount? Is it allocated based on academic merit? Need? Work experience? Age/class year?

Graduation: What percentage of students graduate from the program? How long does it take them, on average? Are there any who begin as Ph.D. candidates but are forced to (or choose to) leave with only a masters? What percentage? What percentage of students pass their qualifying exams the first time? The second time?

Location: Do you have family or friends there? What is the climate like? Is it in a big city, or a smaller town? What is the cost of living? (A teaching stipend of $20,000, for example, goes farther in Grand Forks, North Dakota, than it would in Boston.)

Application Process

The people who make the final decision on your application are faculty members within the department to which you are applying. Keep them in mind as your audience while making the application. Quite often your application (or one of your applications) will be sent to the admission department at the Graduate School (made up of all the graduate programs). Graduate Admissions will monitor whether all pieces have been sent in (fee, GRE scores, transcripts, letters, etc.) and whether you meet minimum admission criteria. Departments typically wait for a green light from Graduate Admissions before they spend time reviewing your application. In some departments the final admission decision may be made by one faculty member, the one who has the funds to take you on as a research assistant.


Deadlines matter in the graduate application process. Generally speaking, the more competitive the graduate program, the earlier the application deadline. Select programs might have December 1 deadlines, with the bulk of programs posting deadlines from mid-December through the end of January. It is your responsibility to ensure that all components of your application, including letters of recommendation, have been received on time.

Application Fees

Application fees range from $50.00 to $125.00. If you apply to an acceptable number (five to ten) and range (competitive to less competitive) of programs, fees quickly load your credit card or deplete your checking account. Fee waivers are often available for students facing economic hardship. Contact individual schools to see if you qualify and to find out what the process is for doing so.

Online Applications

Often you will be required to complete two different applications for a given school:

  1. Graduate School application
  2. Department application

On-line application software generally allows you to work on your application in pieces, save it, print it, and edit it before you hit the “send” button. You are able to access your application through an assigned account number and chosen password. Write this information down for safe-keeping.

Personal Statement/Statement of Purpose

A well-crafted statement can tip the admission scale in your favor; a poorly written one can leave you out of the running.  Think of the personal statement as a chance for you to introduce yourself—your background, experiences, knowledge of the field, goals and personality—to the selection committee.  It also affords you the opportunity to explain any irregularities or shortcomings of your candidacy. Please see our Personal Statements webpage for advice on how to write a strong essay.


Occasionally unofficial transcripts are acceptable, but, more often than not, graduate programs require official transcripts from ALL schools attended since high school. It takes time and money to obtain transcripts, so plan ahead. Your application is considered incomplete and will not be reviewed until all transcripts arrive. If your application is being seriously considered, your transcript(s) will be scrutinized. Admission committees pay particularly close attention to the coursework—in terms of level of difficulty, quantity, and performance—within your major or closely related fields. They look for patterns of performance and any deviations from those patterns. Ultimately, they want to know if your undergraduate coursework has prepared you for their unique graduate program. On occasion committees offer admission contingent upon the applicant taking a set of courses prior to attending or soon after arriving. These courses are called “bridge courses”, as they bridge the gap between undergraduate and graduate studies. Students moving into a graduate field of study different from that of their undergraduate should expect bridgework.

Résumé/Curriculum Vitae (CV)

Some programs will require a résumé or curriculum vitae (an academic version of a résumé).  The CV differs from the résumé in terms of content, although there is overlap. A CV features teaching and research experiences, publications, presentations, interests and related activities. Visit the URGO office to view sample CVs and Resumes written by Augsburg graduate school applicants.

GRE Scores

Many graduate programs will require applicants to take the Graduate Records Exam, referred to as the GRE. GRE scores are used by admissions or fellowship panels to supplement your undergraduate records, recommendation letters and other qualifications for graduate-level study. Please see our GRE Prep webpage for more information about the test and how best to prepare.

Writing Sample 

In addition to the personal statement and/or essay responses, some programs require a writing sample. Consult one of your professors about what might be an appropriate and flattering sample. You can select a piece that you have written for class providing you:

1) Submit a copy without any grade or teacher comments

2) Revise with the new audience in mind

3) Provide context for the writing (as a class assignment the context was obvious) by framing it within the context of larger conversations going on in the field or wider culture

4) Proofread, proofread, proofread!


Art (music, drama, fine arts, graphic design) and architecture programs typically require a portfolio of your work. Providing you meet minimum requirements, the portfolio is the most important piece of your application. Schools typically inform applicants of the criteria by which they will be reviewed. If you are planning on studying art, including creative writing, in graduate school, you should start cataloguing your work early on in your academic career. Look at program websites for sample portfolios of successful applicants. Ask a faculty member for guidance and to review your work.

Application Tips

  1. Applications typically take longer to complete than students imagine. Budget enough time to complete a flawless application.
  2. Read all instructions carefully. Each application will be somewhat different. Be careful not to assume schools are asking the same questions. While there is often overlap in essay questions among various applications, a close read usually reveals subtle differences. Departments expect you to answer their specific question, not a competitor’s question.
  3. Take care to thoroughly complete all sections of the application. Your application may be considered incomplete if all sections are not completed.
  4. Plan on submitting applications early, in case you have any last-minute snafus.
  5. Proofread the application. Have at least one person read it before you submit it.
  6. Save a copy of your completed application and confirmation.

Points to Ponder: GPA

Apply yourself to your coursework fully if you want to go to graduate school. You can control your GPA more than you can control your GRE scores, yet students tend to worry more about the latter than the former. An excellent GPA tells a committee that you have mastered the material, that you are attentive to quality, that you have solid study skills, and that you are serious about learning.

  • Minimum GPA: Most graduate programs list 3.0 as the minimum GPA needed to apply, but most programs’ average GPAs are higher and are a better indicator of where you stand among the competition.
  • Low First-Year GPA: Graduate admissions committees might forgive a lackluster first year (chalking it up to college adjustment issues) but expect to see continual improvement in grades as you move up through your major course of study. In fact, on some applications, in addition to providing your overall GPA, you will be asked to compute your major GPA.
  • Low Semester GPA: Selection committees might also forgive a semester of sub-par grades in later years if there is a valid reason for your performance (i.e., significant health, emotional, financial or personal issues). It will be up to you (and, hopefully, at least one of your recommenders) to adequately and convincingly explain your situation. Committees need to be assured that the problem is behind you.
  • Low Overall GPA: My GPA is lower than 3.0 or low compared to the program’s average. Should I bother applying? It depends.  First, remember that averages imply a range of GPAs that are higher and lower than the average. There are also always exceptions to every admission rule. If your GPA is low, you can improve your admission chances with high GRE scores, excellent recommendations, and a stellar personal statement. Remarkable life experiences, especially those that suggest a certain character, intelligence, or preparedness, can work in your favor. Another way to repair the damage of a low GPA is to take graduate classes as a non-degree-seeking student, meaning you are allowed to take courses but are not admitted to any program. Getting A’s in these courses, and earning faculty recommendations along the way, will improve your chances for admission.