Tips for Applying to Graduate School

A few years ago, I took a 9 month course called “Master Life.” In that class, administered through my church, we were taught to frame our view of our life through the lens of (life of) Christ. One of the main concepts was understanding that you have a purpose and that you should use it. There is a concept called “Spiritual Gifts” which sounds very religious, but it’s really similar to knowing your purpose and acting on it. Sometimes, I read the Living Bible translation because it makes things very plain. The following verses have a direct application for me and explain why I do what I do.

Romans 12:6a, 7, 8b – “God has given each of us the ability to do certain things well. […]*, If your gift is that of serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, do a good job of teaching. […] If God has given you money, be generous in helping others with it.  If God has given you administrative ability and put you in charge of the work of others, take the responsibility seriously. […]”

(* The […] represent other parts of the verses that are equally important but that don’t apply to my points here. They include things like giving strong sermons, comforting the sorrowing with cheer and more. They were not omitted because they aren’t important. The other points are just more applicable here.)

So, as I seek to serve you and as I take my responsibility seriously, I want to provide some tips to those of you who are in the midst of applying to grad school.  I initially sent this to some friends on the faculty and staff of one of our university partners, but I woke up this morning with the urge to share it with a wider audience, in hopes that it will help more people reach their dreams of going to graduate school, and being able to positively affecting the world with their advanced knowledge. Our Meyerhoff  Scholars program has the motto “To whom much is given, much is expected.” So to those of you who go on to graduate school, use your knowledge for good, serve others well.  Here are some tips for applying, I hope that you find them to be helpful.

1. Application
Look for online applications for the schools to which you are applying.  Please note the deadlines.  Many schools have deadlines in January, but some departments have November and December deadlines for Fall admission.  I will use UMBC as my example.

Department websites:

Be sure to read through the information on the department’s websites because they may have extra instructions that you’ll need to be aware of.

For example, note that the Department of Biological Sciences at UMBC asks students to fill out a “Pre-Application.”
Note that the Applied Developmental Program in the Department of Psychology has EXTRA questions, a supplemental application.  This needs to be completed.

2. The GRE is required.
We strongly encourage all students to study for the GRE.
The website with the information is
Please note that there are practice tests online.  If you have come to any of my talks at conferences (e.g.,  SHPE, NSBE, HBCU-UP, GEM Grad Labs) on the GRE, please remember what you’ve learned. Use that GRE website. Download and use PowerPrep!

In addition, Dr. Gail Slaughter from Baylor University has often presented excellent advice at conferences. The paper version of that
presentation can be found here:

3. Statements of purpose.
Please be sure that you read through the departments’ websites
and write your statements of purpose based on research that is being
conducted in the department. Some of the comments from faculty have been that the statements of purpose didn’t connect to research that was being done in the department.

When I give talks on this topic, I recommend the following outline:

Paragraph 1: Interest in the field (background – your early interest)

Paragraph 2: Past research experience
* Include academic awards
* Include research experiences, presentations, and results

Paragraph 3: Interest in the school (e.g, UMBC.) Discuss the research that UMBC is conducting and your connection, experience, or interest in that topic.

Pay attention to work that is being done by a particular center on campus
(e.g. CUERE – Center for Urban Environmental Research and Education., the department or particular professors.

Paragraph 4:  Planned contribution to the field (short/long term goals)

–> Please note that UMBC’s  Statement of Purpose is limited to 300-500 words. This is approximately a page and a half.

–> If professors volunteer to read  your Statement of Purpose, give it to them at least a month  IN ADVANCE.  For January deadlines, give the statements to your professors no later than December 1, 2009.  Get their permission early (e.g., before mid November) so that they can make time in their busy schedules to read your statement and provide you with feedback.

4. Application Fee
Some schools have waivers for the application fee. Check with the graduate school and the department to see if you qualify for a fee waiver.

The application for UMBC is here:

5. Funding for Graduate School
There are several opportunities for funding in graduate school. We have a list of fellowships on our website:
The departments also have Research Assistantships (RAs) and Teaching Assistantships (TAs), which are jobs that require you to either conduct research for a professor or have a measure of teaching responsibilities.  These assistantships will pay your tuition, and will provide you with a stipend for living expenses.  Some schools also include health insurance in their funding packages for these positions.  Talk with the departments about their opportunities.  Graduate Assistantships (GAs) are other positions on campus that have similar benefits. Instead of working with a professor, or teaching a class, you may be doing some administrative work for an office like the library or residence life.

Some departments have rolling admissions; they accept students as the applications come in.  In almost every case, departments have early deadlines for best consideration for funding. So if you apply early, you will be in the pool of students who will be considered for fellowships, RAs, TAs, and GAs.  Most of the funding decisions are made by mid-February, so apply by the early deadlines for your best opportunity.

UMBC is pleased to be the #1 Up and Coming University in the U.S. (Ranked
by U.S. News and World Report.)

As you apply to grad school, please consider UMBC. We have great programs and a great support network!  For more about PROMISE and support for graduate students, visit:

There are many other tips online and in books. Use the advice that works best for you.  I hope that something that I mentioned will be helpful.  I am passionate about helping people to achieve their dreams.  I’m part of a graduate school, so I do whatever I can to help students with their graduate education goals. I wish you well!

Best wishes as you follow your paths to greatness!


UPDATE added 2/11/12

I posted an addition to this on last year. Here is the addition:


When you are applying to Graduate School, you have to be sure that you make the case for the reasons that you want to be there.  Be sure that your Statement of Purpose reflects the “why.”

  • Why you?
  • Why that particular research?
  • Why that particular school?
  • Why those 2-3 professors?

Be sure that the recipients of your graduate school package know explicitly why you want to be there (at their university, in their department, in their lab or group) and what you want to do.


3 replies »

  1. Thank you, Dr. Tull, for this information. When I decided to seek stronger academic credentials in 2007, I was afraid and felt that too much time had passed since being in a classroom. But because of the God in you, your wisdom, insight, and spiritual gifts, God willing I’ll graduate in May 2010! Thank you.


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