Applying to a US graduate programme

Start early, plan ahead, and know the application requirements. Application packages require a great deal of preparation and planning. In the USA, application requirements can vary greatly from one institution to another. Check the specific requirements on the website of each graduate school's admissions office, along with additional requirements for international students. Postgraduate applications are typically due between December and March to enroll the following autumn. 

Things to know

Start early, plan ahead, and know the application requirements. Application packages require a great deal of preparation and planning.

In the USA, application requirements can vary greatly from one institution to another. Check the specific requirements on the website of each graduate school's admissions office, along with additional requirements for international students.

Postgraduate applications are typically due between December and March to enrol the following autumn. Things to know:

  • You apply to the graduate school in which your chosen programme is hosted
  • Different programmes will have their own application deadlines, fees and requirements
  • Offers of admission aren’t specifically conditional - if they admit you, they expect you to continue working towards your current level, but won’t specify required grades

The slightly longer applications allow you to fully express and discuss why you are a suitable applicant. Each part of your application is taken in context and reviewed holistically.

If you’ve done your research and have chosen suitable degree programmes, you stand every chance of being an attractive applicant to the admissions committee. More British students study in the USA than anywhere else in the world, for good reason: we want to study there, and they want us on their campuses.

Follow the guides within this section to learn about each requirement in detail, how admissions decisions are made, and what you should be doing during the year in order to apply effectively.


You should begin applying 12-18 months before you enrol. The following is a rough timeline, but each university can set their own deadlines, so make sure you do your research and plan accordingly. 

Spring - 18 months before you enrol

  • Research your programmes and funding opportunities from external funding bodies (some scholarships may have very early deadlines) 
  • Register and prepare for the appropriate admission exams, if they are required

Summer - 12 months before you enrol

  • Finalise your programmes and external funding body choices
  • Make a schedule of application deadlines and requirements 

Autumn - 12/10 months before you enrol

  • Many graduate school applications open online on 1 August
  • Begin drafting your university and funding applications 
  • Request your transcript and references from your university 
  • Early application deadlines: typically early December - it is strongly advised you apply by an early deadline if they are available 

Winter - 10/6 months before you enrol

  • Continue to apply for additional scholarships from the university and external funding bodies during the winter and early spring 

Spring - 4 months before you enrol

  • Regular application deadlines: vary by university and department, so you should double check on the department website and submit your application as early as possible 
  • Admissions and university funding decisions are usually released by April 
  • Notify universities of your decision by the deadline they provide
  • Begin your visa application process and attend a vise interview between May and August
  • Check out our guide on preparing to study in the US 


  • Orientation usually begins between mid-August and early September, but don't book your flight until you know your arrival date as well as any international student orientation dates
  • Begin studying in the USA!

What goes into an application for graduate school?

Application packages to US graduate programmes are reviewed holistically. Each application will require extensive preparation and planning. The application requirements can vary greatly from one institution to another, and even between programmes. 

Make sure you check the specific requirements for international graduate admissions for both institutional and departmental application requirements. 

Most applications will follow a similar format: 

You might also be required to submit:

  • A research statement 
  • A CV 
  • Submission of work such as an arts portfolio or writing samples if applicable 
  • Interview 

All of these elements help to paint a picture of the following: 

Academic preparation, potential and achievement

These are assessed through your: 

  • Transcript 
  • Admissions exam scores (if required) 
  • Recommendation letters 
  • Other relevant academic work highlighted in your application form, such as presenting at conferences or independent research projects 

These should build a well-rounded, complementary view of you as a suitable applicant to that particular programme. 

US universities don’t have specific entry requirements like British universities, though they may publish information on the academic profile of their typically admitted student. Graduate schools will also sometimes publish the average or range of admissions scores their admitted students typically receive. This can help you determine if a university’s academic profile is within your reach. 

Your future plans 

You should be able to articulate what your short and long-term goals are and how completing the programme will help get you there. 

Academic fit 

Graduate schools will be looking for a detailed explanation of your interest in pursuing a degree at their institution. It is imperative that within your application you demonstrate compelling reasons for pursuing that specific postgraduate degree at that particular university. 

US institutions also know that there are excellent programmes in the UK. Your application should convince them that, if given a place and funding, you will take them up on the offer.  

Extracurricular activities 

US universities are looking for well-rounded applicants who will be active participants on their campuses and in their classrooms. They want to get a sense of an applicant’s character, personal interests and professional goals. 

An extracurricular activity is any committed and constructive involvement not required to finish education, such as: 

  • Employment 
  • Volunteering 
  • Caring for family members 
  • Sports 
  • University clubs and societies 
  • Interests in the arts 
  • Hobbies 

The most competitive schools will be looking for students who are leaders and innovators outside of the lecture theatre.

Application form

Application packages require extensive preparation and planning. In the US, application requirement can vary greatly from one institution to another. 

Make sure you check the specific requirements for international graduate admissions for each institution you're planning to apply to. For graduate study, you are likely to have institutional and departmental application requirements! 

Check the websites of the institutions where you plan to apply as each university may have its own application form, though some professional programmes such as nursing may have you apply through a portal. 

The application form will ask for basic personal information about yourself. Make sure you keep your personal information consistent. As you complete each application, you will engage in personal reflection and self-discovery. Allow plenty of time to conduct research into each programme you're applying to and when completing your application. 

Some factors to consider when completing your application: 

  • Pay close attention to all application instructions, including deadlines. Different programmes at the same university might have different deadlines for applying 
  • The look and feel of your application is just as important as what you say, take your time and put who you are across in your application
  • Be yourself! The US application is a holistic approach. Universities want to find out who you are as a person and why your would fit in their programme
  • Provide all information requested by each institution, this might vary university to university so check their website and note what's required

Official transcripts 

A transcript is a listing of your academic marks from your undergraduate degree, and if relevant, your postgraduate degree. In general, transcripts should be official documents, preferably with an official stamp and signature, produced by the academic registry office of each university you have attended. 

If you have participated in a study abroad programme, full details should be included on a transcript from your home or host institution. 

You will likely be able to upload scanned copies of these as part of your application. However, if you are considered for admission you might be required to ask your institution(s) to send an official transcript by mail. 

Alternatively, your university might be required to send them to an external credential evaluator, for which you will pay a fee. 

It is your responsibility to notify your university of submission requirements and deadlines. 

There are three ways US universities might evaluate your qualifications. They might: 

  1. Already know what it means to have a first, second, etc from particular UK universities and what they are looking for 
  2. Convert your UK results using their own internal formula 
  3. Require applicants to use a paid external credential evaluation service - if one is not recommended to you, consider using one from the following associations: 
    • Association of International Credential Evaluators (AICE) 
    • National Association of Credential Evaluation Services (NACES) 

Admissions exams 

Admissions exams are a way for universities to compare applicants who might come from different backgrounds and educational systems across the USA and the world. 

Results are used to support part of a university’s admissions and merit-based scholarship decisions. They can assess, among other things: 

  • Verbal reasoning and language analysis 
  • Critical reading 
  • Writing 
  • Mathematics and data analysis 
  • Subject knowledge 

Are they required? 

Universities can set their own admission requirements. Many will require the submission of admissions exam scores. However, some graduate schools don't require exam scores. In lieu of a test score, an institution might require you to submit other materials, such as a more substantial writing sample. View the pages in this section to learn more about the exams, testing dates and useful tips. 

Which exam? 

There are many postgraduate admissions exam formats accepted by US graduate schools, depending on the programme: 

  • GRE: for most master's and PhDs, and some business degrees 
  • GMAT: used mostly for business degrees (though more and more business schools are accepting both the GRE and GMAT) 
  • LSAT: for JD degrees (LLMs do not generally require the LSAT) 
  • MCAT: for medical school 
  • DAT: for dental school 

The most competitive PhD programmes might require the GRE with a GRE Subject Test. You can take free sample tests on each exam’s website. 

Check the exam and language proficiency requirements for each programme to which you apply. 

Test centre locations and dates 

Most exams are computer-based tests available in many sites across the year, and some now offer the opportunity to take the exam from home, but to be certain check the relevant website: 

The MCAT and DAT require registration to search for test sites and dates. 

 The GRE Subject Tests available are: 

  • Chemistry
  • Mathematics
  • Physics 
  • Psychology 

English language proficiency 

If you have not been educated in an English-language school you will likely have to prove your proficiency in English. You should check which exam each university accepts, but the most common are: 

Test preparation

Take the time to thoroughly prepare for any admissions exam you have to take. They are the main gatekeepers of admissions decisions. If you don’t hit the range a university is looking for, it is unlikely the rest of your application will be considered. American students applying to graduate schools will have been familiar with these tests for several years before they take them. However, British students are capable of performing excellently and achieving the highest possible scores.

You should sit several full, timed practice tests including the writing portions, and plan a revision programme focussing on areas you need to improve. The GRE and GMAT websites offer many free resources to help you get a feel for the test format and revise appropriately.

Personal Statement

Strong personal and research statements can set you apart from other applicants, bring your application to life and showcase who you really are as a person. It's important to convey why you are the perfect applicant for that programme.

Although some graduate schools vary, personal statements are typically two pages. There is no set structure or list of prompts. You can afford to be creative.

Writing tips:

  1. Stop and think. Have you done enough research into choosing this programme to fully convince them you are a good fit? Are you aware of what they are looking for? Do you have a list of all your relevant academic accomplishments and extracurricular activities?

  2. Brainstorm your research. Think about your statement as a marketing tool - how do your experiences match up to the personal and academic fit of the programme? Note these links down. Remember that some of these can be highlighted in your reference letters, so try to avoid writing about areas you want your referees to talk about.

  3. Think creatively. You don't need to constantly use metaphors and other figurative devices if that's not your personal writing style, but you should have an essay structured with a coherent and interesting theme or narrative.

  4. Write an introduction. This should be your hook, and should pique the reader's interest. It can be as simple as an anecdote or a quote that illustrates your main theme.

  5. Answer these questions. Use your brainstormed links and arrange them into three well-connected points, adhering to your central theme, that answer:

  • Why me? What relevant experience and expertise do you bring to the programme, and what did you gain from these experiences?
  • Why here? Describe your academic fit with the department. Is there a particular project or faculty member you’re excited about working with?
  • Why now? What are your short/long-term goals? How does doing this programme, at this time, at this university, help you fulfil these? What will you accomplish with this degree
  • Conclude the essay. What is the reader meant to take away? How will they remember this personal statement in particular? Try to connect this back to the theme you introduced at the beginning and end on a powerful, impactful note that highlights what unique personal trait you are bringing to their campus.

Other important things to keep in mind:

  • Address the essay question fully
  • Use clear, concise language - say what you mean
  • Avoid vague or empty statements (eg "I am passionate about literature"), clichés and cultural references unfamiliar to US audiences
  • Make sure all references to institutional names are correct, especially if you re-use essays across your applications
  • Proofread extensively, read it out loud and ask several people to read it for you
  • Avoid repeating too much information mentioned elsewhere in your application
  • Address any obvious gaps or weaknesses in your application, perhaps turning them into a positive


Many graduate school websites provide their own tips and resources for crafting a personal statement. Here are a few examples to get you started:

This is an example of a personal statement for a M.B.A degree
This is an example of a personal statement for a Ph.D. in literature
This is an example of a personal statement for a Ph.D. in Molecular Biophysics
This is an example of a personal statement for a Ph.D. in Anthropology

Research statements

Some universities will request a separate research statement. This is an opportunity to share your research interests with the selection committee. It is not the same thing as a research proposal for a PhD application in the UK. Your goal is to show the selection committee that you have compelling ideas you can confidently execute as part of their department.

Faculty members and admissions staff or alumni might be on the committee, so write with both audiences in mind. Flex your intellectual muscle, but keep the jargon to a minimum and explain the broader relevance of your work in the field to society. As you write your research statement, be sure to show off your:

  • Personal and intellectual interest in the subject
  • Familiarity with the relevant literature
  • Knowledge of key theories, data or concepts
  • Ability to identify relevant gaps in the literature and compelling research objectives/questions you hope to address
  • Familiarity with methodologies, suggesting which you propose to use
  • Reasons why you want to conduct this research at this chosen university

If a research statement is required, you can afford to be more personal in your personal statement.

This is an example of a statement of purpose for Ph.D. in Human Biodynamics
This is an example of a statement of purpose for a Ph.D. in the Department of History
This is an example of a statement of purpose for a Ph.D. in Psychology


Some universities may request a CV or resume listing your personal and professional accomplishments.

Recommendation letters

Recommendation letters are a marketing tool for you as an applicant. They can build a picture of how you perform compared to your peers, and how you interact with faculty and students. Graduate schools might provide loose guidelines for selecting referees, such as one academic referee and one professional referee. We encourage you to choose your referees carefully, asking only those who know you well and can enthusiastically recommend you.

Recommendation letters should be typed on official letterhead paper and submitted by the referee. They should highlight your:

  • Ability to succeed academically at the postgraduate level, based on prior performance, passion for your field and/or work ethic
  • Relevant experience, subject knowledge, personal traits (ethics, leadership) or skills (writing, critical thinking)
  • How your potential, skills, experience and successes compare with your peers
  • Positive activities in and outside of the classroom
  • Ability to contribute to an academic environment

We recommend you meet with your referees individually, to discuss your aspirations and how their letter might complement your overall application package. Above all, encourage your referees to avoid being too restrained and modest. American referees will be enthusiastic cheerleaders for their students. If given the option, you should waive your right to see all recommendation letters to maintain their credibility. 

It is your responsibility to notify your referees of submission requirements, formats and deadlines.

We’ve created a page on our website with guidance for advisors, including tips for writing recommendation letters. You may wish to send your recommenders the link to this page.

Other application requirements

Submission of work 

Depending on the programme to which you are applying, you may be required to submit an example of work. Students applying to arts programmes will likely be asked to submit an arts portfolio. Students applying for research-focused degrees may be asked to submit a writing sample. The details for these submission will vary so you should check the programme's website for their specific requirement. 


Having an interview is not a requirement for many admission processes. However, they can be an ideal opportunity to highlight characteristic and interests that are easier to convey in person than on paper. 

Some universities might have an interview opt-in field on their application form, and some universities will automatically contact you after you apply to see if you are interested in interviewing. For other institutions, you might have to explicitly state you would like to interview. For programmes such as MBAs, interviews are usually required. 

Interview format 

Interviewers are not always faculty members. Sometimes they are conducted by admission staff or alumni volunteers. You might speak over a phone or video call to the USA, or the representative might be in the UK.

Postgraduate admissions interviews are quite similar to US undergraduate interviews, covering topics such as: 

  • What are your academic interests and plans?
  • How did you become interested in your field of study?
  • Why do you want to pursue your degree at this particular university/department?
  • How would you describe yourself?
  • What is your greatest accomplishment/failure?
  • What is the most significant contribution you've made?
  • What is your strongest/weakest point?
  • What do you see yourself doing in the future? In five years? In ten years?


Like any interview, it is important to practice and be prepared. Ask family, friends or colleagues to conduct mock interviews with you. You should become familiar with making well-organised and thoughtful answers, but avoid memorising prepared answers or repeating verbatim points you have in your application. 

You should also prepare some questions to ask the interviewer. These might include: 

  • How would you describe the atmosphere of the university/department/programme?
  • What are some of the most exciting projects you've seen from this programme?
  • Do you have any advice for someone interested in a career in...?
  • Anything you want to know about the programme but haven#t found out yet. 
  • Make sure you have done your research and don't ask something easily answered on the internet

Additional interview tips

  • If possible schedule your preferred university's interview last so you build experience with the others 
  • Revisit your personal and/or research statements 
  • Be confident, genuine and enthusiastic
  • Take notes during the conversation
  • Revise your university research
  • Read up on current events related to your academic and extracurricular areas of interest
  • Sent a thank you e-mail or note immediately after each interview 

Admission decisions

Once you’ve applied, it’s time to wait for the decisions to be released. There are positive and proactive ways to respond, no matter which decision you receive. There are three types of decision:

  • Offer of admission
  • Waitlisted
  • Not accepted

Offer of admission

If you are accepted to a university, congratulations! The institution will likely send you information on why you should accept their offer and how to do so. Within the offer of admission will also be an outline of what financial aid or scholarship funding they will give you. To respond to their offer, you can:

  • Accept - If you need to think about your options, remember to circle back to the factors that are important to you, and pick the university which meets the most of these. Acceptances in general must be made by 15 April, though this may differ by institution so be sure to double check.
  • Decline - If you decide not to accept a university offer, let the admissions office know politely and as soon as possible. You might end up applying there for further opportunities, so don’t do anything to tarnish the university’s opinion of you.


Being put on a wait list means you had strong enough credentials to be considered for admission, but there were more competitive applicants in that admissions round. There is still a chance you will be offered admission.

Students who were offered admission might decline their place, and you will want to be at the front of the queue. To do this, make sure you follow instructions on how to remain on the wait list. If this is a university you definitely want to attend, let the admissions office know you will enrol if offered a place, and inform them of any significant updates to your application. Be professional, positive and succinct in your communication.

Not accepted

The best advice is to not take it personally. Remember the admissions committee faces the difficult task of choosing a limited number of students from a very large applicant pool.

If you believe something major was missed or overlooked in your application, do ask about it. Otherwise, respond courteously and thank them for reviewing your application. You might apply to this university for further opportunities.