Graduate School Application Process: From Start to Finish

Application Process

The application process combines a mixture of reflection about what you want out of your pursuit of a graduate degree in history and a preliminary effort to identify schools and faculty that can help you achieve those goals.



The reflection stage is crucial in helping you think about what kinds of programs and environments best suit your interests and goals.  Answering these questions will help you narrow your list of schools to apply to as well as help you prepare a stronger application.

Questions to think about:
  • Why do I wish to pursue an advanced degree in history?
  • What do I want to study?
  • What kind of additional preparation might I need before starting a program (e.g. intensive language study, experience living overseas, etc.)?
  • What might I want to do when I graduate? 
  • Where do I want to live for the next 2 years for an MA and/or 5-8 years for PhD while I pursue my degree?
  • How comfortable am I pursuing a highly independent process that can be quite solitary?
  • What characteristics am I looking for in program? In an advisor
  • What does the job market look like? What are the employment outlooks in my field of interest?

Initial Research on Schools

The first place to start is to consult with professors at your undergraduate institution; they can help suggest programs that would be appropriate. Then search the AHA’s database and carefully review history department web sites of schools to which you think you might apply. Consultation of these sites will enable you to get a sense of program basics, degree requirements, the interests of faculty and current graduate students, admission requirements, and application procedures. Not all sites will be equally informative, but it is important to try to cull as much information from them as you can. At this early phase, it is particularly important to pay attention to faculty profiles. The faculty, and especially your advisor, have an enormous impact on your professional training so the importance of finding someone appropriate to work with cannot be emphasized too strongly. Most faculty members only accept students whose interests are relatively close to their general area of interest. Take some time to read something written by your potential advisor so that you can articulate in your correspondence and application why you think your intellectual interests are a good match for this program and advisor. It is advised that you write to a potential advisor before you apply. Describe something about yourself and your research interests and inquire politely whether he or she might be willing to supervise a dissertation in the subject (but take care not to be too wedded to a specific question or approach because professors want to know that you are open to learning more). Contacting your potential mentor gives them an opportunity to tell you if they are over committed supervising other dissertations, if they are planning an extended sabbatical, or perhaps that they are planning to retire. Things to look for when researching schools:

Program Basics
  • What is the program's mission statement and/or list of goals?
  • Does the department list their specific program focus and training philosophy?
  • What makes the program distinctive? Is it a specialized course of study, a particular research focus, or perhaps a description of unique opportunities and/or priorities that make the program stand out?
  • What kinds of classes are offered? [If this information is not available on the departmental web site, check the course catalog and/or schedule of classes on the main web site]
  • Does the university have several faculty members who work in my field in history and/or across related disciplines?
  • What is the school’s reputation in your subfield?
  • Does the program offer a range of classes in your area of interest?
  • How many students are enrolled in the program?
  • How many new students are admitted to the Ph.D. program each year?
  • How many are admitted to the M.A. Program?
  • Does the department maintain any institutionalized outlets for extracurricular intellectual engagement? Is there a regular program of guest lectures, student-faculty seminars, discussion groups, film series, or student colloquia?
  • What kind of funding options does the university provide? And how many years is funding generally guaranteed for?
  • What kind of jobs do recent grads of the program get hired for?
Degree Requirements
  • What are the requirements for completing the program?
  • What are the foreign language expectations and how are they to be fulfilled?
  • What are the examination and dissertation procedures?
  • How long does it typically take students to complete the program?
  • What are the costs of tuition and fees? Housing and other living expenses (including medical insurance)?
  • What, if any, funding packages are offered?
  • Does the university offer room and board options for graduate students?
  • Look for information about funding for research related travel, conference participation, or specialized training in languages, statistical analysis, or computer applications.
Admission Requirements
  • Look for information on required transcripts, Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores, and Recommendation Letters.
  • What is the application deadline and fee?
What are graduate programs looking for in candidates?

There's no single, simple answer to this question. Some factors that enter into the admission considerations include:

  • Intellectual flexibility: Take care not to be too wedded to a specific question or approach-as teachers, they want to know you are still open to learning more.
  • Are you a good fit? Remember that selection committees are not just evaluating your potential. They also want to be sure that they have the intellectual resources to help you succeed.
  • Will your chosen advisor(s) be available? Your potential mentor may be overcommitted supervising other dissertations, planning an extended sabbatical, or preparing to retire.

Next: Decision Process

Updated by Elise S. Lipkowitz, chair of the AHA’s Committee for Graduate Students, 11/2006