Application Components

Many applications for graduate programs are accomplished on-line. You can register at the institutions to view or print the application forms. Components of an application to a graduate program in the arts and sciences include:

Personal statement. Describing academic interests and independent scholarly work, the personal statement serves as an intellectual autobiography. The applicant is expected to address his or her specific intellectual interest within a field, to describe how that interest developed and how it has been sustained with a description of any research or special study already accomplished. The applicant's career goals need to be included in this statement which must be well written. Because it will be read and evaluated by faculty within a discipline, it must be focused in that area. All specific questions and issues stated in the application materials must also be addressed. The personal statement is not an appropriate place to list extracurricular activities unrelated to the applicant’s intellectual pursuits. Graduate programs in the arts and sciences are generally less interested in such information although it is perfectly acceptable to give the statement some personality by including individual interests so long as they are not emphasized. A good idea is to ask a faculty mentor, one who has advised you about graduate school throughout the process, to read and comment on the statement.

Official transcripts. Transcripts present a complete academic record of enrollments and performance. DukeHub has a link to facilitate your request to the registrar's office to mail your Duke transcript to admissions offices. There is no cost for this service because Duke students pay a one-time transcript fee at the time of matriculation. Most admissions processes require that you provide transcripts for all college course work, no matter where it was completed. Typically, official transcripts are required which means you must make the request to the institution’s registrar to send the document directly. Plan ahead since most university registrar offices do not respond to requests as quickly as the Duke Registrar which often sends transcripts within 24 hours of receiving a request.

Recommendations. Typically three letters of recommendation from faculty documenting and evaluating the candidate’s academic ability and research performance are required. Letters from faculty must be detailed and convincing, evaluating the applicant’s academic ability and promise for original scholarly work in the chosen field of study. These abilities are difficult, actually impossible, to judge from performance in large survey courses. Authors of recommendations are expected to know the applicant’s work and to provide an evaluation of it in comparison with other students, including their own graduate students. Typically written by professors of seminars, small lecture courses, and independent research experiences (whether or not for academic credit), the letters might describe specific term papers, class debates, and/or research results. It should be obvious from the above that applicants to graduate school should make it a point to enroll in small classes in their major or related area and to maintain intellectual discourse with professors outside of class.

Graduate Record Examination scores. GREs are discussed below.

Additional items. Writing samples may be required by graduate programs in the humanities and social sciences, but do not send such materials unless specifically requested.

Communicating with Prospective Graduate Programs and Faculty. It is perfectly acceptable to write to professors you are considering as graduate advisors. In some cases, this is the only way you will learn whether that individual is planning a location change that might make you alter your application plans. Emailing is acceptable if you are certain that the recipient uses email (not everyone does). Include information on your background and training so the professor can determine whether your interests are suited to his or her current research thrusts. Such a communication should include more intellectual ideas than a list of extracurricular activities. Your message will probably be added to your admissions file and will show that you are more than mildly interested in that department’s program.

Selecting a Graduate Program

Choosing a graduate program goes well beyond knowledge of the institution; students should seek departments and programs with faculty who are good matches with their intellectual objectives and who represent good prospects for advising on a suitable doctoral thesis project. If you have selected or been assigned to a major advisor who contributes regularly to the specific field of study you have selected, you are very fortunate since this person will be an excellent source of advice about the best graduate programs for you. You should also seek a diversity of opinions from your professors and graduate student acquaintances. Talk with as many people as possible to learn the current status of the programs of interest to you, and be certain that there are faculty in those programs whose research interests match yours.

Departments and programs at Duke have named a faculty member to serve as a Ph.D. advisor for Duke undergraduates who are interested in pursuing an advanced degree within the broad subject area of the major. Advisors’ and professors’ guidance about selecting specific graduate programs can be supplemented with information from guides and directories, which are widely available online. Examples include:

Graduate Record Examination

Scores from the GRE General Test are required elements for most applications to graduate programs in the arts and sciences as well as to many scholarship and fellowship programs. The results of the GRE General Test carry great weight with Ph.D. programs because they help to evaluate one’s overall promise as a graduate student. Senior applicants should schedule the GRE during the summer before or during the fall of their senior year. Spring testing dates are most often used by seniors who plan to apply after receiving their baccalaureate degrees and who should take the test while their skills and knowledge are still “fresh”.

The General Test is composed of three sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing. In addition, certain graduate programs require scores from a GRE Subject Test, intended to assess an applicant’s background in topics pertinent to the prospective study area. These tests are offered in eight disciplines: Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology; Biology; Chemistry; Computer Science; Literature in English; Mathematics; Physics; and Psychology.

GRE Prep Guide

The GRE General Test

Note that the General GRE test is not administered as a paper and pencil test. It is a computer based, individually administered and individually scheduled examination. (Subject Tests, however, will be administered two or three times each year by paper and pencil until further notice.) The centers fill to capacity quite quickly, thus, you should register early rather than using the GRE registration deadlines as a guide if you wish to test in the Triangle area of North Carolina. Registration for the GRE is on-line for those paying the test fee by credit card and by mail for those paying the test fee by check. See the deadlines and instructions at where students may also register. Duke students may schedule their GRE General Test in Durham or another convenient site as explained on the GRE web site or in the registration materials. The local testing center is at North Carolina Central University at the following address: 1801 Fayetteville St., University Testing Center, C-304 LT Walker Complex, Durham, North Carolina 27707; (919) 530-7490.

The GRE General Test is designed to measure basic skills needed for advanced study in a research oriented discipline. A full description of the content and format of these sections is beyond the scope of this handbook, but students may learn about them and the skills they assess from the GRE Web site.

Prospective graduate school applicants should stay up to date with changes in the general GRE test format. The Educational Testing Service has recently implemented several new question formats. These are described in detail on the GRE website.

Subject Tests

GRE subject tests are intended to assess an applicant’s background in topics pertinent to the prospective study area and should reflect the level of preparation of the applicant in the discipline. Performance on the subject test may be weighted less than that on the general GRE if it can be determined that any deficiencies can be addressed with course work after entering graduate school. Check carefully to determine whether the program's application requirements will be met with scores from the General Test alone or whether scores from a Subject test are needed as well. Again, these tests are offered in eight disciplines: Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology; Biology; Chemistry; Computer Science; Literature in English; Mathematics; Physics; and Psychology.

Timeline: Planning Ahead

First Year

  • Students who expect to attend graduate school should seriously consider declaring their majors before or early in their sophomore year so that they may receive the benefit of advice within their major departments as early as possible.
  • Explore research opportunities with faculty, especially for the summer; summer programs have application deadlines beginning in January.

Sophomore Year

  • If not done previously, declare your major in the fall.
  • Collect information about graduate school and the graduate school experience. Discuss your interest in graduate study with your major advisor and/or with the Ph.D. advisor in the department or area of interest; seek help planning electives and skills courses to meet the expectations of graduate programs for breadth and depth of study.
  • Discuss the graduate school experience with your graduate teaching assistants and other graduate students in the department.
  • Look for opportunities to help with research projects on campus and/or during the summer. Stay up to date with opportunities announced by the Undergraduate Research Support Office.

Junior Year

  • This is a good time to familiarize yourself with general features of PhD programs, statistics on admission and degree completion, etc. Duke's Graduate School maintains a web site with statistics for the institution and individual departments.
  • Discuss prospective graduate programs with your faculty advisor and the Ph.D. advisor in your department. Your choices should be guided by the vigor of the prospective graduate program at an institution, the intellectual strength of its faculty and the liklihood of your identifying an appropriate doctoral mentor there.
  • If you will be applying for national/international graduate fellowships that require an institutional endorsement (e.g., Rhodes, Marshall, Fulbright), register your intention with the Office of University Scholars and Fellows, and attend the spring information meeting. The deadlines for these and national fellowships (e.g., NSF) will need to be integrated into your calendar for applications for admission.
  • Become familiar with the application process for each school of interest. Visit their web sites, register as a prospective applicant and view or download the applications forms. You do not need to complete the forms at the time of registration.
  • Summer.  To ensure your preferred testing date and location for the General Test, register for an individual appointment well before the publicized registration deadline. Subject Tests, if needed, will be offered on two designated Saturdays in the fall. If you will be taking a Subject Test, register as early as possible if the preferred testing site is in the Triangle area. Duke is not a GRE testing site. 

Timeline: the Application Year


  • Finalize the list of programs to which you will apply. Make sure you have established an account at each school that uses an on-line application. (Important note: do not establish multiple accounts for any application since this can and has resulted in mismatched recommendations when letters are electronically submitted.)
  • If not done earlier, register for GRE testing.
  • Select the individuals you will ask for recommendations and visit each one to make your request and to discuss your plans. If the schools give a choice, ask whether the recommender prefers paper or electronic format for submitting recommendations, and let him or her know you will be returning later in the fall with more information.  (If you will be applying for national scholarships such as the Marshall and Rhodes, you will be asking for recommendations during the summer.)
  • Begin drafting your personal statement. The final document should be the core of your submission for each application but will need slight modification for each program.


  • Deliver recommendation details/forms to each of your recommenders noting deadlines for their attention.
  • Complete the biographical information section for each application and upload your personal statement.
  • Submit requests for transcripts to the Registrar’s Office at each undergraduate school at which you have taken courses.
  • Stay alert for communications and/or use the on-line checklist to confirm that documents have been received.

Early December

  • Continue to check on each institution’s application web page to make sure your applications have been completed.
  • Follow up with recommenders and registrar offices as needed.

February and March

  • Respond to communications from the admissions offices and departments.
  • Attend recruiting events if offered an invitation. 


Applicants are typically notified of admission and fellowship decisions in February, March or April through an electronic communication. April 15 is the common date to notify the schools about your decision unless your notification comes after that time.


With respect to admissions interviews, doctoral graduate programs fall somewhat between medical schools that require formal interviews of their candidates and law schools that have no interview component at all.   

Rather than requiring interviews as part of admissions decisions by doctoral programs, research intensive universities are much more likely to hold recruiting weekends for candidates who have been or are likely to be admitted. It the recruiting event is held prior to final decisions, an applicant's behavior can influence the outcome, but the true intention of the department is to present and emphasize the intellectual strengths of its faculty and quality of resources, as well as to give applicants an impression of its academic and social environment. The weekend will include social events, presentations of research and the opportunity to speak with multiple faculty. Your goal at such a weekend is to confirm the perceptions that led you to apply to the department, to establish contacts with current graduate students for later assistance with questions and to make yourself known to and to assess your prospective doctoral thesis advisors. You should be prepared to have natural conversations about your undergraduate academic experience as well as the successes and/or frustrations of your individual research and writing projects and to convey a sense of the breadth of your training and experience in the field.

Applicants and prospective applicants for admission to Ph.D. programs are generally welcome to arrange their own visits to the department and to schedule an appointment with one or more prospective faculty mentors. You might make such visits early enough to inform your decision making about where to apply. Note that undergraduates who travel to professional society meetings to present papers or posters have an opportunity to meet faculty from other institutions, a perfect time to discuss their interest in those programs.

Whether you plan your own trip to visit a graduate program or are invited to a weekend arranged for applicants, you should know that such events are much less formal than interviews for professional schools or for employment. The dress code for campus visits is upper end of everyday college attire - neat pants/skirt and shirt/sweater, no suits. The graduate teaching assistants in related Duke departments provide good models for expected dress. However, if you are invited for an interview for a distinguished scholarship or a combined degree program, consider it to be more formal, probably requiring business dress.