Thinking about grad school?

Get started early and don’t underestimate the amount of research and preparation you will need to put in a competitive application!

Prof. Katie Plaisance has compiled useful information if you're considering graduate school, law school, or medical school, or other professional post-grad programs, including:

In addition, the Department offers a workshop for KI students every fall addressing considerations for whether and where to apply to grad school, putting together your application materials, identifying funding opportunities, and more! (This workshop is announced via email to fourth- and fifth-year KI students.)

Here's a useful article from Psychology Today: Kisses of Death DON’T Do This in Your Graduate School Applications

Researching programs and deadlines

September and October is time of year when those of you who are thinking about applying to graduate school need to be working on your applications, including: requesting your University of Waterloo transcript, asking for letters of recommendation, and checking deadlines for scholarships.

You should do your own research into what is required for these applications and when they’re due. Keep in mind that oftentimes, the university (or program through which you'll be ranked) has an internal deadline that is much earlier than the deadline the funding institution.

For example, Vanier Scholarships are usually due late October/early November, but Waterloo’s firm deadline for applications is typically 6 weeks earlier (this is because Waterloo does an internal competition to decide which applications they’d like to nominate).

You also may want to apply for tri-agency funding:

  • SSHRC for the humanities and social sciences
  • NSERC for math, science, and engineering
  • CIHR for any research that’s related to health issues

There’s also an Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS) if you’re applying to universities in Ontario.

Find more information about these competitions on the Waterloo Graduate Studies external awards web page.

Again, these competitions often have internal deadlines.

Most students at Waterloo apply through their own program, but given that there isn’t really a graduate program in line with KI (as there is with biology, philosophy, sociology, etc.), we ask that KI students apply through the program at Waterloo that’s in line with the graduate programs they’ll be applying to (so, for example, if you’re primarily applying to Masters programs in environmental studies, you’ll probably want to go through SERS). Be sure to contact the administrative coordinator (e.g., the graduate officer) of that program to find out if they have an internal deadline.

Deadlines and application procedures vary widely depending on i) the scholarship agency (federal NSERC/SSHRC/CIHR, provincial, or non-governmental), ii) the level (Masters or Doctoral), and iii) whether there is an internal competition or not. E.g., application deadlines can range from mid-September to mid-January depending on the scholarship and agency.

Applications are made through Waterloo for most scholarships, and the internal deadline can be months ahead of the public agency deadline.

more information:

Note that “doctoral awards” are for students who are applying directly to PhD programs. (In the U.S., it’s common in the humanities and some social science disciplines to apply directly to a PhD program and get a Masters along the way, while in Canada, it’s more common to get a Masters first, and then apply to a PhD program — assuming, of course, one is interested in a PhD!)

Asking for a letter of recommendation

When you apply to graduate school or for funding opportunities, you’ll likely need three or four letters of recommendation from professors and/or employers. When you contact potential letter writers, make it clear early in your email (1) what you’re asking for and (2) when the deadline(s) is/are. If you’re applying to multiple programs or for multiple scholarships, let them know when the earliest deadline is.

I prefer to be contacted at least two weeks (if not a month) before the earliest deadline, and if there are more than three places (schools or scholarship competitions) the student is applying to, I like to have a spreadsheet with the universities/programs, deadlines, what is required from my letter, where to send it, etc.

I also appreciate when students tell me what their top choices are (so I can put a bit more time into those letters) and what they’d like me to focus on in the letter (e.g., writing ability, critical thinking skills, senior thesis project, etc.). Along with that, it’s helpful to know who else will be writing letters supporting the students' application package and what they’ll be emphasizing.

University Affairs has a helpful article in their career advice section: How to ask for a reference letter

The Waterloo Graduate Studies scholarship competition resources has helpful links to information sessions and resources to help you prepare your application.

Katie’s tips for asking for letters of recommendation:

Whom to ask and when:

  • Think carefully about whom to ask:
    • How well do they know you and how up-to-date is your knowledge?
    • How well did you do in their course(s) or as their TA/RA?
    • Will their reputation carry weight in your application?
      • Best to ask someone with a PhD (tenured, then tenure track)
      • Try to avoid adjunct or graduate student instructors – not only will their recommendation carry less weight (we sign our letters with our title), but they usually don’t have service requirements, so writing letters is not part of their job.
  • Create a list of 5-6 letter writers, in order of preference
    • It’s okay to ask for more than you need if you’re going to use different letters for different applications (but do this sparingly)
  • You should try to ask for a letter at least one month in advance, but absolutely no less than two weeks in advance

Crafting your request:

  • Use your University of Waterloo email address
  • State your business in the subject line (e.g., “request for a letter of recommendation”)
  • Ask, don’t tell
    • Ask if they can write you a strong letter of recommendation
    • Give them an opportunity to say no, indicating that you understand they’re very busy and may not have time to write you a letter
    • Keep in mind that professors are incredibly busy people; writing letters of recommendation is a part of our job, but we aren’t required to write a letter for everyone who asks for one, and we’re more likely to say yes and write a strong letter if a student asks in a respectful, understanding way and provides us with all the necessary info
  • Provide all the necessary information (see below)
  • I’d recommend keeping it short and signing it, then putting all the info below that; that way, it’s a short request letter with all the necessary information available
  • Outline the email with headings so the information is easy to find, and add a list of attachments you’ve provided (and make sure you use obvious electronic titles for them)

What to include – information:

  • Request for a letter, including what it is for (grad school application, scholarship application, etc.)
  • A reminder as to what course(s) you took with the professor, if applicable
  • When it is due – be very clear about this (online due date vs. when it needs to be received by the institution or postmarked); check to see if the deadline for letters is different than for your own application materials
  • What the submission process is (online, by email, by post), and any links
  • Any application forms that the referees have to fill out (sometimes this is in addition to a letter), and what the questions are if it’s an online form
  • Any other information that you think is useful (see below)
  • A note that you’ll send out a friendly reminder a few days in advance, unless they’d prefer that you not do so

What to include – attachments:

  • Any forms the referee will need to fill out; please fill in any information about yourself, and as much as the instructor’s information as you know
  • Current CV
  • Unofficial transcripts
  • A draft of your statement of interest (if applicable)
  • A draft of any other form/proposal, etc.
  • Writing sample (if applicable)

I’d also recommend:

  • If applying to several schools, identify your top two or three choices and communicate them to your letter writers
  • If applying to several schools, attach a spreadsheet of information (program, due date, etc.)
  • Let them know who else you have asked for a letter
  • Let them know what you’d like them to focus on in the letter
  • Highlight any pertinent accomplishments, and give them some reminders as to which courses you took with them and how you did in their course
  • Include a copy of your best work that you did for that instructor (preferably a graded paper or assignment with instructor grade and comments on it)
  • Consider adding a brief note/narrative about a great moment for you in the course, or a particularly pertinent learning experience
  • Send a gentle reminder a few days in advance of the due date

About half of KI grads pursue post-graduate studies in both specialized disciplines and more interdisciplinary areas.

Check out examples of KI alumni at grad school