Applying 411

Applying to graduate school during COVID-19

Update on Emory Operations

The Emory University community has taken critical steps over the past few years to prepare for a safe and healthy campus environment and has fully transition from crisis operations. Currently, the graduate program – from admissions forward – is operating fully in-person. Emory Forward continues to update our community on measures being taken to ensure public safety and health. We are leaving this article intact as it was first published in 2020 in hopes it will provide a useful reference for interpreting changes that may occur due to external events.

What do I need to know about applying to graduate school during COVID-19?

There’s good news about applying to graduate school during a global pandemic. If you’re reading this series, you are already doing the main thing you need to do to be successful this year or any year. Informing yourself about the process of applying to graduate school, including personal goal setting and understanding your own motivations for pursuing grad school, is more important than ever before.

Every school is handling the impact of COVID-19 differently and you will need to do your research to determine how admissions policies and processes might have changed. Additionally, you will need to set your own personal boundaries related to what you need to live and work safely in an academic community during a pandemic.

As always, what matters to you will be unique to your situation. Some COVID-19 specific issues you may wish to consider include:

  • What is the operational density of the campus? Are classes and research happening online, in-person, or via a hybrid model?
  • If I have teaching responsibilities, will I be required to teach in person?
  • Has the academic calendar been adjusted to account for COVID-19?
  • Does the campus have a mask policy? A testing policy?

What specific changes might occur in graduate admissions due to COVID-19?

In regard to admissions, specifically, the most common changes to expect are probably:

  • limits or bans on in-person events, including recruitment weekends
  • waivers for testing requirements, especially the GRE, in light of testing center closures

More broadly, there are some trends that we might expect to see in graduate education related to the financial pressures of the pandemic based on historical information about how graduate education responded to the financial pressures of the recession in the mid-2000s, notably:

  • less available spots in some graduate programs at universities dealing with pandemic-related financial challenges (decreased enrollment, testing costs, etc.)
  • a possible uptick in total applications for available spots in graduate programs due to applicants seeking additional training in light of a challenging job market/economy

At Emory, we are not immune to these challenges, although we are also working proactively to address them. Here are some specifics:

  • We have accepted deferrals from a handful of candidates who were admitted to our graduate program for entry in Fall 2020 and were unable to obtain visas and/or travel safely to Emory to start school. This may slightly reduce the number of available spots for graduate students applying to enter our program in Fall 2021. The good news is, our faculty had a strong year–cumulatively, we received $17.6 million in external research funding in our most recent fiscal year, an increase of over $5 million over the previous year. Additionally, Emory’s provost has shown strong support of the Laney Graduate School by providing funding to ensure that our already competitive stipend would see an expected cost-of-living increase from $31,000 to $31,775. We expect our program to continue to grow!
  • We generally receive 200-400 applications each year for spots in our graduate program. While application numbers fluctuate, applicants are always guaranteed to receive a whole file review of their materials. We do not “weed out” applicants based on any one factor. That might mean more work for us in a busy application year, but it’s worth it for the opportunity to fully consider how each applicant might be successful at Emory.

The above bullet points are an example of the kind of information you should expect to be available to you from any graduate program of interest. What are their admissions policies? What do they expect from applicants? What financial support is available? It’s more important than ever to consider your goals and needs and how specific graduate programs can help you to meet them.

How do I find out the answers to my questions about COVID-19?

Most schools will have a dedicated area on their main website discussing COVID-19 information. If you’ve already read our article about the differences between applying to college and applying to graduate school, you know that graduate programs tend to operate with more autonomy than undergraduate majors, setting their own goals for graduate training. Because of this, it’s important to understand that university-level policies may be interpreted differently for graduate scholars. At Emory this fall, a very limited number of undergraduates have been approved to study on campus. However, graduate students are permitted to conduct research in their labs based on a university-approved schedule that helps to cap the number of people in a lab at any given time to allow for social distancing. Graduate classes are online to further limit exposure and TA duties are being conducted online. At schools, like Emory, that have a graduate school separate from the undergraduate college, be sure to familiarize yourself with graduate-specific policies as well as any department-specific policies.

What about standardized testing?

As mentioned above, a common change to the application process this year is that many schools that have previously resisted joining “GRExit” are dropping some or all standardized testing requirements to make it easier for applicants to apply despite testing center closures related to the pandemic. Emory Chemistry has been a proud participant in GRExit for three full application cycles. If more schools make their application process less biased by dropping the GRE this year, that is a win for the discipline of chemistry! Applicants should focus on the application materials that a school does require as these will be the tools at your disposal to tell the best possible story about your interest in and preparation for graduate school.

What if a school does require a standardized test? (At Emory, we still require either the TOEFL or IELTS for students who have less than one year of experience studying in an English-speaking country.) Plan ahead as far as possible regarding testing. Some testing companies are offering testing opportunities that have been adjusted to allow for social distancing or remote options.

If you are having trouble accessing a test even after researching the availability via the testing company, reach out to the program in question and let them know about your situation. Often, programs can work with you to waive a requirement or to offer accessible alternatives. If you are applying to Emory and experiencing challenges with required language testing, you can email us at

Are schools waiving application fees due to COVID-19?

Some schools may provide more generous application fee waivers this year. Currently, we are not aware of a comprehensive list of blanket fee waivers. We will update this post if one becomes available. Even before COVID-19, it was common for schools, including Emory, to offer fee waivers in cases of financial hardship and for students attending specific programs that prepare them for graduate school, such as specific national training conferences and school-specific events. In light of the financial uncertainty related to COVID, schools seem, anecdotally, to be more proactive in providing information about existing fee waivers. See our post on the cost of applying to graduate school for more information about fee waivers.

Will schools be accepting fewer students this year due to COVID-19?

Yes. No. Maybe.

That’s the answer. It really depends on the school. And this year, as in any year, other major factors influence the number of applicants who are offered positions, including faculty need, funding levels (university-wide and in individual groups), class sizes in recent years, etc. Some schools, including Emory, offered a highly flexible deferral policy in 2020 due to visa/travel issues related to COVID-19. In Emory’s case, this means that we are committed to a small number of students who will start their work next year. In any given year, we accept students with an eye towards yielding a class of around 30.

What else do I need to know?

It is very easy to get caught up in the “what-ifs” when you are applying to graduate school. The only aspect of the process you can definitely control are your own choices. You can’t go back in time and get a different grade in Orgo. You can’t control what is written in your reference letters. You can’t read the mind of the admissions committee. This year, you also cannot fully control or predict the impact of the pandemic on your application process.

Focus on providing clear and complete information in your application. At Emory, you are guaranteed a whole file review by our admissions committee. We will take the pandemic into account if you choose to share with us ways in which it has affected your journey prior to graduate school. It will not be a surprise to the committee that applicants are affected by this global event. Our commitment to a transparent and equitable application process and to supporting the students we ultimately admit to our program has not changed.

The bottom line

Like many things during this pandemic, a lot has changed but a lot has stayed the same. If graduate school is right for you, it is not necessarily the case that the impact of the pandemic will substantially change your path. Inform yourself about what YOU need to succeed and what the schools you are applying to offer and expect. We at Emory wish you every success.

Also new in Applying 411: Goal setting for graduate school