Deciding to attend graduate school is an impressive feat. It’s an immense decision since it will require much of your time, effort, and schedule. If you’ve ever wondered how applicants are chosen, there are a specific set of qualities academic advisors are looking for (and that goes beyond the test scores).
Applying for a graduate school is always a daunting one. Many might think it’s a privilege given to a selected few. Impressive on-paper credentials, high GPA scores, and having extensive experience could be some of the factors you’ve heard of. While a clearly defined academic feat is a worthwhile consideration, there are other qualities that interviewers are looking for in applicants going for a graduate program.
Pursuing a graduate program has its own unique set of challenges. You will even find yourself among the many with better credentials than yours. Faculty members browse through the applications and discuss which ones to consider for the program. However, there are five preliminary qualities advisors find in standout applicants: relational, passionate, academic compatibility, innovative, and worth the investment.
Professors pay high attention to the applicants’ relational ability with their peers and advisors. Compared with an undergraduate set-up, graduate students will be working closely with around 3 to 5 professors for 2 to 5 years. With this said, applicants should be able to blend well with the team throughout this duration.
Pursuing graduate study for the sake of adding another star to your resume is NOT the way to go! The admissions committee seeks genuinely interested individuals, and related experience in this field could be a good indicator. It’s also beneficial if an applicant had been part of a previous research project or had some internship experience. They could also ask about goals as to where the degree will be used after earning it as part of the evaluation.
Admissions officers look for candidates with an academic perspective in line with the program’s objectives and goals. Candidates may be asked about their plans with the program offered by the institution. The committee will likely walk the student through resources and tools available to them once they are accepted. According to these factors, tailoring letters should be in mind when writing your cover letters or essays.
They are interested in students who will endure the whole process. Getting an advanced degree is not just about the job you’re pursuing but also about giving the institution a good investment return. Advisors are looking to invest in students who have the desire to hone their expertise. Applicants should articulate in sharing their career trajectory and how to make the most of their time earning the degree.
Innovative students bringing original ideas in their field of interest have the potential to be chosen. Admissions officers look into the purpose statement for this, where applicants articulate their expected and current research scopes.
If you’re contemplating applying for graduate school, here are some tips to help you earn a spot in the program.
Table of Contents
- Be prompt in submitting your requirements.
- Improve your test scores.
- Have mentors write your letter of recommendation.
- Keep polishing your statement of purpose.
- Take the time to improve your resume.
- Create an impressive portfolio.
- Make a lasting impression during the interview.
- Learn what you must avoid.
- Make the most of your time.
- Look for a school profile that matches your profile
Be prompt in submitting your requirements.
Even if it’s just preparing for a few documents, procrastinating throughout your application could leave you out in the dust. Graduate school requires commitment—and that means sticking it out with deadlines.
Admissions officers, counselors, or advisors who will be doing the interview don’t have the luxury of waiting for applicants to submit last minute. Promptness on your end gives you an early head start.
Start with the easiest items on your list. Do an early request from your school to get your transcripts. Expect larger institutions to take time to process these documents. If you’ve earned your undergraduate degree for some time now before deciding to take on graduate school, it’s also best to start processing your transcripts earlier to avoid any delays. Or, if you’ve done your research and are eyeing potential institutions to enroll in, don’t wait for application periods to open up before requesting this. The sooner you have all your items on hand, the earlier you’ll be able to compile and send your application. Factor in the delivery time of your application requirements as part of your preparation.
As one of the most time-consuming documents to process, you might receive your transcripts in a sealed envelope. Once you open this envelope, these are not considered official anymore and will be rejected when you try to give it along with your application documents. To save time (and money), ask for two copies of your transcripts. Send one unopened copy along with your application form to the graduate school you’re applying for. You can open the extra set to scan and save a digital copy of these records for online applications.
One of the many challenges graduate students will face are the costs. Before applying to any institution, it’s best to save up for miscellaneous fees that come with the application. When you’re jotting down your expenses, make sure to spread a few dollars on printed transcripts. If you’ve earned your undergraduate degree for quite some time now, the school processing your official transcript might charge you roughly $10 to $20 per document, excluding the delivery fee. If you have more than one degree earned from different institutions, chances are your fees could add up more quickly. It’s best to tabulate all anticipated expenses to keep you moving according to your timeline.
Improve your test scores.
Standardized tests are essential aspects of any graduate school program. Planning can reduce the anxiety that comes with taking these tests.
Plan when to take the exam—and how many times you plan to take it. You might want to take the ‘one and done’ method, making it difficult to procrastinate. Remember that you’re losing time when you have to take another exam to nail that desired score. Do your best to set aside time for studying over the weekends, a day off from work, or a portion of your holiday break. When you plan your study schedule, you’d be able to work around a realistic timetable and avoid any burnouts. Take time to process the study materials and pace yourself devoid of cramming. If you have plans of taking another test, limit this to one to two sessions. The shorter the period, the less time you need to dwell on this part and move forward with other items off your list.
Enrolling in a test prep course could help you nail the ideal test score. However, if this is not doable at the moment, you can avail of free study resources online. Smart app phones also have study content you can run through for sample tests and other items to help you with your study. You can conveniently run through these digital apps in your free time and make the most of your studying during lunch breaks. You can ask your social circle or colleagues about the test preparation. Ask relevant questions to help you calibrate the timeline to get your application in order. Don’t hesitate to ask for support or tutoring (if possible). You could work out a deal for your services in exchange for tutoring to save money.
While some schools will not require any standardized tests, you can check their official website for a list of graduate school application requirements. Some universities might allow you to enroll as a part-time student and complete a few courses before taking the test.
Have mentors write your letter of recommendation.
Admissions officers will not only be looking into your transcripts; the letters of recommendation you sent through will also be used for evaluation.
During the academic year, professors are usually busy sorting out applications. Some professors procrastinate and tend to forget about these letter requests. When you act early, you have the advantage of securing a well-written letter of recommendation. Do not wait for the deadline to make the request. When your professors are under pressure, chances are your letter will sound rushed, unclear, and generic. Allow sufficient time for them to write these before sending them off to the institution you’re applying for. Remember that they’re doing you a favor, and writing a letter takes a big chunk of their time to accomplish their official responsibilities.
Choose someone who you got to work with closely. It could be that advisor that led the research project you became a part of. Look for mentors who helped you during your academic years, whether it’s for a dissertation in undergraduate school or an advisor who you got to work with well during an internship program you’ve been a part of. You’d want people to write about your work ethics and dedication to your craft in real-life settings.
You don’t ask for it outright without giving them direction and information about the application. Their willingness to do this task usually indicates that someone will spend time to write you a good one. If they happen to say ‘no’ to your request, accept it and move forward to other people from your list.
Consider how you’re going to approach them with this request. Email requests provide more flexibility to allow your professors time to think about it. It also wouldn’t place them in an awkward position if they decline your request. Sending them an email is also practical if you’ve just moved out to a different city or state. On the other hand, in-person requests provide formality and sincerity. You add a more personal touch when asking for it instead of risking having it buried under all their other emails and getting ignored completely. Plus, asking for it personally shows your intention of getting into graduate school.
Provide sufficient details of what they’re getting into. First, they needed to be informed of the application deadline. Let them know of the program’s details you’re planning to apply to so they can tailor the letter accordingly. Conveniently provide links or recommendation forms upon doing so. Mention the specific program you’re applying for so they can include this detail in their letter. Supplement this with essays or transcripts for reference if you believe this could add additional details to writing the letter.
Give them at least two months to write these recommendations. Creating a well-thought letter takes time and effort, giving them enough time to prevent it from sounding rushed and generic. They’ll be able to consider details from the program that they can ask from you for clarification. Not rushing them for this task shows you respect their time while in keeping with professionalism. It increases the likelihood of you getting another letter of recommendation from them in the future if you should take another program. Though it’s not always the case, you can ask for recommendations to every institution you plan to apply detailed in one email to keep a tab of the deadlines.
Keep polishing your statement of purpose.
The statement of purpose serves as a way for the admissions committee to know you. In writing one, keep in mind to be concise and clear with your narrative. If you’re going to discuss research ideas, highlight important details without derailing from the main point. While it could be tempting to divulge into more elaborate details, be prudent, and stick to the essentials. Address only the necessary details and focus on your contribution to the program.
Allow for some time to look into greater details of your prospective departments. Tailor your letter showing why you’re fit for their program. Write why their classes, research opportunities, facilities, research equipment, and faculty members suit your career options, experience, and goals. Add relevant experiences such as internships, volunteer work, research projects you’ve been a part of, and the thesis you’ve done for that particular niche. Ensure the reader fully comprehends what you’re bringing to the table that makes you unique from all the other candidates. Avoid using ‘gimmicky’ or generic details to keep their interest.
Don’t write this for the sake of pleasing the admissions officers. Be authentic and exemplify who you are personally. Changing your application to match the program’s profile will make it difficult for you to stand out. Don’t make outlandish reasons for applying for this program. Instead, show your interests and how being accepted into this program can help you achieve your goals.
Include in your letter the value their work brings to your journey in applying for graduate studies. Indicate why you want to study with them and why you want to be a part of their team. It would be beneficial to learn about the department’s values, past and current research interests, and values. Your application’s success will depend on your ability to work with them and other students that are part of the program.
A statement of purpose or personal statement must contain an interesting narrative with clear details. This is better to accomplish in writing shorter essays than long ones. Resist the temptation of detailing your personal history and experiences that made you choose this particular field. Make the committee see that getting an advanced degree can help you accomplish your goals. See that you include how the program can best benefit from what you bring to the table.
Take the time to improve your resume.
A graduate school resume is different from a work resume. Your application resume should include all your academic achievements. If you’ve accumulated professional experiences over time, this document should highlight more of your educational background. Aside from detailing your alma mater, diploma earned, and graduation period, admissions officers would be interested in knowing the awards you’ve earned that are relevant to your field of study. Adding other experiences complementing this pursuit would be beneficial as well. All this important information should only be detailed in two to four bullet points.
Volunteer work and internships are also appealing to admissions officers. These types of details show the pursuits you have that are beyond monetary reasons. Being a part of an organization that helps the community or getting experience through internship could speak of your initiative, discipline, and ability to work in a team. It’s also a good way to bring credibility to your profile by bridging your current specialization’s gap to the desired niche you’re going for. Details should focus on what you’ve done and not what it should say about you. Give them unbiased and objective information for them to draw their conclusions.
Half of what academia is all about teaching. Adding any assistantships you’ve done in the past draws their attention to your resume. Whether it’s an internship or volunteer work where you serve as the assistant teacher or main teacher, be sure to highlight it in this document.
An ideal graduate school resume should only be 1 to 2 pages long. It’s not a place to divulge into lengthy descriptions and fluff. Be meticulous in your descriptions. Convey only details that are straight to the point. While it is tempting to look into the Internet for ready templates, having generic terms like ‘detail-oriented’ in your resume could spell disaster for your application. Structure your resume using a header with your name, contact details, clear technical sections, bulleted descriptions, and your experiences and achievements in reverse chronological order.
Create an impressive portfolio.
The admissions committee won’t mind if you submit a web portfolio. Although it’s not mandatory, you could benefit from building a web portfolio for schools that prefer a digital output to a physical one. Furthermore, you can access this document easily should the opportunity come up. It also allows you to create and edit inputs. You could also add photos, links, and other details that are usually more time-consuming done through hard copy.
If you’re looking into a tech-based degree, having this kind of portfolio leaves a good impression on your application. If this is something you’re not familiar with, you can ask a friend to create a simple yet clear portfolio. Adding more images and graphics might work better with a few texts in between. The goal is to keep it clean and easy to navigate if they happen to browse through your profile.
Compared to creating a resume, a portfolio is something you need to think through. It’s a ‘snapshot’ of your accomplishments to ‘market’ yourself to the admissions officers. A portfolio may contain five years and more of your accomplishments, education, skills, and expertise. It’s good to organize, draft, and polish the information to create an impressive portfolio. Include paid and non-paid work, internship, volunteer activities, certificates of recognition, photographs of the event or classroom you teach in (for teaching assistantships) in this document.
Keep your title page short and easy to comprehend. The title page must have your name and a short biography. You can add links to your portfolio to redirect them to a handout-style page or PDF showing your works. Avoid overcrowding and show them only the most important (and relevant) information. Your goal is to catch the reader’s attention to see what you have to offer for the program.
If you have numerous skill sets, show in the topmost part the relevant ones for the program. Every institution has varying objectives, so your portfolio should be tailored according to what they’re looking for in a candidate. Be honest about your skills level to set expectations.
Make a lasting impression during the interview.
Most graduate schools will require an interview as part of the application process. It could be done as a one-on-one interview, a panel interview with 3 to 4 interviewers, or a group interview with other applicants. Some questions may be innocuous with an underlying meaning to them!
Here are some ways to bring you to the top of the list:
Honesty is still the best policy. It’s a given for interviewers to ask personal questions such as ‘tell me about yourself.’ Answering this ice breaker question the right way could land you a good spot in the program. One way to answer this appropriately is to give them a general overview of what you’re all about. Lay down only relevant skills set and education that the program might benefit from. They may also ask about personal experiences where you experienced shortcomings and how you overcame them. Give them a genuine answer structured positively.
Do not wait for the actual interview to practice. You should familiarize yourself with your application documents, such as your resume, written statement, and transcripts. Since these will serve as common knowledge for both parties, you should reiterate these in detail during the interview. Create a list of all the possible questions they could be asking from you. Practice answering these during downtime in school or at work. Practice in front of a mirror and work on your body language. Don’t memorize the outline but speak in such a way that the answer flows out naturally.
Whether it’s scheduled in another city or digitally done, you should dress the part. Your clothes will be the first thing they will notice the moment you come in. Wear business attire (business casual could be appropriate in some cases) for the interview. Dress the same way for webcam interviews and avoid any awkward instances where you need to get up and take a file from another room wearing your pajamas.
Learn what you must avoid.
Just as there are things you need to do, some actions could derail your chances of getting on that list.
Fill out the application form completely! An incomplete application form with missing items is different from leaving blank fields. It’s easy for the reader to make their assumptions should you leave them blank. If you encounter a question you are unsure of, make a note to explain your reason. Take into consideration that this serves as a preliminary tool for evaluation for them.
Never use abbreviations. Strong writing shows you’re a disciplined and organized individual. Write as coherently as possible to show that you’re a strong contender for the program. Any submitted content should be written in complete sentences devoid of any shorthand response to show professionalism. Treat this as you would treat the interview by answering in earnest and with intention. With limited space, take time to think through what you have to say concisely and effectively. Allow for some time to draft your answer and polish any grammar mistakes and incorrect spelling. Make room for improvements and treat this as a tool to market yourself without sounding ‘salesy.’
Maintain all the documents’ uniformity to give the reader a sense of continuity from one page to the other. This gives them the impression that you’ve thought the items through and organized them accordingly. It also prevents you from mismatched dates and unruly timelines. An excellent way to do this is to use headers and page numbers to keep a tab of sections of multiple pages.
Make the most of your time.
Prospective students don’t just apply out of whim. It’s likely that throughout your undergraduate program, you’ve decided to enroll in graduate school. Buff up your portfolio and resume before applying.
Start listing down potential schools that you’d want to apply for. Most schools have a form online that you can easily fill out and send through. You can also communicate with them through email to take out the hassle of time-consuming commutes. It’s ideal for giving yourself at least a year to work through your portfolio and resume. To start, give yourself sufficient time to study for standardized tests. Set a timeline for these tests and anticipate your threshold for the number of retakes you’re willing to make. Set deadlines for every step of the application preparations. During this time, you can also work on your assistantships (particularly teaching), volunteer work, and internships relevant to the program you’re applying for. Even without working credentials, your interest will show your dedication and commitment to honing your skills and knowledge through these activities.
Individuals who earned their undergraduate degrees for quite some time can still pursue higher education, such as a master’s or Ph.D. Many of the programs available today are designed for working adults with real-life experience to bring to the table. Pursuing a post-baccalaureate endeavor could still help you in honing your career path even if you have an average undergraduate career.
Look for a school profile that matches your profile
Every school is unique in its approach, style, goals, and mission. List the schools you’d like to apply for and learn more about their programs, faculty members, research endeavors, and resources. You can look into those with open house events where you can introduce yourself to the admissions officers. You can also reach out to any admissions staff and see if you can meet current students or have the staff answer your queries about the program. Some schools allow you to sit in class to get a sense of the setting. If you’re busy, you can communicate with the admissions officer your queries and learn whether your credentials and experience fit the program.
If you decide to reach out to them, make sure your queries are relevant. Avoid any questions that can easily be searched through their website. During an open house event, ask only a few questions and be remembered as a promising student.