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How to Create a Standout Graduate School Application Top Do’s & Don’ts for a Killer App

What makes a strong, memorable graduate school application? Sure, a solid GPA and high test scores are helpful, but they constitute only a small part of the picture. This guide covers the essential components of the graduate school application and what it takes to create a stellar package that stands out in the crowd. In addition to covering some of the typical elements of the process, this guide also explains why some of the most often overlooked aspects of the graduate school application are actually the most important. Get beyond worrying about test scores and statistics and learn how to compile a thoughtful, honest, and effective application that showcases your strengths while saving you time and money in the process.

Meet the Expert

Elizabeth Kane Associate Vice President

written by

What Are Grad Schools Looking for in Applicants?

Applying to graduate school can be a daunting task. Many worry about on-paper credentials such as test scores, GPAs, and awards. While those are certainly important details, many graduate schools prefer applicants who have relevant experience, clearly defined academic and professional goals, and a track record of showing genuine interest in their chosen field. The list below highlights five characteristics that graduate schools typically look for in an applicant.

  • Personability

    The relationship between a graduate student and their professors is different than what most students experience as undergraduates. Graduate students work closer with faculty members and often have 3-5 professors in their inner circle who serve on their research, thesis or dissertation committees over the course of 2-5 years. That said, professors in your prospective department will want to see that they will be able to work well with incoming students should they accept them.

  • Academic Compatibility

    Since graduate-level work is highly specialized, prospective grad students should seek out schools, departments, and professors with similar objectives and goals. Admissions committees will assess your academic interests and plans in relation to what the department has to offer. Committees also want to ensure that you understand the resources and tools that would be available to you as a student. This is why, in part, prospective students must tailor their cover letters or essays for each school to which they apply.

  • Original Thoughts

    Admissions committees highly value students who can develop and articulate original ideas. In most statements of purpose, applicants are asked to outline their current or expected research interests. This gives you a chance to show off your original ideas in concise, thoughtful ways. These essays are typically short, so you'll need to be succinct and clear about your research interests while also being original and genuine.

  • Investment in the Process

    Graduate admissions committees want to know if you are invested in the process of earning an advanced degree, not just the job you hope to get after graduating. Because earning a graduate degree is such a major time investment, departments want students who are genuinely interested in expanding their knowledge and exploring important relevant research topics. While it is essential to articulate your career goals and desired trajectory, do not overlook the time you will spend at the school earning the degree.

  • Passion

    Similar to the above, admissions committees want to see that applicants are passionate about and genuinely interested in the field they are planning to study. Have you been working in this field for some time already? Have you made contributions to the field through previous research projects or work experience? Do you have a clear idea of what you will do with the degree after graduating? Those are the kinds of details grad schools want to see. This shows you have the motivation and drive necessary to be a successful student.

What Are the Requirements for a Grad School Application?

The section below focuses on common components required in the typical graduate school application. However, keep in mind this list may look differently depending on the school or department to which you choose to apply so always make sure to read through individual school requirements carefully. As you work through this list of requirements, also keep the five characteristics discussed in the previous section in mind — those characteristics should be evident in each part of your application package.

  • Application and Fee

    In some cases, applicants may be required to submit two applications — one for the school itself and another for the specific graduate program or department. Most department's websites have a section for prospective students. There you can find all of the application requirements and links to pertinent information. The department's page should articulate whether you must submit a separate application to the school itself or if the departmental application only will suffice. If any of the application information is unclear online, contact the department directly to ensure you have accurate information before you start working on things or send anything in.

    In addition to the application, there’s typically a one-time fee. Application fees vary but are often in the $50-150 range. Certain applicants, however, may be eligible for a fee waiver. To apply for a waiver, you may have to contact the department or bursar's office. To qualify for a waiver, applicants usually need to demonstrate financial need, which sometimes includes unemployment verification, receipt of a previous GRE fee waiver, or other forms of financial hardship.

  • Official Transcripts

    Graduate schools often require official transcripts from your undergraduate program(s) and, if applicable, any graduate work you have completed. Be sure to collect transcripts from all previously attended schools early on so that the documents are ready by the application deadline. It is best for admissions committees to have a full, official record of your academic history, including course titles. The documents should also show your GPA at each school. Some graduate schools require that your transcripts be sent directly from your undergraduate institution. In these cases, be sure that you give your school enough time to process your transcript request. Your application may be considered "incomplete" if your transcripts do not arrive by the specified deadline.

  • Test Scores

    Depending on the program, you may have to submit standardized test scores for exams such as the GRE, GMAT or MCAT. According to the Educational Testing Service, the average score on the GRE is about 150 on verbal, 152.6 on quantitative and a 3.5 on analytical writing. On the GMAT, which is the common exam for business school applicants, the average score is 561.27. For the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, a perfect score is 528. The average score for students admitted to medical programs during 2017-2018 was between 510-511.

    Most students prefer to take their standardized exams at least two months before their application deadline. This gives them a little buffer time to retake the exam if they are not satisfied with their score.

  • Letters of Recommendation

    You should obtain letters of recommendation from professors, academic advisors, or any person you worked with in an academic or professional capacity that can speak to your likelihood of success as a graduate student. Avoid asking for letters from family and friends. The most effective letters come from professors with whom you have worked, particularly those who are widely known in their field. The content and length of these letters is up to your recommenders. Should they ask you what the letter should contain or how long it should be, a concise 1-2 page letter that articulates your admirable personal traits and academic abilities is ideal. Most schools require students to submit 3-4 letters of recommendation. You should give your recommenders enough time to write a thoughtful letter without worrying about a deadline. If possible, give them two months or more of lead time before the application is due. After all, they are doing you a favor so you will want to make the process as convenient as possible for them.

  • Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose

    These 1-2 page documents are arguably the most important parts of the graduate school application. Schools rarely ask for applicants to submit both a personal statement and a statement of purpose. The necessary content for each of these documents is similar, but there are subtle differences applicants should be aware of. The personal statement is somewhat freeform, giving you the chance to talk about your academic trajectory more broadly and offer more insight into why you have chosen to pursue an advanced degree in your chosen field. You may have to respond to a prompt. These prompts are generally open-ended; examples include writing about a time you faced a challenge in your life, questioned a belief or idea, or experienced a moment of personal growth. Or you may be asked to describe in detail an idea or concept that sparked your desire to learn. A statement of purpose, on the other hand, needs to be more specific, academically-focused, and must outline your credentials and research ideas.

  • Resume or CV

    The resume or CV provide a convenient location for the admissions committee to see all of your credentials, publications, awards, research interests, and academic and employment history all in one place. These details should be clearly organized, easy to read, and void of any non-essential verbiage. Resumes are often confined to one's educational and employment history. CVs, or curriculum vitae, on the other hand usually entail a longer list of information including relevant awards and publications. Prospective students with only an undergraduate degree should keep their resume or CV that to one page. For advanced students, especially those with a master's degree or substantial academic record, the CV or resume may extend into two pages. For general guidance on how to structure your CV, try reviewing faculty members’ departmental online profiles.

  • Portfolio

    Portfolios may be an optional requirement, depending on the graduate program. Today's portfolios are typically online, publicly available and are acceptable in a variety of formats. They are often extensive documents that provide supplemental information about one's CV. Each part should highlight a specific skill or significant academic achievement. For example, advanced graduate students who already have teaching experience may have separate sections for their research interests and teaching history. Some may dedicate a section to showcasing standout work that they have completed, or to discuss extensive research projects that led to a thesis or dissertation. Portfolios also offer the chance to incorporate visuals. When starting a portfolio entirely from scratch, you should give yourself 3-6 months to complete a polished, online version — think of it as creating a highly personalized, articulate, personal website.

  • Interview

    You may be required to participate in an in-person or webcam interview as part of the application process. Similar to your statement of purpose, application committees use these opportunities to assess how well you will fit into the department. The committee will ask you about your research interests and how you plan on pursuing those goals should you be admitted. Be sure to come up with concise but concrete ways of describing your work and goals. Do your best to remain calm and to-the-point.

Tips for Crushing Each Part of Your Grad School App

Official Transcripts

  • Submit requests as early as possible

    While it may seem like an easy task to pull transcripts, it can sometimes take schools several weeks to process these types of requests, especially if it is a larger university or if the applicant graduated many years ago. And then there’s delivery time on top of that. Do not assume you will be able to get your hands on transcripts immediately. Instead, submit a request as early as possible so that you have everything ready long before your application deadline.

  • Do not open sealed envelopes

    Obtaining official transcripts from your previously attended schools can be one of the more time-consuming components of the application process. If your undergraduate school sends you official transcripts to submit to graduate schools yourself, do not open the envelopes. Order one extra set of transcripts so you can scan and submit digital copies as needed. If you open an envelope containing a transcript, it may no longer be considered official and may not be accepted with your application.

  • Set aside money for transcript requests

    Most prospective graduate students set money aside for application fees but pay little mind to the cost of printed official transcripts. If you are not a recent grad, your undergraduate school may charge you $10-20 for each printed official transcript, plus a delivery charge per transcript. If you need to send printed transcripts to several grad schools and attended more than one undergrad school, the cost of transcripts can add up quickly.

Test Scores

  • One and done

    It can be helpful to plan ahead and know how many times you will take an exam. Some prospective students prefer the "one-and-done" approach. As you study and prepare to take an exam, you know you have one chance to earn your desired score. There is some comfort in the fact that even if you do not earn the caliber of score you desired, that that portion of the process is over and done. You may find it liberating to close this chapter of the process and move on with the rest of your materials.

  • If it’s not one and done, set a limit

    Some students know that no matter how diligently they prepare for a standardized exam, they always need a second try. If you think you have the patience, money and time management skills to sit twice for an exam, and you predict a higher score the second time around, you should take it again but limit yourself to how many times you can retake the exam. Limiting yourself to one or two sessions is all about reducing stress and keeping the application process moving. You also save money by taking tests fewer times.

  • Take advantage of free study resources

    You don't have to enroll in a costly test preparation course to do your best on a standardized test. If you do not have the expendable cash or time for an official test prep course, you can download a series of smartphone apps and free online sample tests to help you study in your spare time for little or no cost. It is also possible that several individuals in your social circle or professional network have taken the test for which you are preparing. Don't be afraid to ask for some assistance or tutoring from them. As an example, I received private tutoring for the GRE from a friend in exchange for music lessons.

Letters of Recommendation

  • Tell your recommenders about your program

    One common mistake applicants make when requesting letters of recommendation is that they don't offer their writers enough information on the program or school to which they are applying. Those writing recommendations may choose to use a generic letter that works for all of your applications. And while there is nothing necessarily wrong with submitting the same letter, they should have the pertinent information readily available to tailor their letter to each school if they choose to do so. It is your responsibility to make sure they have enough information to write a strong recommendation for you.

  • Give your recommenders plenty of time

    As discussed above, you should give each writer at least two months to craft a letter of recommendation. This ensures that they have enough time to create a thoughtful document without the pressure of a quickly approaching deadline. By not rushing to complete a recommendation, your writers are able to consider the details of a program to which you are applying and have time to ask you questions. Giving them plenty of time also shows respect for their time and increases the likelihood that they will write letters for you again in the future if needed. While it is not always possible, it is best to ask for all of your recommendations for every school to which you are applying in one detailed email. This keeps school deadlines and information in one easy to locate place.

  • Send gentle reminders and thank you notes

    Odds are good that you are not the only one asking for letters of recommendation from your writers. That being said, it is important to follow up with them in a polite manner to ensure they haven't forgotten about you. Let's say that you give them two months to write a recommendation. It is okay to follow up with them a month out from the deadline. At the very least, send them a reminder 7-10 days before the deadline. If for some reason they forgot about writing you a recommendation, this gives them at least a little time to construct an acceptable document. And remember, always be grateful for their time and send thank you notes afterwards.

Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose

  • Keep it simple

    When writing your personal statement or statement of purpose, do your best to be clear, concise, and to the point. When discussing your research ideas, for example, avoid the temptation to elaborate on things that are commonly known in the field. The professors reviewing your application are experts in the field and do not need this background information. Instead, focus on what you have to contribute to the program or addressing the given prompt.

  • Explain why you want to attend the school

    It can be very tiring to research your prospective departments in great detail, but it is worth the time and effort. The truth of the matter is that admissions committees want to know why you think you would be a good fit in that particular program. You should write about professors in the department, how and why you value their work, and why you wish to study with them. Your success in graduate school depends upon your ability to mesh with a department that can challenge you as much as it supports you.

  • Find a balance

    When writing a personal statement or statement of purpose you must find a balance between specific details and an interesting narrative. This is easier to accomplish in a shorter essay. Avoid spending too much time on personal history and which events or experiences led you toward a particular field. Rather, tell the committee why you wish to seek an advanced degree in this area and how this particular department will help you accomplish that.

Resume or CV

  • Keep it short

    Your resume or CV should not exceed two pages in length. In most cases, applicants who are new to the field and have fewer publications, awards, or presentations to list, a one-page resume or CV will suffice. Adding more items to this document does not necessarily make you a stronger applicant. Your admissions committee should be able to look at this document and see the highlights from your educational, employment, and academic history.

  • Follow an example

    Formatting matters when it comes to constructing a resume or CV. Academics often provide a link to their CVs on their website or the departmental homepage. It is okay to closely follow the formatting of someone else's resume or CV, provided you don't use any of their content. Some sections of this document may be more widely used in certain fields than others. You should check with an expert in your area to learn of any field-specific conventions or preferences that should be included.

  • Avoid the copy-paste resume/CV

    When applying online, sometimes digital applications have fields where you can paste a resume or CV. In most cases, these are simple text boxes without any formatting. As a result, when you paste your information into the box, you lose all of your formatting and spacing. Whenever possible, attach a PDF file of your resume or CV instead of pasting it into the generic box.

Portfolio

  • Create a web portfolio (unless instructed otherwise)

    In most cases, admissions committees will not be upset with a technologically savvy submission. In other words, it may be best to construct and submit a web portfolio. This allows you to create and edit the project more easily and include visuals, links, and other graphics that would generally be difficult to include in a hard copy submission. If you are applying for a technology-heavy degree, this offers you an additional moment to shine. If you are unfamiliar with this technology, keep it simple, ask for help from a trusted friend, and use more visuals than text. Above all, the portfolio must be clear, easy-to-navigate, and look professional.

  • Use basic layouts and a simple design

    To ensure that your portfolio is easy to read, do not overcrowd your pages with text. Again, visuals can be more effective when used appropriately. It is okay to include links to full-page documents, however, especially if they link to polished PDF or handout-style pages that represent what you have used in a professional or classroom setting. Similar to what we see on simple websites, have a drop-down menu in the upper-left or upper-right corner so users can navigate between sections easily.

  • Use a short title page

    Whether you submit a hard copy or web portfolio, use an easy to read title page. At most, the first page should include your name and concise biography. You can have quick links to your most important pieces, but avoid too much information up front. Your short biography and the layout of the page should make the reader want to see what your work has to offer.

Interview

  • Be honest

    When it comes to an grad school interview, Associate Vice President of Adult, Corporate, and Online Education at Centenary University Elizabeth Kane says that honesty is the best policy. Your interviewers may ask you personal questions about weaknesses or shortcomings in your academic career. Kane suggests that, "Most importantly, be honest about any past mistakes and be able to articulate a plan for your academic success as well as your career goals." Of course, it is best not to dwell on the negatives, and your response should focus on a calculated plan for academic success moving forward.

  • Be prepared

    "Be familiar with your application, resume and written statement and be ready to discuss your transcripts if necessary," recommends Kane. Because you submitted your application before your interview, you and your committee have some common knowledge at the beginning of the interview. It is important that you know in detail the content you submitted, especially any specifics you wrote in the personal statement about that particular department.

  • Dress to impress

    Kane says interviewees need to look the part, even during webcam interviews. "First impressions are important, so dress for success!” she says. Avoid anything that you normally wouldn’t wear to a business office. In most cases, business casual clothing is appropriate. This may seem obvious but, for webcam interviews, be sure to wear a complete outfit and not just what is visible on the screen. If you suddenly have to get up from your chair, you do not want to have on gym shorts or pajama bottoms with your dress shirt or blouse.

What NOT to Do When Applying to Grad School

When applying to grad school, most people focus only on what they need to do to get in. Certain things, however, can ruin your chances of getting into graduate school, and some of those things are easy to overlook when you are focused on requirements and instructions. In addition to the obvious mistakes such as not proofreading, submitting an incomplete application, or missing a deadline, the list below highlights five things applicants should not do when applying to grad school. While these may seem like obvious or fairly ineffectual points, they are unfortunate and commonly made mistakes.

Don't leave blank spaces or fields

This is different than submitting an incomplete application with missing components. According to Kane, it is best to fill out an entire application and leave no blank fields. "A successful grad school application is filled out in its entirety without leaving anything blank. If a certain question is irrelevant to your circumstances make a notation of that so that the reader doesn’t wonder why it is blank (or make assumptions)," she says.

Don't use shorthand or abbreviations

"The ability to write coherently and effectively is a cornerstone of graduate studies," says Kane. This applies to all instances where you submit written content. Never write a shorthand response or incomplete sentence when given the appropriate space within a field, and always keep it professional. Incomplete sentences, even when written intentionally, may lead the committee to believe you rushed through the document or simply forgot to proofread. So, while checking for spelling and grammatical errors, keep an eye out for this often overlooked mistake.

Lack of uniformativity or organization between documents

Kane argues that all of your materials should be as uniform as possible. Not only does this create a sense on continuity between your documents, it makes your materials feel more organized and thoughtfully prepared. Kane also suggests that uniformativity helps applicants avoid other common mistakes, such as mismatched dates and timelines. When appropriate, one of the ways to create a sense of unity between documents is to use a header and page numbers.

Don't be overconfident

When writing your statement of purpose or personal statement, it is important that you remain humble. Bear in mind that you are sending this application to a panel of experts who already have advanced degrees in this field. While you may be an advanced prospective student, and wish to showcase your knowledge in particular areas, it is in your best interest to know your audience and remain unpretentious. Your prospective department may actually read your overconfidence as a mask for fear (the fear-of-not-knowing or fear of not being the best or smartest) as opposed to a sign of intelligence. Or they may think your arrogance will not be a good fit for the department.

Don't overdo the praise

The people on a committee reviewing your application already know their own accomplishments so there is no need to spend time on extensive flattery. Instead, the admissions committee needs to hear about how and why you would be a good fit for their department. An essay or interview that contains too much praise for the school or individuals on the panel can reek of desperation, which is never a good thing.

Grad School Application FAQs

When should I start preparing to apply to grad school?

Most prospective graduate students begin searching for schools sometime during the junior year of their undergraduate program. With the help of online application forms and email communication, applying for graduate school is not quite as difficult and time-consuming as it used to be. Still, you should plan on giving yourself at least one academic year to study for standardized tests, research and decide on which schools to apply to, and gather the necessary application documents.

I finished undergrad a long time ago. Will this hurt my chances of getting into grad school?

According Kane, having a break after your undergraduate career is not necessarily a bad thing. "Many graduate programs (like those at Centenary University) are specifically designed for working adults with real experience to bring to the classroom. In fact, time is often on the side of those students who may not have had stellar undergraduate careers but have since proven themselves in their respective fields or post-baccalaureate endeavors. It’s never too late!" she says.

I don’t have the best undergrad GPA or test scores. What should I do to improve other parts of my application?

As Kane points out above, taking some time to build relevant work experience after your undergraduate program can help you become a more competitive candidate for graduate studies. If you had a low undergraduate GPA, obtaining some work experience can be a useful way to strengthen your application and it also shows your interest and dedication to the field. Additionally, students in this scenario should allow for more preparation for standardized testing and look for colleagues who can write strong letters of recommendation that will catch the eye of the admissions committee. Perhaps the most obvious yet important thing to do is to make sure that your statement of purpose or other essays are spotless and perfectly executed.

Can I use my previous work experience for credit?

This really depends on the school. Some schools do allow students to save time and money by accepting previous work experience for credit. However, students should ensure these schools are properly accredited and not “degree mills.” A degree from an unaccredited institution does not provide the education or credentials to advance your knowledge and career.

Can I submit more letters of recommendation than what’s required?

If the application instructions state that sending more letters of recommendation than what's required is acceptable, then it is okay to submit additional letters. Admissions committees are often buried in applications, however, and have little extra time during the review process. That said, adding additional unsolicited pages to your application may not work in your favor. Showing that you can follow instructions is more important than providing more information.

Can I apply again if my target grad school already rejected me?

If you had your heart set on a school and you were rejected, it is certainly acceptable to reapply the following year. Many prospective students try to get in touch with a professor in the department who has shared interests and is willing to offer advice to prospective students. Do not expect or ask them to review your application materials for you, however. Rather, tell them what you are interested in, discuss some of your ideas, and see what kind of pointers come your way to make your application stronger the next time around.

Will going to grad school help me make a career change?

In most cases, obtaining a graduate degree can help you either advance in your current career or make the shift to another career path. Your chosen field may help determine which scenario is more likely. For example, professionals in the hard sciences or medicine are more likely to advance in their current career with a graduate degree, whereas those pursuing graduate degrees in the humanities or business may be able to make a career change because these fields are so broad and can be applied to different types of jobs.