Grad School Application: How to Stand Out

By Reese Lopez

Published on September 21, 2021

Grad School Application: How to Stand Out

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Grad School Requirements

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 common application that showcases your strengths while saving you time and money in the process.

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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.

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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.

Tips for Crushing Each Part of Your Grad School App

Official Transcripts

Test Scores

Letters of Recommendation

Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose

Resume or CV

Portfolio

Interview

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.

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