Graduate school can be an exciting step for getting that dream job or advancing your career! It can also be very nerve wracking … and I should know, I’ve done it all twice! Here’s just a little wisdom I found useful on my journey thru the graduate/professional school application process.
Typically, there are three components to any graduate school application: resume, personal essay and letters of recommendation. For each section I’ll list some of my tips to make your application stand out in the crowd and for the right reasons.
No matter the format for entering the information, this is the portion of your application where you essentially state your credentials to enter the program. Some programs will ask for a resume or curriculum vitae (CV), others have internet applications you manually enter information much like an online job application. Your transcript, test scores and extracurricular activities all end up in this section.
- Research the schools to which you are applying and know the prerequisite courses. Additionally, note any stipulations they may have on the way courses were taken (online versus in person). While programs may be for the exact same degree, different schools can have different prerequisite courses or minimum hours of a subject at a certain level. Don’t get your application discarded for failing to meet the university’s basic requirements.
- Take heed of any courses/experiences that are “suggested” or “highly encouraged” by the program. They state these for a reason. The program likely has found students who have participated in these courses/experiences to be the most successful in their program. While it doesn’t mean you can’t be the exception to the rule, it is unlikely many students are accepted without the suggested course/experiences.
- Use your personal experience to your advantage. If you worked in college make sure it is included somewhere. If you played sports (beyond a pick-up game here and there) include them where appropriate in the application. Working while in school can indicate basic professional skills and responsibility. Sports participation can indicate team work and commitment. The key is figuring how to spin your specific experiences as desirable skills for your chosen program.
- Don’t include high school experiences. I understand your experiences in high school shaped who you are but graduate programs want to see what you accomplished while you were an adult making more independent decisions for yourself.
- Give professional contact information and make sure your e-mail is one you check frequently. For e-mail addresses, a variation of your name with numbers if necessary is perfectly acceptable. An old high school nickname or inside joke is not professional and may have your application swiftly into the rejection stack. If you’re still in school it is completely appropriate to use your school given e-mail, just make sure you check it often.
This is the one part of your application that you have complete control over right now. You can’t change test scores and grades at this point. You can’t know exactly what will be put into a letter of recommendation. But you can provide a thoughtful essay that shows admission officers the candidate outside of what is in a test score or resume. The personal essay can be the difference between two people who look the same on paper otherwise. Be sure to make the most of it!
- Be passionate about what you are writing. If you don’t believe what you are saying in your writing, how can you expect the reader?
- Make sure you include something that states why you actually want to be a part of the program. Not just in the field of study, but why specifically the program you are applying.
- If there’s a prompt be sure you answer it! Yes, you want them to know why you are awesome and why you would be a great candidate but if you can’t answer a simple question it will reflect poorly. Reread your essay at the end and be sure you can say the question was explicitly answered, not just implied.
- EDIT! Ask someone else to read over the piece. You can review and edit one hundred times and still miss the misspelling of a common word. It happens to us all.
- Be professional. This is graduate school. While it’s great to show your personality be mindful that you will be the face of that program when you graduate and they want to make sure that it reflects favorably on them. Be articulate and get your point across without alienating your reader.
Letters of Recommendation
While you cannot control specifically what a letter of recommendation states, you are in control of who writes those letters. You also have the power to aid your recommender to show you in the best light possible.
- Dependent on the program you will be allotted a certain number of recommendations. My personal opinion is that you create a well-rounded view of yourself. By this I mean, one recommender can contribute to your academics, another to your passion for the field of study, and another to your commitment to service (or another component you deem important). In this scenario, I would select a professor who taught a challenging course that I did well, a professional in my field that I shadowed on more than one occasion, and a volunteer service coordinator in charge of a program in which I participated.
- Have someone from your field write one of your letters if possible. They will have better ideas on the characteristics to showcase for your acceptance into the program by sheer virtue of having walked the same path before you. They would also be a good person to look over your essay if you have that type of relationship.
- Be wary of anyone who states you can write the letter and they’ll just sign it behind you. I have strong opinions against this personally. But think about how hard it would be to write someone else’s perspective of you without sounding like yourself in the letter. It also means on the chance this recommender was contacted, they wouldn’t be aware of what was really in the letter “they wrote”.
- Provide a copy of your resume. It allows them to know what things you have already stated in your application that they have the ability to enhance with their recommendation. They may also notice something that didn’t quite fit in the resume but feel is important the admission committee consider.
- Send a thank you card, and keep them apprised of whether you made it into the program or not. They could be contacted by the program for further comments and this will be another thing they can brag on you about. On the off chance you don’t make it into one program, they could be helpful in seeking out other options. It’s always good to keep connections!
Be sure to give yourself enough time to submit your application. Double check due dates and create a timeline for yourself if needed. Give yourself a refresh day! Walk away from the application and come back with fresh eyes (after a whole day at least) prior to looking it once moreover before submitting.
The most important piece of advice is to be yourself and be confident! It will show thru every aspect of your application if you let it and then they would be crazy not to offer you a slot in the program (or interview)!
Good luck! You’ve totally got this! And don’t be afraid to reach out to me or any of the other Corvias alumni … many of us have been in your shoes before and are more than happy to share our experiences!