The graduate school application process involves more than taking tests, writing an essay, and hitting “submit.” Everything from interacting with the admissions office to finishing up prerequisite courses, and assessing weaker points of your application plays a role. We tackle these issues and review tips for ensuring your graduate school application is as strong as possible.
Contact and Engage with the Admissions Office
The admissions process is an excellent opportunity to ask questions and engage with the admissions committee. Admissions staff can help you figure out if you’re a good candidate for the programs they offer and also talk through individual concerns you might have about your application.
Kathryn Meyer, Director of Recruitment at The Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M University, welcomes applicants reaching out to her team. She sees the role of her admissions team “to help each person put forth the best application possible.” Meyer adds “recruiters and admissions directors know the inside workings of their own application system and programs and they work with applicants year in and year out. So who better to answer individual concerns, put them in touch with current students, or offer links to find specific information?”
As you contact admissions offices, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Introduce yourself and be professional and polite when contacting the admissions office.
- Send thank you notes after more involved or especially helpful phone calls, emails or face-to-face interactions.
- Be patient. Admissions offices interact with a lot of prospective applicants especially leading up to application deadlines. Follow up politely if needed but provide ample time for the admissions office to respond to your request when possible.
- If you have the opportunity, visit the campus and meet admissions staff in person. Make time to meet with faculty and sit in on classes to get a better sense of the academic environment.
Understand the priorities of the admissions committee
Admissions committees assess your fit with the program based on your interests and experience when reviewing your application. They are looking for your ability to succeed in the degree, as well as later in your career. The committee is also interested in your ability to contribute to their school and represent it well to community partners and organizations through internships, externships, and other experiences.
With that in mind, here are a few tips for helping assess the priorities of the admissions committee:
Research the admissions priorities of the schools you are interested in by reviewing the school’s website, talking with admissions staff, and asking people in your network who know the school well.
Review your application materials with these priorities in mind. Identify places to weave in or align some of your experiences to those priorities. Always use concrete examples and only share relevant experiences.
Make sure your personal statement communicates what you hope to gain from attending that specific school in addition to what you will contribute to the program. Overshare on experiences only when appropriate as some programs are also assessing you for your professionalism.
Take care of prerequisite requirements
Certain grad school programs have specific prerequisite courses or score requirements for admission. For example, a policy school might expect incoming students to have a solid foundation in economics and statistics. Or an international studies program may require students to pass a foreign language exam.
Lacking a specific course on your transcript won't always prevent your admission. For instance, some programs might want to assess your analytical abilities by reviewing your prior mathematical and statistics coursework. Depending on the school, they may admit you, but on the condition that you either take a summer course before fall enrollment or take the course during your first term on campus. Course deficiencies you make up during your first term are unlikely to count towards your graduate degree.
To help you stay on top of and complete any needed prerequisites, be sure to:
- Determine the prerequisite requirements for each graduate program you're interested in.
- If you're unsure if an undergraduate course on your transcript fulfills a requirement, ask graduate admissions staff about it before you apply.
- If you are required to take a class before you can enroll, find out if your graduate school has specific restrictions about where you can take the class. Make sure to confirm the course with the admissions before you pay and enroll.
- For any prerequisite courses, find out if you need to earn a minimum grade in the class for it to count.
- If you need to pick up a foreign language, or other skill that will take a longer time to master, talk with the admissions office about your options. Your best bet may be to wait another year before applying.
Address any Application Issues
Feeling nervous about a part of your application? Next steps can be particular depending on which issue you’re faced with. We tackle some best practices for some more common problems.
If your undergraduate transcript is weak or outdated (older than ten years):
- You can demonstrate your academic commitment by taking individual university or college courses and earning good grades. Credit from these courses is unlikely to count towards your grad degree, but your grades can showcase your current academic abilities.
- Take upper and graduate levels if possible, and ensure the course content is relevant and applicable to your target degree.
- Share your goals and concerns with admissions staff. They may have specific suggestions based on your transcript and recommendations on what classes to take to bolster your application.
If you having trouble securing academic references:
- Take individual college courses and ask those professions to write recommendation letters based your most recent academic commitment and aptitude.
- Professional references may also make up for your lack of academic references. It’s best to talk with the graduate admissions office for guidance and see if there's an opportunity to substitute a professional reference in place of an academic one.
If your test scores are below the average for your target school:
- Enroll in a test preparation courses to support raising your scores.
- Take practice exams to boost your performance and familiarity with the test.
- Consider how much the graduate schools weigh or consider your exam scores. You may find some have a hard cut-off target score and others don’t value them as much. Some graduate schools don’t require test scores at all.
If there is something in your application you’re concerned about that you can’t remedy by the time you apply, consider writing a short addendum to your personal essay or the application to address it. Be honest but concise. Your admissions panel is interested in learning in not only what happened, but about how you resolved it. It's also an opportunity to share how you’ve grown and your ability to handle it or other like challenges in the future.
Gather and submit all requested application materials
Staying on top of acquiring and sending all of your application materials can be a daunting task. Deadlines may vary for schools so it’s important to keep organized. Make sure to build in time it may take to request certain materials like your undergraduate transcript or a letter of recommendation. As you begin getting everything together:
- Take time to read application instructions carefully and follow them meticulously.
- Make checklists for each application to ensure you double (if not triple) check everything is accounted for and sent off to the graduate admissions office.
We hope these pointers and suggestions help you put together a strong application and wish you all the best as your process continues!