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Grad School Application | Tips for Finishing Strong

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If you’re currently considering graduate school, you probably already know that the application process involves more than just taking tests, writing essays, and hitting “submit.” Everything from interacting with the admissions office to finishing up prerequisite courses will play a role in getting you from prospective student to accepted student.

Here are a few expert tips for ensuring your grad school application is a strong one.

Reach out to the graduate admissions office

The submission process is an excellent opportunity to ask questions and engage with the admissions staff. They can provide you with valuable information on requirements and best practices, and can help you determine whether or not you’re a good candidate for their particular program (and whether their program is right for you, too!).

Kathryn Meyer, Director of Recruitment at The Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M University, encourages applicants to reach out to her team and other admissions offices. It is the goal of the admissions committee, she says, “to help each person put forth the best application possible.”

“Recruiters and admissions directors know the inner workings of their own system and programs,” she adds. “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 than the team here in our office?”

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you reach out to admissions staff: 

  • Introduce yourself. Make sure you give them your name and tell them what program you’re applying to, as well as what stage of the process you’re in. And always be professional and polite.
  • Send thank-you notes after more involved or particularly helpful phone calls, emails, or face-to-face interactions.
  • Be patient. Admissions offices interact with a lot of prospective students—especially as deadlines approach. Follow up politely if you haven’t heard back in a while, but make sure to provide ample time for them to respond to you first.
  • If you have the opportunity, visit the campus. Sitting down face-to-face with admissions representatives will allow you to get their undivided attention as well as more in-depth and personalized advice.

Understand the school’s admissions priorities

In reviewing your materials, admissions committees are assessing your candidacy for a program based on your interests, experience, and potential for success. They are also looking to see if you’d be a strong representative of their school in future internships, externships, and other positions.

With that in mind, be sure to review the school’s profile on Idealist and ask people in your network about what qualities or experience that particular admissions committee values most.

Also, make sure your personal statement communicates what you hope to gain from enrolling in that particular program. Highlight what you believe you can contribute to the school and use strategic storytelling to share any relevant experience to help boost your profile.

Learn about and complete your prerequisites

Certain grad programs have specific course or test requirements they expect you to fulfill before enrolling. For example, an MPA program might want incoming students to have a solid foundation in economics and statistics, and an international studies program may ask students to pass a foreign language exam.

Depending on the school, you may be admitted even if you haven’t completed the necessary classes beforehand—but only on the condition that you either take them before enrollment or during your first term.

To help you stay on top of any necessary coursework, be sure to pay attention to the following: 

  • The specific prerequisites for each program you're interested in. Remember that different schools have different requirements, even if the area of study is the same. Make sure you know what they are, and what it takes to meet them.
  • If you are required to take a class before you can enroll, find out if your graduate school has restrictions or guidelines regarding where and how you can complete those requirements. Make sure to confirm with admissions staff that the course credits from your institution of choice will be accepted. Also, find out if you need to earn a minimum grade in the class in order for it to count toward your prerequisites.
  • If you need to gain experience or a new skill that may be a bit more time intensive, talk with the admissions office about your options. Depending on their policies and the difficulties of the requirement, your best bet may be to wait another semester or year before applying.

Address any potential weaknesses in your application

If your undergraduate transcript is lackluster or outdated (older than ten years):

  • Demonstrate your academic commitment by taking individual university or college courses and earning good grades. Credit from these courses is unlikely to count toward your grad degree, but they can showcase your current academic ability and help you gain admission. Take upper and graduate-level classes if possible, and ensure the course content is relevant and applicable to your desired degree.
  • Share your goals and specific concerns with the admissions office. They may have suggestions for you based on your transcript, and recommendations for classes you can take to help bolster your application.

If you’re having trouble securing academic references:

  • Take individual college courses and ask those professors to write recommendation letters for you.
  • Remember that professional references can also make up the difference. As always, reach out to the graduate admissions office for guidance, and see if there's an opportunity to submit a professional reference in place of an academic one.

If your test scores are below the target average:

  • Determine just how much your target schools weigh or consider exam scores. Some have a more concrete number they’re looking for, while others are more flexible—or don’t require test scores at all.
  • Take practice exams or enroll in a preparation course prior to taking (or retaking) your entrance exam.

If there is a gap or shortcoming in your application that you’re particularly concerned about, consider writing a short addendum to your personal essay to address it. Be concise, be honest, and be solution-focused. The admissions committee is interested in learning about not only what happened, but about how you resolved (or are working to resolve) the situation. 

Gather and submit all requested materials on time

This may seem obvious, but keeping on top of all your applications can be a daunting task. Deadlines will vary for different schools, so it’s important to stay organized by giving yourself ample time to request documents from others, such as your undergraduate transcript or a letter of recommendation.

As you begin gathering materials, remember to read instructions carefully and follow them meticulously. Make checklists to ensure everything is accounted for, and always give yourself more time than you think you’ll need to get it all done.

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Did you find this post helpful? Be sure to check out Financial Aid for Graduate School | Your Guide to Finding Funding for more advice on preparing for grad school admission.