7 Ways to Shine as a Graduate School Applicant

Author, Enrollment Expert

Jul   2016



The final stage of the graduate application process means both relief and angst for prospective students. You sit down to finalize and submit applications you’ve been pouring months of your time into. (Of course, then comes a period of time that’s even more stressful: waiting for the admission committee’s decision!)

Based on my experience reviewing thousands of graduate school applications three decades, here are a few tips to help you stand out as an applicant:

  1. Relax. The grad school application process is a major learning experience, and applicants often learn as they go. Staying positive and maintaining calm will allow you to be reflective and thoughtful as you fill out your applications—while worrying and obsessing during does not help. In fact, it will likely hinder your ability to think clearly and focus on preparing the best application possible. 
  2. Be yourself. No one is perfect, and applicants who try to make themselves look perfect raise suspicion. Admission committees can tell when you’re embellishing your application or making excuses for weaker areas. Presenting yourself in a genuine and honest way is very important. We all have encountered applicants who we initially perceive to be fake or pretending in some way. What was my usual response to these individuals? Clearly, it was not positive. As the saying goes: “Be yourself—everyone else is already taken.”
  3. Ask questions that show you did your research. It is very disheartening for any admission staff (graduate and undergrad alike) when applicants ask questions for which answers have been repeatedly provided on the school website or in printed materials. Two of the questions I was often asked—and which elicited a very negative reaction  from me—are, “What are your application deadlines?” or “Do you offer financial aid.” Questions like these demonstrate either a lack of real interest, a lack of initiative in doing some (very easy) research, or both. If and when you interact with graduate admission counselors, ask thoughtful questions that show you did your homework. (A school’s current events page is a great place to look for question fodder.) Show you took time to thoroughly investigate the program and institution to which you are applying.
  4. Give yourself enough time. At a minimum, take a few months to gather and compile all of the required materials. Then check and recheck to make sure all documents are in order. Do not wait until the last second before pushing the “submit” button. Believe me, admission personnel can tell. How? Because often there are mistakes, missing information, and/or essays that were obviously written for another program. All distinct checkmarks in the “do not admit” column.
  5. Follow directions. Not doing so raises major questions about how a candidate might adhere to policies and procedures once admitted and enrolled. If there is a word limit for essay questions, follow it. If you are asked for two letters of recommendation, do not send more. If you are specifically told not to follow up via e-mail or phone, don't. As one admission director once said to me, "Following directions shows respect and in doing so you'll earn some in return."
  6. Be professional. Maintaining a professional demeanor in all circumstances is a sign of maturity. To be perfectly honest: graduate school is a big deal and can be stressful, and if you're someone who easily loses their cool, then you're likely not ready for the challenge. You should be confident and self-assured, but not to the point of being perceived as overly aggressive, abrasive, or demanding. If something goes wrong in your application process (and little slip-ups happen all the time), keep your cool. This makes a major positive impression.
  7. Focus on content and presentation. A candidate might have the greatest standardized test scores, a superb undergrad GPA, and impressive letters of recommendations. But if the application contains obvious misspellings or grammatical errors, it's going to be a problem. Rightly or wrongly, graduate admission committees will assume the applicant was not entirely serious about his or her application—or graduate school intentions. 

Stay tuned for my next article: seven deadly sins for graduate school applicants. In addition, feel free to share your questions in the comments below, check out my website, and/or to join me on Twitter.

Note: Did you know you could win a $10,000 scholarship for college or grad school just by registering on CollegeXpress? This is one of the quickest, easiest scholarships you’ll ever apply for. Register Now »

About Donald C. Martin

Dr. Donald C. Martin is an expert in the fields of enrollment management, student affairs, and higher education administration. From 1980–2008 he managed divisions including admission, financial aid, student development, registration/advising, and career, disabled, and international services. He has been employed by some of the best colleges and universities in the United States: Columbia University (Teachers College), University of Chicago (Booth School of Business), Northwestern University (Medill School of Journalism), and Wheaton College (IL). Along with a team of dedicated professionals, Dr. Martin grew both the applicant pool and the enrollment yield at each institution he served. In addition, students’ ratings of their experience at those institutions improved dramatically during his tenure.

Having visited over 60 countries on every continent, Dr. Martin has worked with thousands of prospective and current students of varying nationalities, backgrounds, beliefs, interests, and goals. His book, Road Map for Graduate Study: A Guide for Prospective Graduate Students, was released in May of 2008. A supplement for international students was released in 2009.

Dr. Martin continues his work with students and educational organizations worldwide, speaking on college and university campuses, and also at graduate school fairs, forums, and education conferences. His focus is on the value of education and negotiating the graduate school experience from start to finish, dispelling the myths that hold many back from earning a graduate degree and financing their graduate education. In addition, he provides one-on-one coaching services for graduate/business school applicants.

For further information please contact dmartin@gradschoolroadmap.com.