Last Updated: Oct 24, 2018
We’ve discussed some ways to be positively noticed as a graduate school applicant and some ways to be negatively noticed. Now here are some general guidelines and practical tips to help you prepare your best graduate application possible.
Do your best to relax as you work on your grad school application. Worrying and obsessing will not help—in fact, doing so could hinder your ability to think clearly and focus on preparing the best application you can.
Going through the graduate school application process can be a major learning experience for you. As you complete each application, you will engage in personal reflection and self-discovery. This can prove to be very rewarding, whatever the decisions you receive from an admission committee. As applicants move through this process, some end up deciding to not pursue graduate study or to wait a while. Others decide to pursue an entirely different area of study than what they originally had in mind.
Use this application process to your benefit; consider it a positive learning experience in and of itself. Be calm. Be reflective. Be thoughtful. And relax!
2. Give yourself time
Simply put, starting the process early and taking your time to apply allows you to focus on the task at hand: doing your best on your applications. Rushing or waiting until the last minute tends to lead to costly mistakes.
3. Follow directions
If you’ve read our past articles, you know we’ve hit on this point before. And it seems like such a no-brainer that you may wonder why we even mention it. But we do so because over the years, we’ve truly been amazed at the number of applicants who do not follow directions. If you become one of those applicants, it can raise questions about how well you’ll follow policies and procedures once admitted and enrolled in your graduate program.
Some directives from schools may not make sense to you, but they have been provided for a reason. If you want to give yourself the best possible chance at admission, you need to comply. If you’re unable or unwilling to do so, you’ll send a clear signal about yourself to the admission committee. It’s a red flag, not a green light.
Here are a handful of examples:
- If there is a word limit for essay questions (and there almost always is), follow it. Remember, application evaluators are reading hundreds—maybe thousands—of essays. You won’t receive a positive response if yours is longer than it’s supposed to be.
- If you are asked for two letters of recommendation, do not submit a third. Some institutions will permit an extra recommendation, but usually no more. Honor that.
- If a school has a policy for interviews to be conducted by invitation only, do not request one. You could mention that you hope you’ll have the opportunity to discuss your goals in person, but leave it at that. If a school says an interview is highly recommended, then sure, request one, and make every possible effort to follow through.
- If you’re an international student applying to a US graduate school and are required to take a test to measure your English-language skills, do so. Don’t argue, even if you’re fluent in English. If that’s the case, you will obviously do well on the test, which will serve to enhance your application.
4. Be professional at all times and in all dealings
Remember, as an applicant, you’re at the part of the process where you’re no longer in the driver’s seat. You are one of many applicants being evaluated and compared to each other. Always present yourself in a calm, assertive, sincere manner. It’s appropriate to be inquisitive about your application, but it’s never to your advantage to be argumentative.
Actions speak louder than words. Some of the best applications we’ve seen on paper have been completely devalued due to the behavior of the individual who prepared them. Be confident but not arrogant; be kind and patient, not abrasive and demanding.
5. Both content and presentation are important
While what you say in your application is obviously important, so is the “look and feel” of your application. This is especially true when the institution/program to which you are applying is extremely selective and has the luxury of choosing admitted students from a large applicant pool. Occasionally essay questions are not sent to the right institution, and often it’s clear they were not proofread for correct grammar or spelling. Some information is not provided or contradicts information elsewhere in the application.
Applications with these kinds of presentation errors quickly become less competitive. The admission committee may assume the applicant is not really serious about this application, and they tend to respond in a similar manner.
6. Be yourself, be human, be honest
Resist the temptation to lie, embellish, or make excuses. Don’t be someone you’re not. At times, applicants try to make themselves look perfect—but as we all know, no one is perfect. Trying to look that way can cause application evaluators to be more suspicious than impressed. We’re not suggesting you discuss all your weaknesses and past mistakes (which are there for all of us), but rather that you simply be yourself.
The best applications we’ve read are from those who were, in effect, communicating the following between the lines: “This is me. I hope you will appreciate who I am, and also appreciate the level of interest I’ve demonstrated in your institution by completing this application. If you choose to admit me, I’ll be thrilled. If you don’t, I’ll be okay.”
Don’t make excuses on your application. You may decide that you need to explain a lower GPA, a less-than-stellar academic record during undergrad, a break in your employment record, or having several jobs in a short period of time. If there are legitimate reasons for what might seem like a blemish in your application, let the admission committee know. Perhaps you had a serious illness, lost a loved one, or had a sudden financial crisis. Bottom line: make explanations, not excuses. The admission committee will know the difference, and your application will either be helped or hindered.
7. Make contingency plans in case you’re not admitted
In our years as admission directors, we met applicants who were so convinced that a particular institution was for them, or that this was the year they were going to attend graduate school, that they didn’t make plans for what to do if things didn’t go as they hoped. Some would go so far as to inform employers and loved ones of their plans before it was advisable to do so. In some very extreme cases, they moved to where their #1 graduate option was located before they received a decision on their application!
Being prepared for all outcomes isn’t a sign of lack of belief in yourself or your ability to do graduate work—it’s a sign you realize life doesn’t always go the way we plan. Having alternative plans at the ready is usually a wise move.
About Grad School Road Map
The Grad School Road Map team are all former graduate admission directors at top-tier schools and are now writers, speakers, and coaches for the admission process. Since the company was founded by Dr. Don Martin in 2008, more than 300 graduate school applicants have been successfully coached in business, law, medicine (master’s and doctoral), and arts and sciences, with a 97% acceptance rate. For more information, visit our website or follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.