The final stage of the graduate school application process can yield both relief and angst for prospective students. Applications are being finalized and submitted, and then comes a period that can be even more stressful: Waiting for decisions from admission committees. Based on our experience reviewing thousands of grad school applications over nearly three decades, here are some tips to help you stand out as you prepare and finalize your own applications.
The application process is a major learning experience, and applicants often learn as they go. Staying positive and calm allows you to be reflective and thoughtful. Worrying and obsessing during the final stages of putting your applications together 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
Embellishing your application or making excuses for weaker areas will not help. No one is perfect, and applicants who try to make themselves look perfect may raise a bit of suspicion. Presenting yourself genuinely and honestly is very important. We all have met individuals whom we initially perceived to be fake or pretending in some way. What is our usual response to these individuals? Not positive. As the saying goes, “Be yourself—everyone else is already taken.”
3. Give yourself enough time
At a minimum, take a few months to gather and compile all required materials. Then check and recheck to make sure all documents are in order. Do not wait until the last second to push the “submit” button. Believe us when we say, admission personnel can tell when you do this. How? Because there are often mistakes, missing information, and/or essays that clearly were written for another program (one classic misstep that happens surprisingly often). You can guess the usual outcome of these applications.
4. Follow the directions
Not doing so raises major questions about how the candidate might adhere to policies and procedures once they are 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 three. If you are asked not to follow up via email or phone, don’t. As one admission director once told me, “Following directions shows respect, and in doing so, you’ll earn some in return.”
5. Be professional
Maintaining a professional demeanor in all circumstances is a sign of maturity. Graduate school is a big deal and can be stressful; if you’re someone who easily loses your cool, then you’re likely not ready. You should be confident and self-assured, but not to the point of becoming or being perceived as overly aggressive, abrasive, or demanding. If something goes wrong, remain calm. This makes a major, positive impression.
6. Focus on content and presentation
A candidate might have the greatest standardized test scores, a superb undergrad GPA, and impressive letters of recommendation. But if the application contains obvious misspellings or grammatical errors, it’s going to be a problem. Rightly or wrongly, admission committees will assume the applicant was not entirely serious about his or her application.
7. Ask questions that show you did your research
A candidate makes a negative impression by asking basic questions that have been addressed already on a school’s website or in printed materials. Two of the questions we were often asked—and elicited a very off-putting inner reaction—were “What are your application deadlines?” and “Do you offer financial aid?” These clearly demonstrate either a lack of real interest in an institution or program, a lack of initiative in doing some research, or both. Instead, ask questions that show you did your homework and took time to thoroughly investigate the program and institution to which you’re applying.
While there’s often a smaller pool of competitors when it comes to graduate programs, grad schools can be more selective than their undergraduate counterparts. You still need to stand out. Use these seven tips to help de-stress and fill out your applications with confidence, knowing you’re putting your best and most attention-grabbing foot forward.