Improving Your Graduate School Application

On your application, great test scores and grades speak for themselves, and everyone knows how important those are. But, there are a lot of other factors that can boost your application and ultimately your chances for acceptance.

Most grad schools require a transcript, GRE scores, letters of recommendation, and admissions essay(s). Make sure you include all these components, or you may be automatically rejected.

Transcripts: It’s not all about your GPA. Grad schools want to see a challenging undergrad curriculum. So, if you earn a 4.0 with a bunch of easy classes like “The History of the Alphabet 101,” you will rank lower than a student with a 3.6 GPA from harder classes. Performing well in difficult classes shows grad schools that you’re prepared for the next step.

But, if you’re looking for a number, most schools want to see at least a 3.5 GPA in a difficult curriculum.

You won’t include your transcript in your application, but you must have your undergrad school’s registrar office send it. This can take over two weeks; so try to request it as early as possible. A late transcript could disqualify you.

GRE: The GRE is designed to be the one common test among all applicants, making it the easiest comparable factor. But, the GRE may not be as important to grad school admissions as the ACT / SAT were to undergrad admissions. A private tutor can help you prepare for the entire process. 

In August 2011, the GRE changed its scoring system (Verbal Reasoning/Quantitative Reasoning are now scored on a 130-170 scale), and its content to better reflect the type of thinking students will need for grad schools. Currently, there is no new data on grad schools’ GRE requirements for admissions. The Educational Testing Service, the creator and administer of the GRE, released score percentiles based on the new GRE scoring. A competitive GRE score at top grad schools would be in the top 15 percent, meaning you will need at least around a 160 on each section. A score of 150 is considered to be average.

Some schools may even require a GRE Subject Test, which is an additional test in a specific discipline (e.g., psychology). But, if you are pursuing a specific major at grad school or just completed an undergrad major, you should take the corresponding subject test. It will show grad schools that you can specialize in a specific area, and they may place more weight to it than the rest of the GRE.

Research: Prior research experience is a significant factor in grad school admissions. It has become so popular among undergrads that if you don’t have a strong research project, it will raise red flags. Technically, it’s not required, but to get into an elite school, it is basically a necessity. Now, it’s more about the quality of your research project as opposed to simply having one. The best way to create a credible research project is to partner with a professor, start early and commit to it. Some students even seek out companies or other professionals to comment on their research, and others (the ones who really commit to it) get it published.

Letter of recommendation: You have to be more than numbers to get into grad school. Admissions will often set cut off points for grades and GRE scores. Then, they will look at your letters of recommendation, essays, etc. Strong letters of recommendation are directly related to your relationships with professors or business contacts. Again, having worked with a professor on a research project can help you earn a much better recommendation. Try to really connect with a professor through a research project and he/she will remember your commitment.

If you had a prestigious internship, a letter from your supervisor about your duties and abilities can also be impressive. But, only include letters from professors or supervisors from internships. Also, try to provide your professors/mentors with enough background information on you. That will make their job easier and the letter better. 

Admission essay (personal statement): Write your essay through your readers’ eyes. Think about what they want to see from a student and tailor your essay around that. Don’t just explain why you want to go to that particular school, but instead write about how the education you will receive there will help you achieve your academic and career goals. Explain why you’re a perfect fit for the school, and be as specific as possible – write about rewards/honors the school has earned, and what those mean to you as a prospective student. Try to pair your academic accolades or skills with the programs at your prospective school

Interview: This is not part of the traditional application, but finalists will likely be asked to do an interview. At that point, the school is prepared to accept you, and the decision may rest on your interview. You may interview with professors, students or admissions counselors. It may be one-on-one or in a group setting. Most interviews will last 30-60 minutes.

What grad schools really want to see is a person behind all your test scores and academic accolades. They want to see if you’re well-spoken and articulate. But, try not to dominate the interview, and make sure you know everything you can about the school. Maintain a two-way dialogue by asking thoughtful questions. But, you need to convey that you are very interested in the school, and plan to use its programs and education to succeed.