Month: May 2011

Five Main Components of a Graduate School Application

Most graduate programs require applicants to submit the items described below by a certain deadline. Programs in some fields may require additional items, such as a curriculum vita, or a portfolio or dossier, but the five components described here are the most common.

Application forms

Expect to fill out either one or two application forms for each program. For those requiring two forms, one is usually a university-wide application form, which is filled out by applicants to most or all graduate programs at that university. The other application form is for the specific department or program to which the student is applying. Much of the information requested will be the same on both forms. Still, be sure to fill out all of the line items on both forms. They will be going into different files in different offices, so both forms must be completed.

In addition to standard biographical data, any application form is likely to indicate the particular program to which one is applying, details about the applicant’s academic history, and the names and contact information of two or three references. Information about employment history and relevant professional and research experience may also be requested.

There is more to properly filling out application forms than simply providing the right information. Many students make mistakes while filling out application forms without realizing they are doing anything wrong. The consequence is often a bad first impression, which can lead to early rejection.

Transcripts of undergraduate grades

Not surprisingly, an applicant’s undergraduate GPA is a heavily weighted factor in the decisions of most admissions committees. However, the admissions committee is not always responsible for making the final decisions about who gets in, and their concerns might be simply whether the applicant has, at least, the minimum grade requirements and any other prerequisites needed to be eligible.

Unless there is something very special about an applicant with a GPA below the minimum criterion, that person will be eliminated from the competition. Minimum grade requirements range from quite high in some programs to surprisingly low in others. Higher minimum entry requirements are characteristic of programs that receive a large number of applications each year and can accept only a small fraction. Relatively few applicants fail to meet the minimum grade requirements, so the admissions committee is likely to rank applicants at least partly according to GPA, paying particular attention to those with exceptionally high grades.

Letters of recommendation  (a.k.a. Reference letters)

Most programs require two or three letters of recommendation from people who can attest that you possess qualities that will enable you to excel in graduate school. The most effective letters are from professors who are familiar with you and your scholarly or research capabilities, or from professionals or other qualified individuals from outside your college or university who have a good basis for being able to provide such an assessment. Few students anticipate far enough in advance that they will need two or three reference letters, and most end up scrambling at the end to find someone, perhaps anyone, who will write one for them. It takes time and planning to ensure that you receive effective letters from the right people. Without knowing what makes a letter of recommendation effective or ineffective, many students end up asking the wrong people for them.

The personal statement (or essay)

Another criterion for assessing an applicant’s potential is the personal statement (also sometimes called the statement of purpose, letter of intent, or biographical essay). One purpose of this statement is to explain why you want to enroll in a particular graduate program. Another of its purposes is to describe your qualifications.

The admissions committees are not so much interested in your specific reasons or qualifications as much as they want to ascertain from your statement whether you have realistic goals with respect to what the program will do for you and what a career in this field would be like.

Admissions committees look closely for evidence in the personal statement that the applicant possesses important positive attributes that tend to be needed for success. Importantly, they are also looking for evidence of negative attributes, and when such concerns are raised by the content or style of the applicant’s personal statement, it can lead to a quick rejection.

Not all graduate programs require a personal statement. Some programs, particularly professional degree programs, ask applicants to write a few short essays in response to specific questions. Other programs instead have sections on the application form that ask for the same information that one would normally provide in a personal statement.

Scores on standardized tests (GRE, LSAT, GMAT, etc.)

Most graduate programs, but not all of them, require applicants to submit official scores from one or more standardized tests (a.k.a. entrance exams). These tests provide an objective basis for comparing the academic aptitudes of all the applicants. They are designed to assess academic knowledge and skills relevant to graduate studies. The scores are thought to be one measure of academic aptitude that is not influenced by the huge variation that exists in the grading standards and procedures of different courses, professors, departments, faculties, and schools. The rationale is that everyone writes an equivalent test and all tests are graded the same way. Thus, the playing field is level for all participants.

After completing all components of the graduate application, consider having an academic advisor at your school look it over for any discrepancies, omissions, or typos that you may not have detected.

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Optimize What You Can For A Winning Graduate School Application

The various people looking at your application may differ in how they weigh its various components. Therefore, you should pay close attention to each one of them. At the same time, keep in mind that few applicants achieve excellence on all of the important dimensions, so you should not be discouraged if you think you come up a bit short on one or two of them.

Some shortcomings are easier to overcome than others. For example, if you lack work experience or research experience in your field of interest, you can probably fix that. Start thinking about volunteering in an area that is comparable to the graduate program and eventual career that you plan to have. For example, if you are planning on a career as a social worker or counselor, then you may want to consider volunteering in a women’s shelter or veteran’s hospital. If you are thinking of applying to law school, you should consider approaching a law-related organization or community center. If you are thinking of a graduate program in the sciences, consider a research lab at a university or hospital.

Remember that the point of getting volunteer experience is to be exposed to potential mentors and/or experienced professionals that can assess your skills, eagerness to learn, level of maturity etc… and that can eventually provide you with effective letters of recommendation for your grad school applications. This type of relationship does not culminate in a few weeks. Instead, you will have to dedicate many hours over the course of several months or years, so plan ahead. Once you have accepted a volunteer position, be proactive about how you spend your time there and make your goals clear to those who will be evaluating you. Otherwise, you may end up doing clerical or data-entry work that may not be especially beneficial to your long-term goals.

Some shortcomings that may be more difficult to overcome

If you have already written your standardized tests and obtained poor scores, there is nothing you can do to erase them completely from your record, but if you have the time and money, you may want to consider retaking the tests at a later date.  Likewise, there is little you can do to hide poor grades that appear on your transcripts. But you should consider retaking a class where you obtained a poor grade, if it is relevant to your long-term objectives. So for example, retaking a Psychology course on cognitive development may not be necessary if you are considering law or med school, but may be worthwhile to retake if you are considering psychotherapy or family counseling.

Preparing an effective personal statement (also referred to as a statement of purpose), is another way to overcome shortcomings in your grad-school applications. The personal statement provides you the opportunity to explain some of the shortcomings that may exist in your application, such as a period of poor grades, or lack of research publications. Be careful however, to not simply blame others for your limitations, as this will most certainly be looked upon unfavorably, and may also ruin your chances of getting into graduate school. For more advice on writing a strong personal statement, check out part 1 of a 5 part series on writing personal statements

As you will see, there are a multitude of other things that you can do to make yourself an attractive candidate. Do not worry about things you can do nothing about. Optimize what you can — it might make up for any irreversible weaknesses.

The “Second-Choice” Graduate Supervisor

In the majority of graduate programs in which each student has a faculty member for a graduate supervisor, one must indicate whom they would prefer for a supervisor at the time of application. The application should be aimed at the needs of the prospective supervisor, because that person’s decisions are paramount in determining whether or not the student is accepted into the program.

Many programs also allow applicants to indicate a second or third choice of potential supervisor. Many grad-school applicants have questions about these second choices, such as: Do they need to be as carefully made and justified as one’s first choice for graduate supervisor? And what are the chances of someone you list as a second choice actually accepting you? What if your application is highly impressive, but your first choice cannot accept you for one reason or another that really has nothing to do with you; can you expect your first choice to alert your second choice about your file?

How it works, most of the time

Naturally, most faculty members will be eager to find a strong applicant from among those who listed them as a first choice. In most cases, therefore, someone you indicate as a second choice is going to be less interested in the prospects of working with you than is someone you indicate as your first choice. Depending on individual preferences, however, some faculty members might still look closely at applicants who have listed them as a second choice. In some departments, at some schools, there is a culture of co-operation amongst faculty members when it comes to finding excellent candidates for their graduate programs. In those departments, it might be common for faculty members to let their colleagues know when they detect a particularly strong applicant, who they are not themselves interested in accepting.

Some programs make their selections by a committee consisting of the faculty members who are interested in taking on a new graduate student. When the committee meets, they decide which applicants are most appealing for their program, and then discuss who would like to supervise particular students. The selections are made on the basis of whether applicants express interests that match the interests and expertise of a potential supervisor; but this method ensures that all graduate program faculty members have a good opportunity to consider each applicant to the program, rather than just a select few who may have listed them as a preferred graduate supervisor. In a program that selects their graduate students this way, it might not matter too much to a faculty member whether he or she is listed as your first or second choice for supervisor. Keep in mind that this system of matching students with supervisors is far less common that one in which the student applies to work with a particular faculty member, who in turn decides whether the student is accepted.

Overall, the second or third choices for a potential supervisor are important, but usually not because one of them is likely to end up accepting the student. That can and does happen occasionally; however it is rare, so one should not expect it.

Do your choices make sense?

The most important reason why graduate school applicants need to carefully consider whom they indicate on their applications as a second or third choice for graduate supervisor is because those choices can influence how the applicant comes across to the admissions committee or the first-choice prospective supervisor. For instance, if the research interests of the second or third choice are quite different from those of the first choice, it may raise the question in someone’s mind of whether the applicant took the time to properly look into the various faculty members in the program; or, someone might wonder if the student is confused about the area in which he or she wants to do graduate-level research.

Many graduate school applicants will indicate an appropriate faculty member as their first choice of graduate supervisor, but then make the mistake of either failing to indicate a second choice when given the opportunity to do so, or else naming a second choice that does not fit with how the student describes his or her interests in the personal statement. Do not make these mistakes yourself. Ensure that your second (and third) choices for graduate supervisor will make sense to the people who examine your application.