Improve your Graduate School Prospects with Relevant Experience

Applying to graduate school is, in many respects, like applying for a job. Anyone who has ever applied for a job knows the importance of having relevant experience in the same or at least a similar kind of work. It is not impossible to get a job without previous experience — it’s just much harder to do so. All other things being equal, most jobs will go to applicants with experience. It can be like that when a graduate-admissions committee considers which applicants to accept into their programs, too… though not for all the same reasons.

Most students are generally aware that it can be helpful to get experience in research or fieldwork prior to applying to graduate school. But many underestimate just how important one’s experience can sometimes be when it comes to being accepted. For some programs, having the right experience is virtually a requirement!

To understand why, prospective graduate students should be aware that acceptance decisions are based primarily on risk management. There is usually an upper limit on the number of new students that can be accepted into a graduate program, and virtually all programs have more applicants than they can accept.  The goal of the admissions committee is to accept only applicants who are going to succeed in the program without running into any problems along the way. (Contrary to the way some people think it should be, selections are not based on who “deserves” it the most).

From the point of view of an admissions committee, the student who has sought out relevant work or volunteer experience has demonstrated the kind of initiative and interest in the field that is needed for success in graduate school. The applicant with experience is more likely to already be dedicated to a particular career path, and therefore, less likely to be discouraged by some of the challenges of graduate school.

From the point of view of a prospective graduate advisor, applicants with relevant experience have a lower risk of failure than the ‘inexperienced’ by virtue of having already shown they can do things that will be required in graduate school. This can include many things, for example, professional skills like writing, public speaking, creative expression, or critical analysis. The similarity to job-seeking is once again apparent — just as the main advantage to the employer is that the experienced job applicant will require less training than a naive one, thus saving the employer time and money, most prospective graduate advisors will evaluate new applicants in much the same way.  Students who have already demonstrated some aptitude will probably have a relatively easier time finishing, without causing any grief for the faculty members who supervise and mentor them. It’s all about risk management. Read this post about the Right and Wrong ways to find a volunteer position.

Getting relevant experience is also essential to lining up the best letters of recommendation for graduate school. This is especially true if that experience includes helping a professor with his or her research, because the most influential letters of recommendation usually come from academic people who know what they are talking about when they attest to a student’s suitability for graduate studies.

Stay tuned for our next blog post where I will discuss why not all experience is created equal.



  1. Hi there,

    First and foremost, thank you so much for your blog posts. Secondly, I had a couple of questions:

    I am currently applying to a couple of Masters programs in Psychology. Unfortunately, I was that student who didn’t get relevant research experience in my undergraduate program. When I graduated two years ago I started working full-time right away in education management, so I was unable to get that relevant experience. I’ve decided to take a chance and apply for my masters, as this is something I’ve wanted to do for a while. However, life got in the way and now that I’m ready and able I feel discouraged because I realize how important experience is. My GPA is about 3.6, and I’m hoping that if I do great on my personal statement and get good GRE marks, I’ll have a chance of getting in somewhere.

    What are your experiences with applicants that fit the profile such as mine?

    Thank you so much!


    Sarah Khan


    1. Sarah, I have encountered many prospective grad-school applicants matching your profile. For the most part, they have been able to get into graduate school because they had several other things going for them, which together made the dearth of research experience less of a concern. In some cases, they had more relevant experience than they realized, and they were able to spin what experience they had in a positive way. This might apply in your case, too, Sarah. Your work experience could probably boost the prospects for your applications if it is portrayed in the right way in your personal statement, and in any direct communication you have with a potential graduate supervisor. If you want some help with that, you might want to consider using my personalized consultation services. You will find more information about the service, here.


  2. HI , I am applying for master program in Computer Science Fall 2013, i have been working in Cisco for past year and half , i was just curious as to will that work experince help me in getting a admit.
    my of interest is not Networks though , i mean related to work at Cisco..


    1. It depends on what your responsibilities have been at Cisco, and how your supervisor or boss views your potential. The work experience itself probably won’t make a difference, unless it happens to produce an effective letter of recommendation for your application to grad school. Generally, if you’re applying to a master’s in computer science, and want you letters to be effective, they should probably be coming from professors who know a lot about you and your personal qualities that are relevant to success in grad school. So, the answer is, no, unless you have significant responsibilities at Cisco and organize the work of others, this work experience probably won’t have a significant impact on your grad school application.


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