Guest Post: Addressing Weaknesses in Your Graduate School Application

Giulio Rocca is a Harvard alumnus and the founder of and, online references for people applying to graduate and business school offering clear, complete and expert advice based on first-hand experience.

Getting accepted to graduate school is a competitive affair. Imagine an admissions committee reviewing your application with a checklist in mind. They start by reviewing the quantitative measures of your ability. Does the applicant have a high GPA? Check. High GRE score? Check. Next, they turn to the qualitative parts of your application: your cover letter, personal statement, writing sample, and recommendation letters. Naturally, the ideal candidate will pass with flying colors. But what if all the boxes aren’t checked?

Let’s start by discussing grades and standardized test scores. If your performance isn’t stellar, the default conclusion is that either (a) you aren’t intelligent or (b) you didn’t put the requisite effort into your studies. One way to compensate is to demonstrate your intellectual superiority by excelling in one of the quantitative measures. For example, if you have a low GPA, ace the GRE; or vice versa. Another way to address weaknesses is to highlight your strengths in the written portion of your application. This can be accomplished by drawing attention to a subset of your GPA that relates to your major or specific subjects, or referencing a high percentile score in one of the verbal or quantitative sections of the GRE. A third way to compensate is to offer alternative and acceptable explanations for your poor performance. For instance, if your grades trailed off in your senior year because you worked to support yourself financially, lived through a family crisis, or experienced other extenuating circumstances, you can briefly touch on this without being melodramatic.

But what if your weakness lies in the written portion of your application — in your personal statement, writing sample, or recommendation letters? If you’re not a skilled writer, workshop your written materials with people that you hold in high esteem. Your current and former professors are usually a good bet. You can also enlist the support of a professional editor but resist the temptation to have your work completely rewritten and passed off as your own. If you’re struggling to come up with recommenders, ask yourself whether you’ve considered all options. Did you think about all past and present professors? How about professors both inside and outside of your department? While it’s desirable to submit recommendations from professors in fields related to your application, it’s acceptable to include an outside perspective particularly if the two fields overlap in competencies.

Even if your application materials are in tip-top shape, it’s possible to commit a final cardinal error: submitting your application after the deadline. While some graduate schools are unbendable on this point, the reality is that it typically takes days, if not weeks, for admissions committees to review all applications. If you’re late, you can attempt to salvage the situation by including a cover letter containing an apology and expressing your sincerest gratitude to still be considered in the current application cycle. Following up with a phone call or email to the department’s Graduate Director and professors with whom you’ve initiated contact is also helpful.

Ultimately, success in addressing your weaknesses depends on your ability to conduct an honest self-assessment and strategically focus on compensating where it matters most. Keep a positive attitude and remember that many applicants are accepted each year with less-than-perfect applications. If you can’t check all the boxes, do the next best thing and nip any concerns in the bud.


  1. Thanks for the advice. I do live in a rural area, and am looking to move, but had not considered volunteering for a research project. I didn’t know that was an option. It sounds like a great idea. I will definitely look into it. Thank you.


  2. Any advice on how to approach the weakness of obtaining an online undergraduate degree. Especially, due to the fact that the classes were only five weeks long, which did not allow the time for any serious research. My teachers were always impressed by the depth of my papers, but I stand at a major disadvantage to someone who had a semester to write their senior thesis. What is a good way to spin my situation? Thanks.


    1. Thank-you for a great question, Patrick. My advice depends upon whether or not the graduate program to which you will apply will involve a research thesis. If it is a research-intensive discipline (like Psychology, for example), then you will likely be required to conduct a major research project and write a thesis. The prospects of being accepted into such a program will depend, to a large extent, on whether the faculty member you want to have as your graduate supervisor perceives you to be a potential asset to his or her research. For this reason, there is no way to really “spin” your situation that will make up for this particular disadvantage of the online degree. But, there may be ways to to get the first-hand research experience you missed out on, if you are willing to put in the time and effort. You could always volunteer to help a professor with his or her research, taking the advice I’ve given in several other posts on this blog. Here is a link to one of them.
      Don’t worry about not being a currently-enrolled student, as most professors don’t care as much about that as they do about your future plans. If they know you’re looking for a volunteer research position to prepare for a successful application to graduate school, they will understand and will probably treat you like any other student who is enrolled at their institution. I suppose this advice is only potentially useful if you live in an urban area with a university or research institute nearby. For someone who completed an online degree because they live in a rural area, it might not be possible to get first-hand research experience, this way. If your situation is like that, then you might consider relocating to area where you plan to go to graduate school, contact the person you want to eventually have as your graduate supervisor, and volunteer some of your time as a research assistant. Let them know that you’re doing this with the hope that they will take you on as a new grad student, next year. – Dave


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