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.


Are you Applying To Graduate School? Think Beyond Your Grades… Way Beyond

Are you applying to graduate school or professional school? Not worried because you have excellent grades? That’s great, but you still need other things going for you if you want to get into graduate school.

Successful applicants usually do several things that the unsuccessful applicants don’t do. Most students submit all the required components of their application (i.e., transcripts, standardized test scores, a personal statement, letters of recommendation, application fees, etc.) and then sit back and hope for the best. This passive approach almost always ends in failure!

Think Beyond Your Grades… Way Beyond.

The most common misconception that students have when applying to grad school is this belief that outstanding grades are all one needs to get into graduate school. It’s simply not true! Many students mistakenly assume that admission to graduate school depends on surpassing some minimum grade-point requirement. The idea makes a lot of sense – after all, it is the main qualification for admission to a bachelors-degree program at most colleges or universities. But the truth is, the criteria for getting into graduate school are numerous and varied.

Grades definitely are important, but so are many other factors. Admission to graduate school is not an entitlement that comes with even the best grade point average (GPA). Success in graduate school requires much more than just academic ability, and the people who decide who gets in and who gets rejected are well aware of this fact.

It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss all the factors that determine the success or failure of a graduate school applicant, but many of them are perceived character attributes of the applicant – such as maturity, ability to work with others, independence, and many others.

Whether your application is successful often depends on whether you are perceived to be a potential asset to the graduate advisor (the professor who supervises your Ph.D. work). Most (but not all) professors learn through experience that they prefer working with certain types of people, and prefer to avoid certain other types of people at all costs!

In most graduate programs, if the professor you want to have as a graduate advisor does not want you as his or her student, then you will not be accepted into the program. It is as simple as that. Professors are not forced to work with any student they do not wish to work with, so you need to convince them that they would be better off with you than with one of the other applicants.

The letters of recommendation (aka reference letters) you get to support your applications to graduate school will be the main source of information about you as a person.

Your grades say nothing about the kind of person you are, at least not along the dimensions that matter. Are there two or three professors (aka referees) at your school who know you well enough that they could convince someone else that you have the right stuff? If you do that’s great, but what if you don’t have any or not enough referees? What’s your plan for finding some? You have to get yourself out there and in the situations where you can be evaluated so that you can get the letters you need. Read this blog post on how to find valuable volunteer or research experience in preparation for grad school or professional school.

Even if you have an outstanding GPA and the highest grades in your graduating class, you cannot afford to be complacent or overconfident in your approach to graduate school application. Your outstanding grades are no guarantee that you will be accepted into the graduate program of your choice…or even into any graduate program at all!