In a previous post at Undergrad Success, some great general tips for applying to graduate school were addressed. Ideas like understanding the entrance exams, seeking recommendations from professors as early as possible, and learning how to craft a great personal statement were all mentioned, and they’re all significant components of a graduate school application.
In addition to addressing some of these ideas, it’s also important to understand that the actual content of your graduate school application should be very different from that of the applications you used to get into college. When you’re making the transition from high school to college, there are essentially three important components: you want to demonstrate good grades, you want to test well, and you want to present yourself as a well-rounded student with regard to extracurricular activity. A strong academic candidate with good test scores and a proven passion for service, leadership, and/or achievement outside the classroom is very difficult for a college to turn down.
All three of these components remain very important when you’re applying to graduate school. However, there are a few factors that make graduate school applications a little bit different, and a little bit more demanding.
First, there’s the fact that your college education is more concentrated than your high school education. In high school, most students in the U.S. follow a fairly standardized approach to coursework. You might pursue a particular interest via electives or Advanced Placement classes, but for the most part you’re getting a well-rounded education focusing equally on a number of subjects. In college, you essentially choose a discipline or two to focus on and pursue them aggressively.
Second, it’s important to remember that, at least in a general sense, college is viewed as life preparation in that it can send you off in any number of directions, equipped, hopefully, with tools for success. Graduate school, on the other hand, is viewed as strictly professional preparation, in that it’s typically designed to launch you into a particular industry or job.
Given these two crucial differences, it’s very important to approach your graduate school applications with an eye toward demonstrating proficiency in your chosen field of study (as opposed to just good grades in general), and to show that you have the necessary skills and disposition to excel in the career path you’re pursuing through further education. Here are a few ways you can go about accomplishing these things.
1 – Highlight Passion For Your Subject
U.S. News & World Report has a simple but thorough article on tips for graduate school applications, built around advice from Matt Merrick, a senior associate dean at Wake Forest’s school of business at the time the article was written. And in one of the tips, Merrick explains that “it’s OK to have passion and confidence,” but that a candidate should be too aggressive in portraying them. A great way to achieve this balance is by letting your activity, transcript, and extracurricular pursuits demonstrate your passion for your subject. Don’t bend the truth, but look for any possible way to highlight how an internship, a semester of study, etc. contributed to your pursuit. This shows not only passion but a clear direction for your interests.
2 – Be Honest & Show Maturity
This is a tip that’s elaborated on rather brilliantly by MBA application coach Alice van Harten at her blog. Specifically, Van Harten discusses how to address questions and essays that ask candidates to describe past failures. In handling such questions, she explains, it’s always best to be open and honest about a genuine failure—and then to articulate either how you corrected the mistake, or what you learned from it. This advice is given with specific regard to MBA application essays, but it’s an important idea to remember throughout the process. As mentioned, graduate school is meant as professional preparation, and demonstrating the maturity it takes to acknowledge and learn from shortcomings can go a long way.
3 – Let Your Application Reveal Your Ambition
This idea walks hand-in-hand with my first tip, but it’s important to highlight on its own as well. Just as your activity ought to show a passion for whatever subject it is you’re pursuing, it should ideally also reveal your professional ambition. Perhaps you can list a website you launched that relates to your desired career, or a handful of internships that point directly to a given path. If you can make something like this clear on your application, you’ve already answered graduate school interviewers’ questions about what you hope to do with your degree.
The tricky thing is that most of these tips are easier to address if you have them in mind throughout your undergraduate experience, rather than simply when you choose to apply to graduate school. Still, in organizing your application to reflect your accomplishments, it’s a good idea to keep these things in mind, so as to present yourself as a focused and professional candidate.
Monica Lowry is a mother, freelance writer, and entrepreneur based in Atlanta, Ga.