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Admissions and the application

Congratulations! If you are reading this page, it means you have decided what to study and where to apply for graduate school. Maybe you based this decision on research you gathered at this resource center, in attending an Idealist.org Graduate Degree Fair for the Public Good talking with admissions staff, asking people in your network, or through other methods.

However, if you have jumped ahead and want to apply for schools without having researched your options, then it's a good idea to take a step back and at least read this overview of all the things you should do to research your options and prepare for school. Have you considered all your options? Or have you overlooked options like studying part-time, joining joint-degree options, discovering a school you haven't heard of, or entering a degree program that—on the surface—doesn't look like an obvious choice? Whatever the case, you owe it to yourself to understand all the opportunities open to you before making such a giant commitment of time and money.

For those who are ready, on to the business of applying!

The admission and application process involves more than taking tests, writing an essay or two, and completing the application and hitting "submit." Yes, admissions offices do have a checklist of materials they require of applicants, and there's advice below about how to ace the steps of the application, but your admission and application process involves so much more. Applying to grad school should also involve interacting with the admissions office, understanding the priorities of the admissions committee, finishing up prerequisite courses, making up for weaknesses in your application, and finally, gathering and submitting the requested materials.

Research phase

Application phase

Later in the application phase

Research phase

Interacting with the admissions office, or "The Unwritten Application"

To begin with, recognize that gatekeepers to your graduate education are there to help. Utilize them! Try to avoid being a "stealth applicant"—those who first make contact with the university with their application—because you miss a prime opportunity to ask questions and/or put your name in front of the people on the admissions committee who will make a decision about your future. Program websites can provide a lot of helpful information and this is definitely a place to start, but the professionals who work directly with prospective students can offer insight. Ask questions about a program's enrollment statistics or concerns you have about perceived weaknesses in your application. And if you want, ask admissions personnel to send you email updates that are relevant to your interests.

Kathryn Meyer, Director of Recruitment at The Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M University, says that the increase of stealth applications—a trend on the rise across the nation—means that admissions staff miss opportunities to advise would-be applicants. "Many times prospects miss the chance to gather information that could help them in the selection or application process. Recruiters and admissions directors know the inside workings of their own application system and programs and they work with applicants year in and year out. So who better to answer individual concerns, put them in touch with current students, or offer links to find specific information? We want to help each person put forth the best application possible for the benefit of both parties." In other words, admissions staff can and want to provide a valuable service to those who call or email in the research phase.

Furthermore, make sure to always be professional and courteous in your interactions with the admissions office. Be conscientious of the time you are taking, and offer a thank you. Even quick phone calls and emails may be considered part of your application, so think about your words and reread your correspondence before pressing "send." You might be surprised how hasty comments and reactions may lend a negative impression to your evaluation.

Action steps:

  • When calling or emailing the admissions office, take the time to introduce yourself and to be professional and polite.
  • Send thank you notes after prolonged phone calls or face-to-face interactions. Look for answers to questions on the website before calling the office to ask. When you do call, be brief and respectful of their time.
  • Email messages should have a relatively formal tone. Avoid text-message-like abbreviations. For example, avoid using the abbreviation "FYI" for "for your information," or "ASAP" for "as soon as possible."
  • Use a title such as "Ms.," "Mr.,"or "Dr.," until you are invited to be on a first name basis with admissions staff or faculty.
  • Pay attention to the tone and language of the people you speak with at each school to learn more about the culture there: Is it formal and reserved? More casual and friendly? What key words do you hear repeatedly?
  • If you have the opportunity, visit the campus! Meet with admissions staff and faculty, represent yourself well, sit in on classes (with permission), learn all you can from current students, and assess your feelings while you are there.
  • Take note of what you are learning about the school through these interactions: you may be able to translate them into talking points. See more about talking points in the "interview" section of this article. Note that while the grad school may want to hear from you, they do not want to hear from your parents. You are on your way to grad school—which requires independence and responsibility—so you should show those qualities and handle this process on your own. "Helicopter parents" who hover do not offer a positive impression in your first communications with the school.
  • If you are waitlisted or denied admission, or your financial aid package isn't what you had hoped, be polite in all follow-up interactions, and offer thanks for the admission committee's consideration and time.

Understanding the priorities of the admissions committee

The admissions committee is usually comprised of staff and faculty who will review your application and determine whether you are a good fit for the school or program. From the committee's point of view, your value to the school naturally includes your ability both to succeed in the degree, as well as later in your career.

But that's not all. The admissions committee wants more from you. They want you to contribute to the education and career of your classmates as well. The admissions committee wants you to share your unique perspective in class discussions, to use your life and past professional experience to guide group projects, and to connect classmates with your professional network. It's not all about your individual aptitude to pass your courses; your contribution to the school is also a major consideration in your admission.

They also want you to succeed in any internships, externships, or other experiences you participate in while you are a grad student, and by doing so, represent the school well to community partners, host agencies, and others you come into contact with during grad school. A school is only as strong as its current student body.

Finally, the admissions committee wants you to be dedicated to your field, capable of doing graduate level work, and for you and the school to be a good fit for each other.

Action steps:

  • Find out the specific priorities of each target school by studying the school's website, reading about current and former students, talking with admissions staff, and asking people in your network who know the school well. Create a list of the school's priorities and attributes.
  • Use your application materials to address these attributes to the committee. For example, through your resume show that you have demonstrated an interest in a specific field by listing your relevant professional, volunteer, term-of-service, academic, and other experiences. In your statement of purpose explain what you hope to gain from attending this school, and what you hope to contribute.
  • Share your story clearly and concisely, and help them understand what makes you unique. For example, if your target school values international experience, tell them about relevant life experience abroad, such as that time you lived or traveled abroad in junior high school and how that experience shaped your perspective. (Always use concrete examples and only include true experiences you had.) If you hope to work on policy issues regarding people with low incomes, make sure the committee knows about your personal relevant experiences, such as growing up poor, being homeless at some point, or working your way through college. Life experience counts, and yours can add value to your application if you share your story effectively.
  • Be clear about what you'll contribute to the program, but leave plenty of room for how the school will challenge, enlighten, and benefit you.
  • Be specific and personal, but don't recite facts about the school (the admissions committee is already well versed on the subject).

Taking care of prerequisite courses and skills

Grad schools expect a certain level of academic and professional achievement from applicants. Only your target school can tell you what courses, skills, and experience you should have accomplished prior to enrollment. For example, a policy school might expect incoming students to have a solid foundation in economics and statistics. An international studies program may require students to pass a foreign language exam with a certain score in order to be admitted.

Depending on the school, lacking a specific course on your transcript is not going to prevent your admission. More likely the school will admit you, but they'll do so conditionally, making it clear that you either take a summer course before fall enrollment or take the course during your first term on campus. Be aware that course deficiencies you make up for during your first term will probably not count towards your graduate degree, may cost you extra, and definitely will compete for your time with the graduate level classes you are taking. Try to address these deficiencies early in your research phase.

Action steps:

  • Find out what prerequisite courses and skills each target school requires. If you are not sure an undergraduate course on your transcript fulfills a requirement, ask admissions staff about it before you apply. (After you've applied, the admissions staff will likely let you know this automatically.)
  • If you are required to take a class before you can enroll, find out if the school has specific restrictions about where you can take the class. Ask the admissions office for course approval before you pay for it and take it. Also find out if you need to earn a minimum grade in the class for it to count.
  • If you are deficient in a foreign language, or another skill that will take a longer time to master, talk with the admissions office about your options. Your best bet may be to wait another year before applying.

Shortcomings in your application

You may be faced with a blemish on your application that is less easily overcome. For example, you may have had a semester or two as an undergraduate with low grades that really drove down your overall Grade Point Average (GPA). Or perhaps you graduated from college so long ago that your undergraduate professors won't remember you, making it difficult to ask them for academic references from them. Maybe you started another masters degree elsewhere and failed to complete it. The best way to proceed is to investigate remedies by asking the admissions staff you meet and other people you respect.

Action steps:

  • If your undergraduate transcript is weak or outdated (older than ten years), you can show your commitment to achieving your academic goals by taking individual university or college courses and earning good grades. The credit from these courses is unlikely to count towards your grad degree, but your high grades can help your application, and may help fulfill any program prerequisites you lack. Make sure the courses are at a rigorous level (upper and graduate levels if possible), and that the content of the courses is relevant to your target degree.
  • During your preparation for grad school, share your goals with the admissions staff at your target schools. Let them guide you in the choices you make when discussing your shortcomings during the formal application process.
  • Likewise, if you lack academic references, you can take individual university or college courses so that your instructors can vouch for your aptitude. Again, upper-level (preferably graduate level) courses that are along the lines of your target degree are most useful. Please note that your professional references may more than make up for your lack of academic references. It's best to talk with an admissions representative from your target school for guidance.
  • If your test scores are low, and below the average for your target school, you can enroll in a test preparation course to try to raise the scores. Some schools will only consider applicants who meet the minimum test score or GPA, in order to reduce the volume of applications staff have to spend time reading. You should be able to find out if a minimum test score or GPA is required at your target school. If your scores or grades are not high enough, either bring the scores up, or don't waste time and money applying. Other schools may weigh your ten years of relevant professional experience more than your unimpressive test scores. Finally, some schools don't require test scores at all. If you think that your test-taking skills are hopeless, you may be better off applying to one of these last two types of schools. You are not alone!
  • If worse comes to worst, and you have a shortcoming in your application that you can't overcome within a year, write a brief addendum to the essay or the application to address the shortcoming. For example, if your grades were weak during a certain semester, explain why. Don Asher's "Graduate Admissions Essays" recommends that the cause for any shortcoming you discuss fit these criteria: it should be in the past, resolved, sympathetic, and unlikely to recur. It should also be true.

Keep reading on page 2.