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Admissions and the application

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Application phase

Gathering, writing, and submitting requested application materials

The most daunting part of the entire application is gathering and submitting all the requested materials within the posted deadlines. Some schools offer checklists that help you track your progress. If you are applying for several schools, it's essential to keep organized, know the deadlines for each program (even within the same university), and follow instructions meticulously.

Depending on the school, you may be submitting a variety of materials: application forms, letters of recommendation, graduate admissions essay(s), transcripts, standardized test scores, work or writing samples, and a resume.

Application forms

The application forms include pages where you list your basic personal information as well as more specific information relevant to your education. Be sure to fully answer all questions and complete all forms. Missing pieces of information can prevent your admission to grad school.

Format

Today most schools prefer online applications, but many still accept paper applications when necessary. Other schools have a combined application process where some of the application takes place online, but certain portions are submitted on paper. Below are some things to keep in mind as you proceed.

Online: There are many benefits to an online application. First, online applications may offer you the opportunity to easily track your progress, so you can be sure that you have submitted 100 percent of the requested materials. Further, online applications can save you money on postage, sometimes lower your application fees, and usually let you know instantly if the school received the application.

A final and major benefit of online applications is the proliferation of a standard application that may be shared among many schools. Associations of schools—such as the Association of Schools of Public Health or The Consortium, for MBA candidates of color—may offer applicants a way to apply to many schools through a single online application.

A common mistake of online applicants is rushing to fill out the fields and neglecting to proofread their answers. Avoid the temptation to hurry. Where you go to grad school will directly impact the next several years of your life, and possibly the rest of your career. You owe it to yourself to focus and to take your time.

Action steps:

  • If you are asked to upload your resume, it's best submit it as a Portable Document Format (PDF).
  • It's essential to write your admissions essay independently of the online process, edit it thoroughly, have trusted friends give you feedback and check for errors, and then copy and paste it into the online application. Never compose your essay on the spot or in an online form.

Paper: Paper applications, if available, may suit you better if you want to ensure the look of your application, or if the feel of the high quality paper better reflects your professionalism. Just remember that the substance of your application needs to match or exceed the quality of the paper you print it on. If the paper application has sections that must be handwritten, note that your neatness will benefit you in two ways: the admissions committee will be able to read what you've written, and they will not get frustrated when trying to decipher your writing. With so many applications to read, they will appreciate your efforts to be legible (really, it's the very least you can do).

Action steps:

  • Take your time when completing any handwritten portions of the paper application and use your best penmanship.
  • If you have bad handwriting, consider submitting your application online. If that is not an option for you, ask someone with good penmanship to fill in the forms for you.
  • If you are applying to more than one school, it's important to keep deadlines and instructions straight for each school.
  • If you have time, consider submitting your application several weeks prior to the deadline so that if the office of admissions finds pieces of your application missing, you have time to gather and submit them.
  • Note that "rolling admissions" means that the admissions office accepts and considers applications during a broader period of time, and may not have a deadline at all. It's still a good idea to get your application in as early as possible. The financial aid office may allocate scholarships, fellowships, and grants to admitted students on a first-come, first-serve basis. The earlier you apply, the better the chance you will receive the financial help you need to go to school.
  • Be careful that you have mailed the paper application and all other requested materials in time to meet deadlines. Make sure you know whether the instructions are to have the materials "postmarked by" the deadline (where your materials must be mailed, by the deadline) or "received by" the deadline (where your materials must be delivered to the admissions office by the deadline). If the school's website is vague, assume the materials must be delivered to the admissions office by the deadline. It's best to be safe. Using a traceable mailing service may provide you with added reassurance that your application will arrive on time.

Letters of recommendation

A recommendation letter is a statement from a professor or employer about your work, commitment to the field, aptitude for learning, maturity, and other distinguishing qualities.

Admissions offices expect your letters of recommendation to be positive, but not necessarily glowing. They also expect that if they ask for three letters, you'll submit three, not two and not four. Some schools may be open to receiving four letters at most, and only as a backup in case one recommender's response is in question. Admissions personnel don't want to read or prioritize extra pieces submitted—besides, if you can't follow application instructions, how will you do in grad school? The admissions committee wants your letter writers to be very familiar with your work and to be able to speak to your specific qualities. They aren't so concerned with an impressive title or an impressive organization name—they just want someone who really knows you and who is not a friend or family member.

Since your references write the letters and the admissions committee reads them, you may feel a bit left out. After all, what else can you control, other than choosing the right people to recommend you? In fact, more than you think.

Action steps:

  • Start as soon as possible. Few people can write a thoughtful letter at the last minute.
  • Approach the right people—people who know you and your work well, who are willing to write a good letter for you, and who are reliable. At all costs, avoid asking family and friends. Most schools are looking for a mix of academic and professional references—follow the school's guidelines. If you have been out of school for a while, the admissions team will probably give more weight to your professional references.
  • Ask each person if they can write you a good letter of recommendation for grad school. If they have strong reservations, you'll want to know so you can find someone else. Remember, the admissions committee is accustomed to reading positive letters. If you have limited professional experience, look to supervisors from volunteer work or internships to write letters for you. Also consider mentors from professional or academic associations. Read more about how to set yourself up for successful graduate admission during college here.
  • Give each reference explicit instructions which echo your target school's guidelines. For example, ask them to fill out the form, attach a separate letter, offer specific anecdotes to support any claims they make about your strengths, use the envelope you've provided, send the letter to either you or the school, etc.
  • Share with references the relevant forms from the application, information about the program you are applying to, a copy of your graduate admission essays (which shows your rationale for going back to school and your career goals), and your resume.
  • For recommendation letters that are sent through the postal service, provide your references with a stamped and addressed envelope for each letter you are asking them to write. Including the stamped and addressed envelope it's not only polite: it also saves time, and makes sure the letter gets to the right place (either back to you, or to the school, according to application instructions). Make sure your references know to sign the back of the envelope if that's required.
  • If you are asking a professor for a recommendation, don't be shy about reminding them of the classes you took with them, the projects you tackled in class, the grades you earned, and anything else you want them to have in mind as they write. Finally, thank your letter writers! Be sure to let them know where you end up going to school. They will be waiting and will appreciate hearing from you.

Graduate admissions essay(s)

Most applications to grad school require you to write one or more essays explaining your rationale and interest in pursuing graduate education, including what you want to study, and how you plan to use your education. Other names for it are the Statement of Purpose or Personal Statement. The essay prompt may be in the form of a question, or it may be a statement to reflect on. Sometimes you have the option of writing an additional, optional essay. If you choose to do so, share new information about yourself that will convince the committee you are right for the school.

Your essay is the most open-ended piece of your application, and as such is the place where you can explain your interest in attending the program through honest, clear, and direct writing. The essay is a writing sample in itself, and it's a window into your ability to think clearly and critically.

The list of things to do and to avoid in your graduate admissions essay is a long one. Don Asher's book "Graduate Admissions Essays" treats the subject thoroughly, and walks you through the planning and drafting stages. Some of the points that most admissions professionals agree are crucial include the following:

  • Read the essay question and answer it, even if that means writing different essays for each school to which you apply. As with a job application, your application for grad school should show you at your best.
  • Address these topics: What you want to study and why, your experiences in that field, what you plan to do with your degree once you have it, and how this program fits with your goals.
  • If you've been away from school for a time or are changing fields, address the timing of your application: why go back to school now as opposed to earlier?
  • Share your story. Avoid clichés, and overused quotations. Instead really share what makes you unique in your own words. Illustrate how your voice and perspective will bring something new to classroom discussions and projects. Did you live in a developing country? Have you accomplished something rare and difficult? Was your upbringing unique and/or tied to the client population you hope to serve one day?
  • Thoroughly proofread your essay. Do not solely rely on your computer's spell and grammar check tools.
  • Accept all "track changes" to make sure that your readers are not getting to peek at your editing process. If you can, convert your essay(s) to Portable Document Format (PDF).
  • If you are submitting a similar essay to multiple schools, make certain that you use the right school name each time. Then check and double-check that the essay is going it into the right envelope, or that you are uploading the right essay online. To be blunt, simple mistakes can kill your application.
  • If you have a weak component to your application, write a brief paragraph within your essay, or in an addendum, to explain your situation. As mentioned earlier, your explanations for shortcomings should show that their cause was in the past and is now resolved and unlikely to recur. Be honest!
  • Finally, remember that experienced, intelligent people will read your essay. Engage them with your tone, style, stories, and intent. Make sure they see the real you through substance and explanation, and that they don't doze off after a sentence or two.

Action steps:

  • As with the rest of your application, be honest in your writing. Remember that writing your essay(s) is not a timed test. You should take your time, create a rough draft, sleep on it, revise it, create another draft, etc.
  • Show it to trusted or blunt friends who will give you honest feedback.
  • Proofread!
  • See "Sharing your story with the admissions team" for tips on preparing essay anecdotes about your achievements.

Transcripts

A transcript is the official record of coursework (including grades) taken at one institution. As the saying goes, the best indicator of future behavior is past performance. Admissions officers will review your past academic record because it helps them understand what kind of student you have been. What kind of undergraduate institution did you attend? How rigorous was your undergraduate course load and degree? Which specific courses have you taken, which are you lacking, and are you academically prepared to undertake their course load? Also, the more recently you graduated, the more important your transcript will be.

You'll be asked to submit all transcripts for any courses you have taken from each institution. Certainly include your undergraduate transcript(s), and transcripts for other courses that you talk about elsewhere in your application. This consideration is especially important if you took courses outside of your undergraduate degree, and tracking down a transcript for that coursework would be very difficult, you received no credit, or the grades you received don't show your best side.

A word of warning if you took courses outside or after your undergraduate studies: Carefully consider whether this coursework is relevant to your application, and whether it shows your best side. For instance, if you had passable grades during a summer study program in Paris a few years after you got your bachelors degree, but the topic was art history and now you're applying to public health schools, you should really weigh the value of including your summer program in your application materials. Be aware that if you list that Paris summer program in your grad school application, your target grad school may require a transcript from it.

If you are unable to obtain and submit such a transcript, your application may be considered incomplete, and you may not be admitted to the school. It may be in your interest to omit some of your educational experiences (but certainly not your undergraduate studies!). If those summer French courses would be useful to your degree, but you don't have a transcript, by all means mention them in your resume or essay, but not in the "education" section of the application itself. Your school may or may not want to see a certificate of completion—that is a great question for your admissions counselor.

Action steps:

  • Be sure to request transcripts well ahead of deadlines. If you list any course of study in your application, be sure to submit the required transcript you received from the course of study, even if the course was not for credit. Otherwise your application may not be considered for admission.
  • Follow your alma mater's instructions when making the request: how much payment is due, how to communicate the request (in writing or by phone), and what information to give them (for example, your name, student number, graduation year, major or department, number of transcripts, and where to send them).
  • Follow your target school's instructions regarding where the transcript should be sent (Directly to the grad school? To you, the applicant?) and direct your alma mater appropriately.
  • If your undergraduate transcript is weak, consider taking a few relevant university courses before you apply for grad school, so that you can earn high grades and establish yourself as a serious student. Read the section of this article on shortcomings in your application for other suggestions.

Standardized test scores

Standardized tests for grad school are long exams that test makers proctor independently of any school. Schools that require you to take the tests use your scores to assess your aptitude for study. Just as you had to submit SAT or ACT scores to supplement your undergraduate application if you went to school in the United States, you may have to do something similar for grad school. Graduate study-related standardized tests include the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), Graduate Management Aptitude Test (GMAT), Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), Miller Analogies Test (MAT), Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), and more.

Typically, you don't have to take more than one or two tests, and the knowledge you need to do well on the test may be unrelated to the knowledge you need to excel in school.

Because comparing the Grade Point Averages of applicants is difficult (some colleges are seen as more academically rigorous than others), standardized tests offer a way to assess and "rank" you among your peers. While the scores themselves are standardized, not every admissions committee will look at them in the same way, and some schools do not require them at all. Scores are simply one more piece of the puzzle in understanding your abilities better.

If you do need to better your scores, find out if the school penalizes you for retaking the test. Kathryn Meyer from Texas A&M University's Bush School of Government & Public Service says: "Find out how competitive your target school's admissions process is and how they view retakes if you are not happy with the initial score. Some will average the totals, others will mix-match the highest sections, and others will count the highest total in one setting. Many times, retaking a test is a good idea for two reasons: It helps a candidate stay viable during a competitive admissions stage and can help a candidate qualify for a larger scholarship when merit-based aid is considered." You will only know what is recommended by your target schools if you ask.

Action steps:

  • Determine which tests your target school requires by looking at its website.
  • Find out the median test scores of students accepted into your target schools to better understand where you will stand in the admissions process.
  • Ask how the university will count your scores if you decide to take the test more than once. Will they average them? Or take the highest score in one setting?
  • Register for the tests as soon as possible to be sure you can take the test when you feel ready, and also so that your target school will receive your scores before the deadline.
  • Study for your exams as much as you can. If you can afford it, taking a test prep course may be worth the investment. Study guides are also a good, more affordable option. Take as many timed practice tests as possible.
  • If fear of the GMAT is keeping you from applying to business schools, keep in mind that more MBA schools want students who come from a nonprofit background. Because you are in demand, such schools may allow you to submit GRE scores instead. Contact your target programs to see if substituting the GRE is an option.

Resume

A resume is a one- or two-page summary of your professional experience, including jobs, year-of-service experiences, internships, and volunteer opportunities that are relevant to your field of study and future career.

Consider using the same approach to revising your resume for grad school as you would in a job search. During a job search, you would analyze the job description, research the organization, and put together a resume that clearly and directly addresses the skills and experience your prospective employer is seeking. Do the exact same for grad school. What courses will you be taking, and what jobs will you be pursuing after you graduate? What skills will you need to succeed in the field?

According to Lisa Sperling of the University of Georgia Department of Public Administration and Policy, what can really tip the scales in your favor includes an excellent essay and "volunteer, internship, and work experience." She says that her staff also consider relevant extracurricular activities from undergraduate applicants.

Action steps:

  • Make a list of each qualification, skill, or job function you will need in order to succeed at the school and in your career. For each, ask yourself:
    o Do I have the necessary experience?
    o If so, where did I get it (was it at more than one place)?
    o What can I say in one or two sentences to translate my achievement, using numbers and clear action verbs?
  • Your list of answers to where you got your experience will become the organizations you list on your resume. Your sentences translating your achievement will become the bullet points under each organization's name.
  • Keep your resume short: two pages maximum.
  • For more information about creating a knock-out resume, see Chapter Eight of The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers, available for free.
  • Also read "Sharing your story with the admissions team" for more tips on conveying your experiences to the admissions staff in a compelling manner.

Work or writing samples

Not all schools require samples of your past work. If your target school does require this, follow the instructions in terms of the length and type of work the school is requesting. If you need to submit a writing sample and have been employed for three or more years, find out if sharing a grant proposal or another piece of professional writing will suffice.

If the school does not require a writing sample, keep in mind that if you submit one, the sample may not make it to the admissions committee. Because many schools review applications electronically now, the committee may not scan extraneous pieces that can eat up server storage space. Again, you can ask your target school.
Later in the application process

The interview

An interview is a formal conversation with a representative from the school that allows you to share your passion for the field, the story of your accomplishments, and your enthusiasm for the school. Interviews also allow you to learn more about the school to make sure it's the right place for you.

Not all schools require an interview. But if your target school does require one, or makes one optional, you should prepare for it as though it were a job interview. And remember that the interview is a two-way street. You should come away from it with a better understanding of the academic and social culture of the school (will you fit in?), the career trajectory you will have when leaving the school, and if this is the place where you can really grow your potential, focus on areas of professional and academic concern to you, and fulfill your intellectual curiosity. Will you find the future colleagues of your dreams here?

Sometimes admissions staff use the interview as a way to meet applicants who fall short in one area of the application, before deciding on their admission. According to Phillip S. Mack of University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work, an applicant with a compelling application who doesn't meet the minimum GPA requirements may be invited for an interview in order to determine the applicant's seriousness as a student. If this is your case, it's crucial to prepare for the interview and to use the opportunity to show that you are indeed serious about your education, ready for grad school, and that you thoroughly understand what you are getting yourself into, both with the school and with a career in the field.

If your interview takes place on campus, be sure to plan a full campus visit.

Action steps:

  • Thoroughly research the school, prepare your talking points about the school (which you can use in developing sophisticated questions, for example), and your talking points about your achievements, relevant skills, and applicable life experience.
  • Develop a list of questions that shows you are well versed in the school's offerings and faculty, but that you need to know more about the school in order to make a good decision. Ensure they are answered, either by your interviewer, staff or faculty, or a current or former student.
  • Prepare the story of your accomplishments and major turning points so that you can offer supporting evidence of your commitment to the issue area, your skills, and your readiness for grad school.
  • To read more about preparing for an interview, read Chapter Nine of The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers, available for free.
  • Always send a thank you note!

Conclusion and further resources

After all the work you have done investigating broad educational options, degrees you could earn, and schools that seem to be a good fit for you, it's the work you put into your application itself that ultimately offers your target school(s) the most comprehensive look at your ability to succeed and thrive on their campus. The key to a successful application is time: giving yourself enough time to collect materials, find and instruct the best people to write letters for you, plan and revise your essay, and make up for any shortcomings in your application.

One final piece of advice from Philip Mack at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work is to apply to several schools, so that you have other options if your first-choice school does not admit you.

You may find yourself waitlisted for one or more schools. The way you handle yourself really can make a difference if space opens up. Applicants who follow directions to be in touch by a certain date and who maintain short, courteous, regular (but not overzealous) contact are seen as more interested candidates than those who never check in. But keep in mind that waitlisted applicants who push and prod for a commitment may find themselves disappointed. A system is in place to handle the waitlist process, and programs cannot always be as accommodating as applicants would like. Patience, courtesy, and consistency are key qualities to show at this point.
Resources: