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What do graduate admissions committees look for in graduate applicants? Understanding what graduate schools want in applicants is the first step in tailoring your experiences and application to make yourself irresistible to the graduate programs of your dreams.

So just what do admissions committees look for? Their goal is to identify applicants who will become important researchers and leaders in their field. In other words, admissions committees try to select the most promising students. What's a promising student? One who has the ability to become an excellent graduate student and professional.

What Do Graduate Schools Want?

The ideal graduate student is gifted, eager to learn, and highly motivated. He or she can work independently and take direction, supervision, and constructive criticism without becoming upset or overly sensitive. Faculty look for students who are hard workers, want to work closely with faculty, are responsible and easy to work with, and who are a good fit to the program. The best graduate students complete the program on time, with distinction - and excel in the professional world to make graduate faculty proud. Of course, these are ideals. Most graduate students have some of these characteristics, but nearly no one will have all, so don't fear.


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Getting Started: Grad Sch Application Process

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Graduate School Application Timeline

Tips for Completing Grad School Applications

Outshining Other Graduate School Applicants

Kiss of Death: Grad School Application

Preparing for Graduate School

Preparing For and Applying to Graduate School

Graduate School Preparation Guide



What Criteria is Weighed by Admissions Committees?

Now that you know the ideal to which graduate faculty strive in selecting new graduate students, let's look at how faculty weigh the various criteria for admission. Unfortunately there is no simple answer; each graduate admissions committee is a bit different, but generally speaking, the following criteria are important to most admissions committees:

--Undergraduate GPA (especially the last two years of college)
--Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores
--Recommendation letters
--Personal statement

Sure, you knew these things were important, but let's talk more about why and the part they play in admissions decisions.



Grade Point Average (GPA)

Grades are important not as a sign of intelligence, but instead grades are a long term indicator of how well you perform your job as student. They reflect your motivation and your ability to do consistently good or bad work. Not all grades are the same, though. Admissions committees understand that applicants' grade point averages often cannot be compared meaningfully. Grades can differ among universities - an A at one university may be a B+ at another. Also grades differ among professors in the same university. Admissions committees try to take these things into account when examining applicants' GPAs. They also look at the courses taken: a B in Advanced Statistics may be worth more than an A in Introduction to Social Problems. In other words, they consider the context of the GPA: where was it obtained and of what courses is it comprised? In many cases, it's better to have a lower GPA composed of solid challenging courses than a high GPA based on easy courses like "Basket Weaving for Beginners" and the like.

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GRE Scores

Clearly, applicants' grade point averages are difficult to compare. This is where Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores come in. Whereas grade point averages are not standardized (there are enormous differences in how professors within a department, university, or country grade student work), the GRE is. Your GRE scores provide information about how you rank among your peers (that's why it's important to do your best!). Although GRE scores are standardized, departments don't weigh them in a standardized way. How a department or admissions committee evaluates GRE scores varies - some use them as cutoffs to eliminate applicants, some use them as criteria for research assistantships and other forms of funding, some look to GRE scores to offset weak GPAs, and some admissions committees will overlook poor GRE scores if applicants demonstrate significant strengths in other areas.

Grad Schools: Graduate School Directory

Graduate Guide: Graduate School Guide

Princeton Review: Finding Grad School Programs

Peterson's: Finding Graduate School Program

Noodle: Discover Graduate School Programs

NASPA: Graduate Program Directory

US News & World Report: Grad School Rankings

Graduate Program Guide: Grad School Rankings


Letters of Recommendation

Usually admissions committees begin the evaluation process by considering GPA and GRE score (or those of other standardized tests). These quantitative measures only tell a small part of an applicant's story. Letters of recommendation provide context within which to consider an applicant's numerical scores. Therefore it's important that the faculty who write your letters of recommendation know you well so that they can discuss the person behind the GPA and GRE scores. Generally speaking, letters written by professors known to committee members tend to carry more weight than those written by "unknowns." Letters written by well-known people in the field, if they signify that they know you well and think highly of you, can be very helpful in moving your application towards the top of the list.


What Do Graduate Schools Want?

Advice for Undergraduates Considering Graduate School

Grad Schools: Articles: Get Informed

Grad School Tips: Types of Grad School Essays


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What Do Graduate Schools Want?

Advice for Undergraduates Considering Graduate School

Grad Schools: Articles: Get Informed

Grad School Tips: Types of Grad School Essays

Graduate and Professional School Expo



Grad School Application Tips

The final stage of the graduate school application process yields both relief and stress for prospective students—as I learned from my experiences as a former admissions dean who has interacted with candidates hoping to get into their dream schools.

Matt Merrick, senior associate dean of students at Wake Forest University's Schools of Business, agrees. A candidate's ability "to think clearly and focus" during the final stages of preparing to submit an application can make a big difference, he notes.

Based on my experience reviewing thousands of grad school applications over nearly three decades, here are a few tips for completing your application:

1. Relax: The graduate or business school application process is a major learning experience, and often applicants learn as they go. Staying positive and maintaining calm allows the applicant to be reflective and thoughtful.

"Worrying and obsessing during the final stages of putting one's application together will not help," Merrick says. "In fact, it will likely hinder the ability to think clearly and focus on preparing the best application possible.

2. Allow enough time: At minimum, take a few weeks to gather and compile all of the required material. Then check and recheck to make sure all of the elements are in line.

"Make sure you don't wait until the last second before pushing the send button for your application," Merrick says. "Believe me; admissions teams can tell. Even if it is later in the year, take a few weeks to prepare adequately, complete all required sections of the application, and do a thorough review."

3. Follow directions: Not following directions raises questions about how the candidate might adhere to policies and procedures once admitted and enrolled. If there is a word limit for essay questions, follow it. If you are asked for two letters of recommendation, do not send more. If you are asked not to follow up via E-mail or phone, don't. "Following directions shows respect and in doing so you'll earn some in return," Merrick says.

4. Be professional: Maintaining a professional demeanor in all circumstances is a sign of maturity. Graduate school is a big deal and can be stressful; if you're someone who easily loses his or her cool, then you're likely not ready.

"It's OK to have passion and confidence, Merrick explains. "In fact, it's something we really to try draw out of our students here at Wake Forest." It's never OK, however, to be overly aggressive, abrasive, or demanding.

5. Focus on content and presentation: A candidate might have the greatest GRE (MCAT, LSAT, GMAT) scores, a superb undergrad GPA, and impressive letters of recommendations, but if the application contains obvious misspellings or grammatical mistakes, it's going to be a problem. Rightly or wrongly, admissions committees will assume the applicant was not entirely serious about his or her application.

"It's important that candidates not be so distracted by the content of their applications that they don't carefully consider and review the style and presentation of their material," Merrick says.


6. Be yourself: Embellishing your application or making excuses for weaker parts of your application will not help. No one is perfect, and applicants that try to make themselves look perfect raise a bit of suspicion. Presenting yourself in a genuine and honest way is very important; for Merrick it's a "fundamental character trait that is very important to us at Wake Forest."



7. Make contingency plans: Considering a backup plan is not an indication of lack of confidence. And it may be a plan less about what to do next, but how to do what's next.

"It's not enough to consider the nuts and bolts, the bread-and-butter issues," Merrick says. "You need to reflect on how you'll respond viscerally if you're denied and have an emotional contingency plan to help you move forward with a positive attitude."


(Dr. Don Martin)


What Do Graduate Schools Want?

Advice for Undergrads Considering Grad School

Grad Schools: Articles: Get Informed

Grad School Tips: Types of Grad School Essays

Graduate and Professional School Expo



Personal Statement

The personal statement, also known as the admissions essay, statement of purpose, and personal goal statement, is your chance to introduce yourself, speak directly to the admissions committee, and provide information that doesn't appear elsewhere in your application. Faculty read personal statements very closely because they reveal lots of information about applicants. Your essay is an indicator of your writing ability, motivation, ability to express yourself, maturity, passion for the field, and judgment. Admissions committees read essays with the intent to learn more about applicants, to determine if they have the qualities and attitudes needed for success, and to weed out applicants who don't fit the program.


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Writing Graduate School Essays

Tips for Writing a Graduate School Essay

How to Write a Graduate School Essay

Resources: Graduate School Essay Writing

Tips for Success: Writing Grad School Application Essay

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Writing a Killer Grad School Appl Essay

Grad School Essay: Knock Their Socks Off