Graduate programs vary in what they want to see from applicants. They all want to see basic requirements met, of course, but many of the strongest and most competitive ones ask for the loosely defined “more” from prospective students. Here are some general things you could do to help present yourself in the best possible light.
The classes that appear on your transcript may do more than indicate which requirements you have met and which areas of study you have explored in depth. They may also speak volumes about your approach to learning. Someone who has taken upper-level electives in their major or other non-required courses in a related area of study may come across as highly motivated. In contrast, someone who has taken a lighter load or filled the hours with unrelated 100-level courses may appear less interested in or committed to the demands of graduate study.
Experience beyond the classroom – whether as a volunteer, intern, or undergraduate research assistant may be a major asset for anyone applying to graduate school. Just like taking a challenging course load, it may show your dedication to learning and to your area of study in a very tangible way. It could also help you find more specific direction within your field, which could enable you to include more details in your application essay and be more at ease when you talk with faculty members about your goals and plans. Of course, the same may be true of full-time work experience. So, if you have been working for a while before applying to graduate school, consider emphasizing your professional maturity in everything you submit.
You probably have at least one person, such as an adviser or primary instructor, whose recommendation you may essentially need to get. If your transcript and other materials indicate that you spent a fair amount of time working and studying with this person and you don’t include him or her, admissions officials may wonder why. Beyond that, however, you’ll want to consider two or three other individuals who can give you strong recommendations. Take time to think about who might be appropriate, and keep in mind that it might be most helpful if each of your letter writers can emphasize a different dimension of your work. Also, once you have identified these people, ask them if they are willing to recommend you and schedule a meeting with each one to talk about your plans. This may enable them to write a more personalized letter on your behalf.
You naturally want to present your strengths in all aspects of your application, but it could also be a good idea to address any weaknesses as well. This is especially true if your weaknesses appear in your transcript, such as a lower GPA or missing coursework in your proposed area of study. These things may be less of a hindrance to you if you can identify legitimate reasons for them. For example, if you are missing coursework because you changed fields, you can emphasize how you came to be interested in your new area of study and your willingness to make up any deficiencies. Such an explanation could minimize any negative impressions created by your shortcomings and even strengthen your profile by showing determination.
Some aspects of your application are standard, but others may be tailored to each school to which you are applying. Be sure to take full advantage of this. For instance, consider taking some portion of your essay to discuss how your goals fit with the course offerings and faculty specialties available at each school. Similarly, if you are in the arts and need to submit a portfolio or perform an audition as part of your application, consider customizing what you present in each application to make the best impression on the faculty involved.
About the Author: Ann van der Merwe is a singer and music historian based in southwest Ohio. She holds a B.M. in music performance and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in music history.