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How to prepare a stellar application for graduate school

How to prepare a stellar application for graduate school

Make your application stand out with these 7 tips 

You are ready to take the next step in your academic journey to the next level—and you may have even found the perfect graduate school of education for you. Now, it is time to convince the graduate school that you are also an excellent match for the program that interests you.  

“Creating a standout application for graduate school requires a thoughtful approach that showcases not only your academic achievements but also your passion, potential, and unique contributions to the school and your program of interest,” says Pam Black-Colton, executive director of admissions at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education and Human Development. “Graduate schools of education seek individuals who are not only qualified but who can also demonstrate a genuine commitment to the field and the school’s mission. Highlighting your strengths and presenting a compelling narrative will set you apart and prepare you to embark on a path toward academic success.” 

If you’ve decided to apply to a program, prepare yourself to take your academic journey to the next level by putting together a robust application that will help you stand out and secure admission to graduate school with these seven tips:

1. Research and target the right program.
Do your research to identify the graduate program that best aligns with your academic and career goals. Consider factors such as curriculum, faculty expertise, research opportunities, location, and an overall fit with your goals. Narrow your choices to a few programs that genuinely resonate with you. By focusing your efforts on a targeted list, you can effectively allocate your time and energy toward creating tailored application materials.

2. Choose references who know you best. 
Select people who can comment specifically on you as an individual and who can provide an insightful assessment of your abilities, academic potential, and goals. Reach out to professors, research advisors, colleagues, and those who know you well and can speak to your strengths, skills, and aspirations. Provide them with all the materials — resume/CV, personal statement, and any additional information — they need to write a strong letter on your behalf. These materials will help refresh their memory about your accomplishments and reiterate your future academic and career goals. Remember to give them ample time to complete the letter of recommendation. The more you can make the references supportive, in terms of your overall application, the better it is for you.  

3. Craft a compelling, honest personal statement.
Make it about you. Think of your personal statement as a way to market yourself to the graduate school. Help them understand who you are, where you’ve been, where you want to go, and how the graduate school fits into this plan. Share your motivation and career goals. Equally important, if there’s something in your background that you’re not particularly proud of or happy with, don’t hope the committee will not notice it. Whether it’s a low GPA or gaps in your resume, address it — don’t leave it to the imagination of the interviewer to fill in the gaps. It’ll be to your best advantage if you let them know why it occurred rather than make them guess and then demonstrate how you are a different person today. 

If you are applying to a doctoral program, it’s important that you look at the kinds of research faculty are doing and write about whose research interest you. This does not mean you’re committing yourself to work with a particular faculty member, but instead, sharing whose work appeals to you and how it may align with your research interests.

4. Make your academic writing shine.
Perhaps the most important element of the application is your academic writing sample. Faculty members use the sample to get a sense of your writing ability and determine if you’re well-situated to take on the challenges of academic writing at the graduate level. Some graduate schools, including the Warner School, do not require the writing sample to be on the topic of education. Whether it is an undergraduate paper or an excerpt from a thesis you select, it should be a strong, well-written piece, so it needs to be single-authored, cite others in support of your argument, and demonstrate your thought process to write academically. If you completed your undergraduate program several years ago and cannot access a current writing sample, write about a topic that interests you. Make it on a topic you can produce your best work on at the time you’re applying to graduate school and show that you can write academically. For applicants applying to a doctoral program, it’s even more important that you show sophistication in your academic writing skills. 

5. Make a personal connection. 
Consider speaking to faculty, current students, and alumni of the graduate school to understand the program better, especially if you’re trying to choose between more than one program, and make sure you’re pointed in the right direction. A member of the Admissions Team can connect you with the appropriate resources and individuals who can help you ensure you’re on the right path to graduate school. 

6. Prepare for and ace the interview. 
Many graduate schools require an interview — whether on campus or via Zoom — for applicants considering admission. If you’re asked for an interview, it’ll be an important piece of your application. This is your chance to meet with faculty and learn more about the graduate school experience. Before your interview, think about what you want them to know about you and show that you have done your homework on the program. It’s an opportunity to highlight your experience, skills, and research interests and discuss why the graduate school is a good fit for you. It’s also an opportunity to ask questions but avoid asking questions that can be answered by visiting the school’s website. You should have done that research and know those kinds of answers. 

After the interview, always send a follow-up email highlighting who you are, why you are a good fit for the school, why you think the institution (and the program) is still the best program for your graduate study, and thank them for their time. 

7. Lean into admission for assistance. 
If there’s anything you are still unsure about in the application process, call or email admissions. Some admissions teams offer application assistance hours for applicants to help facilitate the admissions process from beginning to end. Admissions staff at some graduate schools, like the Warner school, will read through a personal statement during these sessions and provide mock interviews to help prepare you for your interview. And at institutions where faculty (not admissions) make admissions decisions, admissions counselors often serve as advocates for applicants, so lean into them for support and ask questions. 

Take the next step

Staying on top of application deadlines and requirements is important. Many graduate programs accept applicants once a year, while other programs offer multiple entry points. Admissions requirements vary by graduate school, so you must familiarize yourself with each program’s requirements early on. The best way to do that is by contacting an admissions representative who can guide you throughout the application process.