Seven Ways to Stand Out as a Graduate School Applicant

**Meet Dr. Martin and learn more about this process when he joins us ON CAMPUS on September 27th!**

The application process yields both relief and angst for prospective students.  Applications are being finalized and submitted, and then comes a period of time that can be a bit stressful:  waiting for the decision of the admissions committee.

Based on my experience reviewing thousands of graduate school applications over nearly three decades, here are a few tips to help you stand out as an applicant:

  1. The application process is a major learning experience, and often applicants learn as they go. Staying positive and maintaining calm allows you to be reflective and thoughtful.  Worrying and obsessing during the final stages of putting the application together does not help.In fact, it will likely hinder your ability to think clearly and focus on preparing the best application possible.
  2. Be yourself: Embellishing your application or making excuses for weaker areas will not help. No one is perfect, and applicants who try to make themselves look perfect raise a bit of suspicion. Presenting yourself in a genuine and honest way is very important. We all have met individuals who we initially perceive to be fake, or pretending in some way.  What was my usual response to these individuals?  Clearly, it was not positive.  As the saying goes:  “Be yourself – everyone else is already taken.”
  3. Allow enough time. At a minimum, take a few months to gather and compile all of the required material. Then check and recheck to make sure all documents are in order. Do not wait until the last second before pushing the “submit” button.  Believe me: admissions personnel can tell. How can they tell?  Because often there are mistakes, missing information, and/or essays that clearly were written for another program.
  4. Follow directions. Not doing so raises major 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. As one admissions director once said to me, “Following directions shows respect and in doing so you’ll earn some in return.”
  5. 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.  You should be confident and self-assured, but not to the point of becoming or being perceived as overly aggressive, abrasive, or demanding. If something goes wrong, keep your cool.  This makes a major positive impression.
  6. Focus on content and presentation: A candidate might have the greatest standardized test scores, a superb undergrad GPA, and impressive letters of recommendations. But if the application contains obvious misspellings or grammatical errors, 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.
  7. Ask questions that show you did your research.It is very disheartening for the admissions staff when applicants ask questions for which answers have been repeatedly provided on the admissions office website or in printed materials.  Two of the questions I was often asked, and which elicited a very negative inside reaction are,  “What are your application deadlines?” or “Do you offer financial aid.”  This clearly demonstrates either a lack of real interest in an institution or program, or lack initiative in doing some research, or both.  Ask questions that show you did your homework, and took time to thoroughly investigate the program/institution to which you are applying.

Stay tuned for my next article: seven deadly sins for graduate school applicants.   

 Dr. Don Martin, Ph.D.

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