Seven Tips for Preparing Your Graduate School Application

In my prior two articles, I have discussed some ways to be positively noticed as a graduate school applicant, and some ways to be negatively noticed.  In this article I am providing some general guidelines and practial tips for to help you prepare your best application(s): 


  1. Do your best to relax as you work on your applications.Worrying and obsessing, while tempting, will not help.  In fact, worrying and obsessing could hinder your ability to think clearly and focus on preparing the best applications you can.

In truth, going through a graduate school application process can result in a major learning experience for you.  As you complete each application you will engage in personal reflection and self discovery. This can prove to be very rewarding, whatever the decisions you receive from the admissions committee. As they move through this process, some applicants end up deciding not to pursue graduate study or to wait a while. Others decide to pursue an entirely different area of study than they originally had in mind.

Use this application process to your benefit; consider it a positive learning experience in and of itself.  Be calm.  Be reflective.  Be thoughtful.  Relax.

  1. Allow time. Simply put, this allows you to focus on the task at hand – doing your best on your applications. Rushing and/or waiting until the last minute tends to lead to making unintentional mistakes that can be costly when your application is evaluated.


  1. Follow directions. This seems like such a “no-brainer” that you may wonder why I even mention it.  I do so because over the years I have truly been amazed at the number of applicants who do not follow directions.  If you become one of those applicants, it raises some questions about how well you will follow policies and procedures once admitted and enrolled.  Some directives may not make sense to you, but they have been provided for a reason, and you need to comply.  If you are unable or unwilling to do so, you send a clear signal about yourself to the admissions committee.  It is a red flag, not a green light.   Let me give you a few examples:
    1. If there is a word limit for essay questions, follow it. Remember, application evaluators are reading hundreds, maybe thousands of essays.  You will not receive a positive response if yours is longer than it is supposed to be.
    2. If you are asked for two letters of recommendation, do not send ten. Some institutions will permit an extra recommendation, but usually no more. Honor that.
    3. If an interview is conducted by invitation only, do not request one. You might mention that you hope you will have the opportunity to interview, but leave it there.
    4. If an interview is highly recommended, by all means request one, and make every possible effort to follow through. More about this in the next section of this chapter.
    5. If you are an international student applying to a U.S. graduate school and are required to take a test to measure your English language skills, do so. Do not argue even if you are fluent in English.  If that is the case you will obviously do very well on the test, which will serve to enhance your application.


  1. Be professional at all times/in all dealings. Remember, as an applicant you are at the part of the process where you are no longer in the driver’s seat.  You are one of many applicants being evaluated and compared with each other. Always present yourself in a calm, assertive and sincere manner.  It is appropriate to be inquisitive about your application, but it is never to your advantage to be argumentative.  Be confident but not arrogant; be kind and patient, not abrasive and demanding.

Actions speak louder than words.  Some of the best applications on paper have been completely devalued due to the behavior of the individual who prepared them.


  1. Content and presentation are both important. While what you say in your application is obviously very important, so is the “look and feel” of your application.  This is especially true when the institution/program to which you are applying is extremely selective and has the luxury of choosing their admitted students from a very large applicant pool.  Occasionally essay questions are not sent to the right institution, and often it is clear that they were not proof read for correct grammar or spelling.  Pages are out of order.  Some information is not provided, or contradicts similar information provided elsewhere in the application.  Applications with these kinds of presentation errors quickly become less competitive. The admissions committee tends to assume that the applicant is not really serious about this application, and they tend to respond in a similar manner.


  1. Be yourself/human/honest. Resist the temptation to lie, embellish or make excuses.  Resist the temptation to be someone you’re not.  At times, applicants try to make themselves look perfect.  As we all know, no one is perfect.  Trying to look that way can often cause application evaluators to be more suspicious than impressed.  I’m not suggesting you discuss all of your weaknesses and past mistakes (which are there for all of us), but rather, that you simply be yourself. The best applications I have read are from those who were, in effect, cmmunicatiing the following between the lines: “This is me.  I hope you will appreciate who I am, and also appreciate the level of interest I’ve demonstrated in your institution by completing this application.  If you choose to admit me, I’ll be thrilled.  If you don’t, I’ll be okay.”

Don’t make excuses on your application.  You may decide that you need to explain a lower overall GPA, a less than stellar academic record during one of the years you were in college, a break in your employment record, holding several jobs in a short period of time, etc.  If there are legitimate reasons for what might seem like a blemish in your application, by all means let the admissions committee know.  Perhaps you had a serious illness, lost a loved one, had a sudden financial crisis, etc.  That should definitely be mentioned.  Bottom line, make explanations, not excuses.  The admissions committee will know the difference and your application will either be helped or hindered.


  1. Make contingency plans in case you are not admitted. In my years as an admissions dean I met applicants who were so convinced that a particular institution was for them, or that this was the year they were going to attend graduate school that they did not make plans for what to do if things did not go as they hoped.  Some would go so far as to inform employers and loved ones of their plans before it was advisable to do so.  In some very extreme cases they moved to where their number one graduate option was located before they received a decision on their application!

Being prepared for all outcomes is not a sign of lack of belief in yourself or your ability to do graduate work.  It isa sign that you realize life does not always go the way we plan and making alternative plans is often required.


Dr. Don Martin, Ph.D.
Grad School Road Map —
Second edition of book —  


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