Applications for Graduate Programs

For some students, an undergraduate degree is not the end of their academic career. They may be looking into graduate programs--getting their master’s degree or doctorate. This is common for those students interested in a discipline that requires a higher degree in order to get that “career” job; for instance, becoming a physician. Others it might be because they want to delve deeper into a specific topic and explore them in a research setting; for instance, becoming a marine biochemist harvesting natural biological resources from the ocean. Or they may be looking into graduate programs to boost their career prospects; for instance, by getting a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree.

Whatever the reason, graduate programs are a major investment and commitment that will need to be thoughtfully prepared for. Like the college application for undergraduate, a graduate school application can be broken up into three components: academics, experiences, and attributes.

The academics component refers to the applicants prerequisite courses, GPA, and test scores. Prerequisite courses are college courses required by the graduate program that need to be completed prior to admission into the program. These may be courses that applicants end up taking additionally to the courses intended to fulfill their undergraduate major. Applicants are expected to pass their courses and maintain a competitive GPA. Typically the minimum GPA applicants must have is a 3.0, but this can vary. Each discipline and even each individual programs have their own specific criteria for what courses must be completed with what grade and what the minimum GPA and test scores applicants must have. What type of standardized exam applicants must take also varies with each discipline. The four major tests are the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), Law School Admission Test (LSAT), and the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). The GRE is a general test aimed for a variety of graduate program, while the GMAT is for business-related programs, MCAT is for medical school, and LSAT is for law school. It is best to check with each program what their specific requirements are.

Another key component to the application is the experiences. This is the “resume” that applicants build to demonstrate that they have basic knowledge in the field and an interest to pursue it further by taking part in various activities. During the student’s time as an undergraduate, graduate programs expect the student to go beyond the classroom either by joining school organizations related to the student’s interest; applying to internships, co-ops, or jobs; participating in a research lab; volunteering in the community or any other extracurricular activities. Note that these experiences are meant to showcase the applicant’s passion for a topic that they wish to continue to pursue. For instance, if the applicant wants to work in public policy specifically targeting the homeless population, some experiences they may consider is volunteering at the local homeless shelter or being a research assistant in an intervention study looking at ways to improve job prospect for homeless individuals. Not only are experiences meant to show interest, but are also meant to demonstrate that applicants have a basic understanding of what the future career entails and that they can handle it. Therefore, some fields may require a specific number of hours to be completed in a certain type of work. This is most common in the health field where clinical experiences prior to starting the program are valued. For instance, physician assistant programs may require a minimum of 80 hrs to 2,000 hrs of healthcare experiences which applicants can fulfill by joining a student-run clinic, becoming an EMT, or volunteering at a hospice, to name a few. This experience portion of the application is the time for students to be creative and explore the various opportunities related to their intended study at graduate programs. However, it is not ideal for applicants to partake in a plethora of short-term activities just to check it off a laundry list of activities. It is best to pick a couple of activities and show a long-term commitment to it.

Ultimately, graduate programs want to know who the potential candidate into their program really is--what kind of person is the student and what attributes can the student bring to the program. Attributes can be highlighted in the applicant’s personal statement, letters of recommendation, and supplemental components. The personal statement is a short essay meant to answer the general question of why the applicant is interested in the particular field. It is also the place to focus on a couple of important experiences that demonstrate strong qualities that the student has that they want to highlight in their application; such as leadership skills from leading bible study or technical skills from interning at a biotechnology company. These qualities and skill sets can also be supplemented through the letters of recommendation. It is best to ask a faculty member, supervisor, or a community leader that knows you well and can write to your strengths. Guidelines for the number of letters and who can write the letter various with each discipline and program, and it is best to check prior to applying. As applicants move through the application process, some programs may ask for supplemental components such as an additional essay or applicants are invited to interview. This is all for the program to further get to know the authentic personality of the applicant.

Finally, remember that graduate programs look at applications holistically, putting equal weight on academics, experiences, and attributes. Graduate programs are looking for a well-rounded individuals who excel in academic work while balancing various commitments to activities and also demonstrates fundamental social skills and qualities to succeed in a rigorous program and in their future careers.