How to Get into Grad School
Where do you stand for grad school admissions? Find out what you need to know to get into the grad programs of your choice.
How do you know if you’re a good candidate for your prospective graduate programs? Here are some effective ways to figure out where you stand for graduate school admissions.
Start with the facts
A good way to determine how you stack up next to your prospective grad programs is to create a fact sheet with your GRE® scores (or projected scores if you haven't yet taken the test), overall GPA, and GPA in your major (and minor, if applicable). Relevant outside activities, work experience, internships, publications, research, and other credentials will go on there, too. All of these things can contribute to the overall strength of your application.
Compare your stats with programs' requirements
The next step is to find a current source of information about the graduate programs you’re interested in. There are several guides and online databases published every year that provide rankings of schools, their acceptance rates, and average GPAs and GRE scores of admitted students. Some even rank schools according to their reputations among students, professors, or prominent people in the field.
Compare your numbers to the averages you find on these websites. You can also go to the schools’ sites themselves; they may publish this data as well.
Remember, GRE and GPA are not the only criteria for admissions. Many other factors like recommendations, activities, and work experience can factor prominently into the admissions equation.
Once you have an idea of where you fall in the applicant pool, you can begin to make decisions about your application strategy.
Create a grad school application strategy
A sensible application strategy will include schools in these three general categories:
- dream schools: places you'd love to attend, but where your chances of acceptance are uncertain
- good chances: programs you'd like to attend, and where your grades and GRE score are close to the median
- safeties: programs where your numbers make acceptance highly likely
Most prospective grad students apply to between four and seven schools. How many you should actually apply to is best determined by your strength as an applicant, the difficulty of admission at schools to where you're applying, and the general difficulty of getting into any program in your discipline.
A good guideline is to pick a couple of dream schools, a couple good chances, and one or two safeties.
Go inside the admissions process
Graduate school admissions is not just a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" decision. Many factors come into play throughout the admissions cycle. The process is different at each school and graduate program, but certain things remain roughly the same.
Here’s a glimpse behind the curtain of graduate school admissions:
To start, admissions committees collect all applications and do an initial review. Then, they make the first cut by separating possible acceptances from clear eliminations. At this stage, there may be several reasons for an application to be turned down:
- application may be incomplete
- candidate’s grades or GRE scores may fall well below the program's cutoffs
- applicant may lack academic or experiential preparation for the program
- recommendations submitted may be negative
After the first phase of elimination, the remaining applications are reviewed in more detail. In some programs, applicants are divided among committee members, and each member or group of members settles on their favorite candidates.
When the committee reconvenes, the favorite candidates are presented to the whole group. Each committee member reviews each application before final decisions are made. This review process may take some time, but it often ends in final acceptances being agreed upon.
It’s during the review period of this selection process that admission criteria may become more detailed and subjective. For example, in creative programs, where a portfolio is a major consideration, the subjectivity is obvious. Even in less subjective programs, however, it's not always possible to admit every candidate who has good numbers, strong recommendations, and relevant experience, so necessary cuts have to be made.
Personal statements (otherwise known as admission essays, statements of purpose, or whatever your prospective program calls them) can weigh heavily at this phase in admissions. Compelling and thoughtfully written personal statements can help dispel weaknesses in your application, while additionally pointing out how you're an excellent fit for the program.
In addition, any contact you may have had with the administration or department faculty may come into play at this crucial point. If the program conducts interviews, then a strong interview can certainly tip the scales in your favor. If you've impressed a faculty member who really wants to work with you—either on a creative project, research, or some other academic endeavor, you also may have gained an advocate.
In the final decision, the committee will end up with a list of applicants who will be offered spots in the program. The committee will also maintain a second tier of applicants who will be offered admission if the first round of accepted candidates turn down the offer.
The possible outcomes are:
Congratulations, you're in! Go ahead—throw your hands up in the air. Jump up and down. Call your mom. Then, read the letter carefully. (Actually, you might want to do this before calling your mom.) In some cases, the admissions committee may recommend—or occasionally even require—that you complete some preparatory coursework to ensure that your skills meet their standards.
In more cases than you might imagine, there are far more qualified applicants for a program than there are spaces in the class. Remember, if you receive a rejection, you can still reapply at a later date. If reapplying is the way you want to go, you have an obligation to demonstrate to the admissions committee that you are a more fitting candidate now than you were the first time you applied. This may involve improving your GRE score, taking additional courses to boost your GPA or academic prerequisites, gaining substantive new experience, or writing a stronger essay.
Hold over until next decision period
Sometimes the admissions committee isn't comfortable making a decision by the scheduled reply date. Perhaps you're right on the borderline and the committee wants to see how you stack up with the next group of applicants. In this case, all you can do is wait.
Schools use the waitlist to manage class size. The good news is that you wouldn't be on the list if you were not considered a strong candidate. The bad news is that there is no way to know with certainty if you'll be accepted in the future. The timing factor may be very important for you, especially if you have to respond to other admission offers coming in from different schools. This is a risk you have to assess if you’re in this situation. If your heart is set on the school that waitlisted you, and you have the option of taking a year to regroup (and even improve your GRE scores) if you don’t get in, it’s useful to remember that schools do tend to look kindly upon waitlisted candidates who reapply in a subsequent year.
Request for an interview
Grad programs that don’t necessarily require an interview may still request one before they make their final decision. Perhaps your application raised some specific issues that you can address in an interview, or maybe the committee feels your essays did not give them a sufficiently clear picture of you. In any case, you should always view a request for an interview is a great opportunity to strengthen your case.