If you want to get into grad school, you need to take a critical look at your past school record. How good are your grades? Are you in contact with some of your past (present) professors who can give you a good reference? Does the school re program require any graduate entrance exams (like a GRE, GMAT, MCAT) or language proficiency exams (like TOFEL)? What do you want to study? Do you know what you want to research? Some combination of Grades, References, Test Scores, and your Proposal/Essays usually make up the bulk of your application and likely to determine if you’ll get referenced.
- Grades – Your grades will determine if your application gets looked at thoroughly. If your marks are too low, it’s likely your application will be tossed to the side. If your marks are high, they’ll be more eager to see the rest. Most schools will have a minimum GPA requirement. However, often the school’s minimum is lower than the department’s minimum. Check to see if there’s a difference. If your GPA is near it, check to see if you excel in the remaining areas. If you don’t, then think about taking a year (or more) to take more classes and do what else is needed to bump it up. Most schools will also give you the average GPA for students who get accepted. Since it is an average, there are students accepted with a GPA below it. As always, being above it will work in your favor. Schools usually rank all applications and then accept from the top down until all spots are filled. You want to be as high up that list as possible.
- References – An essential part of your application is your reference letters. Most schools require two of these. Degrees that are research oriented (most PhD’s and Master’s) prefer (and may require) academic references from professors you’ve either taken classes from or have worked for. You want your references to be written by people who know you. And by that, I mean more then that you were able to get an A in their class. They need to convince your potential school that you will be a good researcher and able to deal with the program. If you don’t know any professors very well start making it a point to talk to them. Go to their office hours and talk to them. See if they are looking for a student researcher for the summer. Speak up in their class (but not with stupid questions or pointless inquiries). And don’t whine to them. You want them to look on you favorably, not negatively. When asking for a reference, be prepared to send them unofficial transcripts of your marks, any proposals you are writing for your application, a list of scholarships you’ve had, and any related volunteer or work experience. The more material they have, the better the letter they can write.
- Test Scores – Many programs have specific exams that must be taken, and specific scores that must be achieved. Examples of these are the GRE, MCAT, and GMAT. However, it also includes tests like the TOFEL. As with the grades above, it’s important to not just meet the scores suggested by the department, but to exceed them as much as possible. Two low of a score, and your application gets set aside.
- Proposals and/or Personal Essays – Don’t slap this together in an hour or so. Prepare to invest some time in this. Research programs often have you write a short proposal on something you might be interested in researching as part of your application. Choose a research topic related to supervisors your interested in working with and give enough detail to show that you’ve thought about it in more depth then “this sounds neat.” Don’t have an idea? Spend some time browsing the websites of professors in the department to see what people are working on. Go talk to your references to see if they can help you work out a topic. Other programs may have you write personal essay explaining why you’re a good fit for the program. This is a chance to convince them that you’re going to be an awesome fit. Highlight your strengths and how they will help you succeed in the program. Instead of saying “I’m a wonderful team-player” give an example to show this: “My favorite class involved a course long team project where we … My roles were… This experience taught me to…” By showing instead of just stating, you’re giving them information to back up your claims.
While the above usually make up the main criteria, below are some extra areas that can help you get accepted:
- Scholarships – National or highly regarded (and highly funded) scholarships are an excellent way to get your foot in the door. It means the school doesn’t have to come up with a lot of money to support you, and that someone else has already critically looked over you academic/professional history and thinks your worth it. In Canada, an NSERC and SSHRC can often get you accepted to almost any university without any other application. Universities love to brag about how many of their grad students are fully funded by scholarships and fellowships.
- Professor backing – Depending on the university (and the program – will you have a supervisor?) a professor wanting you as their student can go a long way to getting you accepted. In my department, as a PhD student, a professor has to be willing to take you on and work with you. If no one does, then even with the best grades and scholarships behind you, you won’t get accepted. On the other hand, lower grades can be overcome by a professor who’s eager to work with you and stands up for you. This is more than a reference – this needs to be a professor within the department you are trying to get accepted to.
- Work Experience – The longer you are out of school before going to a grad program, the more willing a school is to accept references from work colleagues instead of professors. However, this usually requires being out of school for at least 5 years! So, try and keep in contact with professors if possible – their word goes a lot farther since you’re trying to move into an academic research-y area instead of a professional area. On the other hand, if you’re trying to get into an MBA, work experience can go much farther. Of course, here the caveat is that the work experience is in the area you’re trying to move. A 5 year history of flipping burgers or selling clothes at the Gap will not move your application up the list.
- Interviews – Be yourself. I’m lucky and the program I’m in does not require interviews. However, if yours does, it’s important to be truthful and to not try to hide who you are. They are trying to determine how well you’ll fit into the program. This is important for both you and them – you’re much more likely to succeed if you fit in and feel accepted. An interview is also a time for you to ask them questions and determine if the program is a right fit for you. Don’t feel afraid to ask away – it shows that you’re interested in the program and want to make an informed decision.