A degree from a top-tier graduate school can open a lot of professional doors, and savvy students do everything they can to get into the best program possible. But just what factors do admissions officers consider when they look over applications from prospective students? Here’s what you need to know about the admissions process and how applicants are evaluated.
- Most graduate schools take a holistic approach to applicants, looking at both academics and other factors.
- When applying, focus on your strengths but don’t neglect to address your weaknesses.
- Solid work experience may help offset a less-than-spectacular grade point average.
Applying To Graduate School: What’s Important?
How Admissions Officers Judge Applicants
The graduate school admissions process is not always transparent, but a successful application typically includes the following:
- Undergraduate transcripts, including course grades
- Graduate school test results (usually the graduate record examination (GRE), although some fields have their own specialized exams)
- A resume with a work history
- Letters of recommendation
- An essay or statement of purpose
- An interview (either in person or by phone or Zoom)
Which of these matters the most to universities? According to many education experts, graduate admissions committees usually take a holistic approach to selecting candidates. For instance, they may have certain thresholds for GRE scores or undergraduate grade point averages, which are commonly called GPAs. But as a general rule, they consider all aspects of an application in making a decision.
Recognize Your Weaknesses and Use Your Strengths
According to higher-ed experts, the best approach when applying to grad school is to work hard to address the weakest components of your application. You may have stellar test scores, a high GPA, and enthusiastic letters of recommendation, but don’t be complacent and submit a lackluster essay.
If, on the other hand, standardized tests are your Achilles heel, try to improve the numbers by taking an extra GRE preparation class. Schedule the exam far enough in advance that you have time to retake it if the need arises. You can take the exam once every 21 days, up to five times within a continuous 12-month period. And you can take the test at home if your equipment meets certain requirements.
Does this mean that every factor in your application has the same weight? Not necessarily. Vijay Chidambaram, assistant professor at the University of Texas, Austin, ranked application components from most important to least important as follows:
- Recommendation letters
- GRE scores
- Research and/or published papers
- Industry internships
- Experience as a teacher’s assistant
Similarly, a survey by Kaplan Test Prep found that 44% of graduate school admissions officers said the student’s undergraduate transcript was the first thing they examined. While traditional factors continue to be important, roughly 27% of admissions officers said they also look at prospective students’ social media profiles. As such, if your undergrad GPA is weak, there’s not much you can do about it now. But you can emphasize your strengths to help compensate.
Certain fields have a different set of criteria from others. While GPA is important, some schools may place greater emphasis on a student’s work experience, which might trump a mediocre GPA.
Avoid These Application Killers
Some all-too-common common mistakes can undermine your application. According to Gradschoolmatch.com, they include:
- Applying at the deadline. Needless to say, you don’t want to apply after the deadline has passed, but even applying toward the end can cause you to miss out on scholarship opportunities or be rejected altogether if the class has already filled up.
- Not answering questions on the application. Plan to address every question and try to include specific details and examples where possible.
- Copying and pasting answers. If you’re filling out multiple applications, avoid the temptation to repurpose your responses. Instead, tailor your answers to each specific program.
- Using poor grammar and misspelling words. Don’t rush to press “submit.” Proofread your application and have someone else read it, too.
- Using grandiloquent writing. Don’t try too hard to impress the admissions committee with your vocabulary. Strive for a tone that’s conversational and professional.
- Not speaking with your recommenders. While you can’t write their letters for them, you can provide them with information about the programs you’re applying to and remind them why you’d be a great fit there.
The key to a strong application is knowing what the school is looking for and adjusting your application to fit that mold. It’s a good idea to seek input from recently graduated alumni about the admissions standards at your schools of choice and to ask them what you can do to set yourself apart.
How Does Work Experience Influence a Grad School Application?
Admissions officers look at different factors when they review the applications of prospective students, including their GPA, recommendation letters, GRE scores, and work experience. Although some of these rank high on the list of requirements for graduate school, your experience on the job weighs heavily with admissions officers. In fact, some programs want their students to be working professionals. For instance, some MBA programs want applicants to have work experience. Officers for other programs often look at, but won’t put as much emphasis on the professional work applicants do in the workforce.
Does Work Experience Make up For a Low GPA on my Grad School Application?
There are a number of factors that grad schools review when they’re reviewing applications from prospective students. Your grades are a very important part of the decision-making process, which means admissions officers will scrutinize your grades and transcripts carefully. But your work experience may offset a low GPA. If you’re applying for an MBA program with less-than-stellar undergraduate grades but are a working professional with five years of experience in the finance industry, the admissions officer may consider you to be a suitable candidate. Keep in mind that a similar candidate looking for a spot in a highly competitive program with the same experience and good grades may rank higher than you.
What Is the Average GPA Required by Most Grad Schools?
That depends on the school and program. The average GPA required by most graduate schools ranges between 2.5 and 3.0. Keep in mind that you may need a higher grade point average for competitive programs at some of the top schools, such as MBA and business programs at Harvard and Columbia.
The Bottom Line
Applying for graduate school can be very daunting. There are so many factors to consider, including filling out the application, writing an essay, sitting for the grad school entrance exam, getting recommendation letters, submitting your transcripts, and providing other information like your work experience.
While most schools look at most or all of these things, the two biggest factors are your grades and work experience. Some schools may weigh professional experience more heavily than others, so having low grades may not completely eliminate you from the applicant pool. Be sure you do your research to find out how your GPA and work experience will help or hinder your application.