Written by: Jeffry Jones at 25 Feb 2014
A graduate degree in any field is a big step in your personal, academic, and professional life.It opens a lot of doors and lets you not only develop yourself, but contribute to a field and expand human knowledge. But, before you take this huge step, you need to apply. Your application will go to a panel of judges, sometimes drawn from the faculty you are applying for, and sometimes composed of admissions administrators (sometimes both). What this means is that you’ve got a group of experts deciding if you are right for their school.
When applying, you should remember that your degree won’t just be a big step for you, it will be a big leap of faith on the part of the school that accepts you. They have a lot riding on their candidates and they want to make sure that they get the most out of their investment. Their research money, grants, endowments and other streams of income rely on your performance as a student and a professional after your degree. On their end, they need to be absolutely sure that you’re going to be the right fit for their school.
With this in mind, every school will have different requirements and different panel compositions, but at their core, they all look for the same four things when deciding whether or not to take you on for your course of studies.
This requirement is listed first and foremost on every admissions form you’ll see, and it might be the one you’re sweating over the most. Given how many applications these schools see, they need some quick indicators to determine your fit for the programs. In the place of other factors, this requirement is their first line of defence against the torrent of people clambering to get in. It lets them quickly look at an application and decide whether or not you’re a fit. This might seem a little harsh, but they’re looking at your past performance to predict your future. If you didn’t do well in other academic programs, where’s the indication that you’ll do well in their advanced degree program? Don’t worry, past performance predicts future performance but doesn’t prove it. Just because this requirement is discriminatory doesn’t mean it’s a barrier, it’s only a hurdle. Remember that you can sail over it if your application shows any of the next few fitness factors.
Because universities want successful candidates. your grades won’t be the only indicator of your future success. During your undergrad degree you might have gained valuable experience or insight that makes you a prime candidate for your program of choice. Do you have any practical experience in the field you’re looking into? do you have any life experience that shows you can either do the degree, or add value to the university? Applications will almost always give you the chance to submit any material that proves you have a grounding in the field you’re entering, or that you have qualities that prove you’ve got what it takes.
Keep in mind, that while schools discriminate against applicants, they’re also actively looking for people to apply. This is an invitation, and they give you so many ways to accept that invitation. They’ll make it possible to show your suitability, and it’s to your benefit to show them in every way possible how you’re the best person for the spot they have open.
3. References and recommendations
The schools you’re applying for want to get to know you. They can’t do that from grades and a CV alone. When they accept those materials, they’re relying on you to vouch for yourself. There comes a point in every application where they look to others to vouch for you.
Some schools have reference forms that they need filled out, as well as letters and other forms of recommendation. What they want is an easy to read voucher that says you’re not just suitable, but you’ve got an edge on the other applicants.
The people who fill these out matter. They want a short recommendation from someone who has a good idea of who you are and is willing to stake their reputation on it. The longer the relationship, and the more relevant the relationship, the more weight this has.
Select your references carefully, making sure to pick ones that mean the most. A prof who had you for one course in undergrad might be willing to provide a letter, but will they give you the best recommendation, and are they the best person to assess your ability? Remember, they’re looking for academic fit, so the references should have some relevance to the school whose acceptance you want. Also, just like any application, it helps to have someone on the inside working for you. If there’s a faculty member at this school who likes you, or someone willing to be your advisor, get them to vouch for you. Nothing means more to a school than one of it’s own faculty working to get you on board.
4. Speaking the same language
Even after all these hurdles, you still have to show that you can add value to the program or the school. Remember, they’re investing a lot in you. They want to see that you’re investing in them.
Your fit can be shown in a lot of ways, but it’s up to you to tie it together in a way that makes sense to them. Their applications processes are very well defined and their programs have a particular focus. All of this is available to you and they want you to use it to show that you’re already on board.
Look at their official language in documents throughout the process. Learn about the people and the process of looking at your application, and learn to speak their language. Nothing shows you’re a better fit than to talk in their terms.
If you can pull together an application that keeps these in mind, you will have an easy time presenting yourself as the kind of student they want. Remember, schools are looking for students because they want people to enrol. They want you to be the best candidate for the openings they have, because they want to say yes to you. Give them every opportunity you can to show them that you’re the right fit, and take advantage of every chance they give you to show that. Good luck!