Discover Studying Abroad

Grad School 101: The most important elements of your grad school application

The graduate school application process can be long and tedious. But we’ve got tips on which parts you need to prioritise.
BY Mallika Khanna |   22-07-2019

Grad School 101: The most important elements of your grad school application

Once you’ve chosen programs to apply to, you can move on to actually putting your application together. While most schools have department-specific requirements, the core of your application stays the same from program to program. This should come as a relief since the application process can seem impossible to navigate with so many requirements to juggle. It’s important to remember that all these elements don’t hold equal weight. In the fourth part of this series, learn about each part of the checklist and to determine which parts you should be spending most of your time on.

I like to think of the application in two parts: the quantitative and qualitative.

Your standardized test scores, GPA, classes taken - are qualifying indicators. Many competitive programs will have GPA cutoffs, which will determine whether or not you should apply, right off the bat. It’s easy to know what to do with these: the higher your scores, the better chance you have at being admitted to any program.

Qualitative elements are what distinguish you from other equally qualified candidates. It’s here where fit comes into play. Your statement of purpose, letters of recommendation, writing sample and application questions will highlight all those aspects of you that make you an individual with an identity, rather than a set of numbers on paper. While I would never downplay the importance of test scores and GPA, I’d argue that the qualitative elements of your application are what you have most agency over, and thus, are often the deciding factors for admissions.

Quantitative elements:

GPA/ percentage: Your grades are perhaps the singular most useful data point on your application. Programs will use it to weed out candidates who simply aren’t academically strong enough to enter the program, while candidates use it to determine their eligibility for each school. Keep in mind, however, that grad school admissions truly are holistic, so a high GPA/ percentage won’t automatically ensure admission to any program, just as a slightly lower one that’s within the range of the program’s requirements won’t automatically disqualify you.

Standardized tests: The most commonly used standardized testing for graduate school is the GRE. The GMAT is still used by business schools, but many are steadily moving towards the GRE, as are law schools.

The GRE consists of a verbal section, a quantitative section and a writing section, with the first two each scored out of 170 and the latter scored out of 6. While a great score won’t do much to ensure admission to a program, it does keep you in the running for the most competitive schools, which might otherwise automatically reject you.

English proficiency tests: International students from “non-English speaking” countries must meet the unique requirement of taking an English proficiency test to be eligible for graduate programs in English-speaking education systems. The TOEFL and IELTS are the most common. More so than any other part of the application docket, these tests are used to determine eligibility. So having a higher than necessary score in them will do almost nothing to enhance your application.

Resume/ CV: Since your CV is just a list of your prior experiences and publications, it is more of a quantitative element than a qualitative one. There’s not much you can do to enhance your resume once application season hits, but it’s a good idea to reorganize it, to put your academic experiences front and center, whether you’re sending in a resume or a CV.

Qualitative elements:

Statement of purpose: If there’s one part of your application you have total control over, it’s the statement of purpose. It is your academic identity, your vision for your future, your relationship to the program all neatly summed up in a couple of pages. No other part of your application stuffs so much of who you are into so little space. According to me, this makes it the part of your application that you should spend the most time on. It’s ok to skimp on GRE prep if you’re short on time or have a couple of mediocre grades, but the one thing you should always prioritize is your statement of purpose.

Letters of recommendation: Like the SoP, your LoRs serve a function that test scores and GPA cannot: they demonstrate to admissions committees what you are like in the very spaces you will be inhabiting most in grad school like classrooms, office hours and lectures. It also indicates how well you function in professional relationships. LoRs are as crucial as your SoP, but because you have relatively less control over them, you don’t need to devote quite as much time to them. What you should do, though, is 1) pick recommenders who really know you and will have only good things to say and 2) give them enough time to write the letter. A month is usually enough.

Writing sample: Not all programs require a writing sample, but most will require some form of your academic work. This could be a paper you wrote for a class, a project proposal, a dissertation or a summary of any research you’ve undertaken. The point here is to examine your academic work not just for quality, but also for whether it fits what the department is doing. Make sure you thoroughly edit your work and have a second look at it before you send it in.

An additional part of the application process - networking: This isn’t really an application requirement, but I’d argue that it can give your application a big boost. Reaching out to professors and graduate students in departments you plan to apply to can be a great way to discern where your application will be accepted and, possibly, to create an ally who can root for you when admissions decisions are being made. Read more about how to network using social media in a previous post from this series here.

So what’s the most important part of a grad school application?

Even with a stellar academic record, statements of purpose tailored to each program, impressive letters of recommendation and high standardized test scores, you’re likely to feel a little overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work that goes into applications. This stress is heightened by the sense that every part of the application MATTERS, and that a slight slip-up in even one of them could mean the difference between going to grad school and another painful application cycle.

It might take the tension off a bit to know that some parts of your grad school application are not as heavily scrutinized as others. Here’s the catch: every program differentially weights each part of the application. A program that emphasizes writing, for example, will take your GRE verbal score a lot more seriously than a math-heavy program. On the flipside, you need an impressive quantitative score for a math-heavy program, where your verbal skills might not be as important.

It gets even trickier when you consider that even among programs of the same discipline, some are more theoretical, while some are more application-based. For the former, your work experience would be completely irrelevant, while for the latter, having work experience in your field would be a big advantage.

How can you determine which part of your application you should put the most work into? The smartest way to go about this is to email grad students in the program. Having just been through the admissions cycle themselves, they can offer useful advice on the parts of the application that they put the most effort into, and where they might have slipped up. Professors can also offer useful advice, especially since they often sit on admissions committees themselves.

As your application workload piles up, it’s inevitable that some bits will feel just a tad incomplete. Your best bet is to be prepared for this, and to prioritize what’s most important from the get-go. This ensures that when you finally send in that application, you’ve put in the work where it matters most.

Do you want to figure out how to choose the right grad school? And whether rankings should have a huge say in the process? Or how to use social media to your advantage? Our Grad School 101 series has you covered.



Can't Read  
Enter Above Code:


Sign Up for our newsletter

Sign Up for latest updates and Newsletter