What are graduate schools looking for?

The inside scoop on what grad schools are looking for in applicants.

Ah, the question every student asks as they consider attending graduate school. What exactly are programs looking for? What do they want to see I’ve done? How can I make myself a competitive applicant? The truth of the matter is: graduate school is all about fit. A student could have perfect grades and standardized test scores and still not be guaranteed admission to every graduate program in the country. Academic achievement is only one piece of the admissions puzzle. Graduate schools want to see that your story matches their mission, that you have a clear understanding of their degree type, and that you are set up to succeed in their program.

In general, graduate schools are looking at your application to answer three big questions:

1). Can this applicant handle our program’s academic rigor?

This is where an evaluation of your metrics comes in. At the end of the day, graduate schools do not want to admit someone who will not be able to pass their classes and perform well academically. Admitting someone who does not have the academic background to succeed in their program is a big waste of everyone’s time, yours including. The only way graduate schools can begin to predict the future is by looking at past academic trends. To answer this question, they look at your transcripts, looking at cumulative GPA of course, but also trends over time and how you did in courses most relevant to their degree type. They also look at standardized tests, such as the GRE, to help compare your undergraduate experience with that of students from other schools. Your GPA and test scores, as a unit, must make a graduate program believe you are able to handle graduate school academic rigor.

2.) Should this applicant pursue our graduate school degree?

Graduate schools want to accept students who understand what they are getting into, who have a keen interest in the degree and a clear idea of how this degree type will launch them forward professionally. In answering this question, schools will look at your experiences and your personal statement. They are looking for a narrative as to your interests and skills, and how those align with pursuing this degree. If you are applying to a Master’s degree in Journalism, your personal statement should clearly describe your goals in the profession, the aspects of journalism that most engage you, and the experiences you have had that confirmed these for you. Your resume should have relevant experiences, whether they be internships, working at the Denisonian, or starting your own blog. There are no “right” things to have done, but you should have a clear track record of engaging in experiences that led you to pursue this degree type, and your personal statement should bring those experiences together in a concise and compelling manner.

3.) Will this applicant be a strong addition to the graduate school cohort?

This is where letters of recommendation are key. Most of the application is completely from your perspective. This is the one piece of external evidence that will either validate everything you are putting forward yourself or completely undermine it. Graduate schools are looking for letter writers to discuss, with stories or examples, your qualities and traits that make you a strong candidate for the graduate degree of your choice. These letters should support the narrative you are putting forward in other aspects of your application.

If you are interested in a particular graduate program, and would like to discuss how to set yourself up as a competitive applicant, feel free to make an appointment with a Career Coach through Handshake!

Authored by Sara Stasko, Associate Director for Graduate School & Pre-Health Advising