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Outshining other grad school applicants is as easy as 1, 2, 3 (and 4, 5, 6)

(Allie Ghaman/Express)
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When trying to get into graduate school, you want your application to stand out. But not because it’s missing information or is poorly prepared. Your application reflects who you are as a candidate, and a sloppy one can prevent you from getting admitted, no matter how great your college grades or job experience is.

Putting together the best application possible takes time, research and effort. Here are six tips from experts in the field to help admissions officers remember you — in a good way.

1. Start the process early.

Several months to a year in advance is an ideal timeframe to begin your application. If you’ve made a spur-of-the-moment decision to apply to grad school due to a layoff or career ennui, that will show in your application.

“You don’t have time to prepare the materials as well as you could have,” says D.C.-based educational consultant and admissions strategist Steven Roy Goodman (202-986-9431). “And it doesn’t give you time to reflect if the program you’re looking at is one that’s ideally suited to where you want to be in the future.”

2. Follow the directions.

Applications can vary tremendously from graduate program to graduate program. So if one asks for certain test scores, make sure you have them. If there’s a word limit for the personal statement, stick to it.

“If everyone wrote 50 percent more than the word count, it would be difficult on admissions directors to get through all the applications,” says Eric Allen, a former admissions officer and co-founder of application management platform (800-937-2719).

3. Craft a compelling personal statement.

You need to choose your words wisely to show why you would be a good fit for the program and how it relates to your career aspirations. Allen suggests thinking of yourself as a brand.

“A lot of people have similar academic backgrounds and work experience,” he says. “It’s about bringing together a brand that differentiates you from the rest of the pack. What are the character traits you specifically bring to the table? And support them with real action items you can point to in your background.”

4. Choose the right references.

An undergraduate professor who can’t put a face to your name isn’t going to write a rave recommendation. “You want to choose people who know you well, because they can write a much more substantive letter in support of your application,” says Julia Kent, director of communications, advancement and best practices for the D.C.-based Council of Graduate Schools.

Supply references with information on everything you’ve done over the years. Your boss already knows about your stellar work performance, but he or she might not realize all the volunteer work you do outside the office.

5. Don’t blow the interview.

If a program wants to meet with applicants, do your homework in advance. “In this day and age of the Internet, there is absolutely no reason not to know everything about the program,” says Michael Keynes, associate dean of graduate studies at American University. “You should know the faculty, the research they’re doing, why you want to go to that school, and how you fit in.”

6. Make contact with the program.

It’s acceptable and in fact recommended for applicants to call program contacts and ask questions.

“Actually talk to faculty and ask them about their research,” says Melissa Busskohl, director of graduate admissions and student services at George Washington University’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. “Those names of people who actually reach out stick in your head as someone who is obviously very interested in the program.”

So don’t be afraid to get your name out there; it may give you the edge over someone who didn’t.

Know what you want — and go for it

No graduate program is looking for a wishy-washy candidate. That’s why it’s so important during the application process to express why a program is a good match for you and your career goals.
So make sure you can eloquently and effectively explain this in your personal statements, during interviews and even when meeting faculty at open houses and information sessions. It’s not enough to say you want to work in engineering. You need to be able to show why a specific engineering program at a specific school can help you achieve your specific career aspirations.

“When it’s not perceived that the person is enthusiastic and wants to be there, it’s basically giving the admissions committee an excuse to deny the application,” says D.C.-based educational consultant and admissions strategist Steven Roy Goodman. “They may not perceive that this candidate is serious about really coming to that program.” And that matters because many graduate programs care about their yield rates, the percentage of admitted students who end up enrolling.

Grad programs want students who will take an active role, not just squeak by in class.

“Schools are looking for candidates who have a clear vision of what they want to do,” says Eric Allen, a former admissions officer and co-founder of application management platform “They can see very clearly when a candidate applies and doesn’t know why they want said degree. They want someone who knows what they’re trying to get out of it.”

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