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5 Steps For a Strong Graduate School Application

Thinking about graduate school in the next few years? These are the tips that will get you accepted into your top choices!

So you’re thinking about walking the halls of knowledge for a few more years. Good for you! You’re in good company; the number of people pursuing graduate education is on the rise, particularly for women and underrepresented minorities.

I am starting an intensive one-year Master’s program this fall while simultaneously applying to Public Health Master’s programs with hopes to begin next fall. That makes me uniquely qualified to provide some pointers that differ from what’s already out there. If you want advice from someone who was recently stressed over this process and is in the midst of doing it all over again, read on.

However, if you’re looking for tips on how to write a personal statement, craft a sweet resume, secure letters of recommendation, and set up informational interviews, you might want to look elsewhere. There are plenty of great resources out there already and I’m not in the business of reiterating them.

Here, I will focus more on the thought process that goes behind a successful application. Think of it as the checklist before your checklist.

1. Determining your why is the logical place to begin.

Graduate school is not similar to undergraduate studies at all (and it’s not worth pursuing if that’s what you were hoping for). It’s also not worth doing just because you don’t know what else to do or if you simply dislike your current job. Be honest with yourself about why you feel this is the right path and the right time to take it.

There are plenty of great reasons to go to graduate school. It’s a great place to start if you want to do research in a specific field, if you plan to become a professor, or you are looking to gain specific professional skills that you did not get from your undergraduate degree. It’s also worth going after if you know exactly what your dream job is and it takes more education to get there.

Pro-tip: Strike up conversations with professors, bosses, advisers, family, and friends about your plans for graduate school. They will help you find why graduate school is right for you more effectively than any article written by a stranger ever will. They will each have a different perspective and they could help you uncover some possibilities you hadn’t considered before.

You need a good handle on the why before you can get to the how, the where, and the when. If you have a solid and consistent reason for wanting to continue school, it will shine though all aspects of your applications.

2. Narrow down your potential programs.

The search for which programs to apply to can be exhausting since there are so many possibilities. All the variables involved – cost, location, quality of the research, notable faculty, duration of the program, et cetera – are very difficult to sort out.

My process for narrowing down programs was time-consuming but highly worth it:

First, create a spreadsheet with all the programs you can find information on – even the ones you don’t think you are interested in. List all of them along the left hand side, then fill in additional columns for each variable that matters to you for each school.

Personally, my most important variables were tuition, location, and faculty. In total, I had about twenty different variables that I considered for each program. Then, sort by the most important variables and eliminate schools that are completely unacceptable, like if they have laughably outrageous tuition costs or no notable faculty in your field.

Narrow the field until you have a list you’re comfortable with. There is no set number you should apply to, but your list should strike a nice balance between “reach” programs (you’d love to get into them but it’s unlikely), some “safety” programs (ones that you’ll almost certainly get accepted into), and several in between.

Now that you have your list of schools, it’s time to get that application going as early as you can. Going to graduate school is a serious decision with very real implications for your finances and career. It is not a decision you want to enter into lightly, so preparation should commence about one year from the application due date.

Get your GRE scheduled if the programs require it – having a date set will help keep you on track with studying for it!

Aside from the GRE, there are so many other ducks that you have to get in a row: it takes time to wrangle up good recommendations, compose a flaw-free personal statement tailored to each school on your list, and get some much-needed internship or volunteer time under your belt.

3. Work backwards to determine your timeline.

Work backwards from the application due date and set milestones for yourself: when do you want a first draft of your statement to be finished? How about the final draft? At what point will you have that year of experience some programs require? When should you notify your recommendations?

Each type of program has its own laundry list of to-do’s, so look well in advance at what each program needs you to have and map out several due dates your yourself.

4. After solidifying your timeline, think about exactly why each school should want a student like you.

What experiences will you bring with you that will shape how you solve problems and find solutions? Schools are looking for candidates that will contribute to their name and their legacy. They want to attract students who will rise to the top of their field and contribute fresh and creative ideas.

While sitting on this question, immerse yourself in books, podcasts, and lectures that will keep you up-to-date on what is happening in your field right now. Draw inspiration from current developments in forming the direction you’d like your education and career to take.

5. At this point, you can start reaching out to faculty at each school.

You might want to ask them more about their research, if they are taking on any graduate students, and if it might be okay for you to visit them in person for an informational interview.

Not only might this help your acceptance chances (since you can mention a faculty member by name and talk about their research in your statement), but will make the transition into graduate school that much easier with at least one linkage already made.

This whole process should take about a year; that gives you enough time to consider your options, complete all application components stress-free, and proofread nineteen times before finally hitting “submit.” Good luck!

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About the Author

Natalee Desotell

Natalee graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013 with a triple major in Political Science, International Politics & Economics, Languages & Cultures of Asia, and a minor in Global Public Health. After a couple years in the working world, she recently returned to her alma mater to study Cartography and Geographical Information Systems. A self-proclaimed public health nerd, her dream job is to communicate epidemiological information visually through beautiful interactive maps and graphics. She enjoys iced black coffee, punk rock music, and surprising people.