Preparing Your Graduate School Application

Career Coaching
A group of graduates celebrating

When you are ready to take that next step in your career and pursue an advanced degree, preparing a strong application is crucial. This is your time to show the admissions committee that you have what it takes to be a successful student so you’ll want to build it as carefully as possible. If you are looking for quick FAQs, feel free to scroll to the bottom of this article.

However, if you have some time, here are 5 tips on preparing your graduate school application:

1. Make a connection with a recruiter

Wait, what? That’s the top thing I need to do?

Absolutely it is! Here’s why…

  • A) You’ll get the inside scoop on what that program is looking for and how you can stand out. This is key! Test scores, personal statements, resumes…those are all very important too and we’ll talk about them in a minute. The pointers you received from the recruiter could be the cherry on top though, and you do NOT want to miss out.
  • B) You’re telling them your story! And that’s gonna stick with them when they read your application. As a recruiter, we are your advocates in front of the committee. The more we know, the more we can share with them as we advocate for you if your application is on the fence. In other words, help us help you and be as specific as you can. What are your goals, why do you want to do this program, have you done anything specific to prepare for this program (i.e. taken a coding class/bootcamp, started a relevant internship or job, etc.)? Did you have a rough semester where your grades suffered? Is there a gap in your work experience? In 5-7 sentences, tell us briefly what happened. I know it’s not fun to divulge what negatively impacted your grades or created that large gap of time in your resume, but again…if we don’t know, we can only assume and that’s worse. If we at least knew what happened and how you were able to get back into the workforce or improve your grades (for example), we can work with that.

2. The GRE/GMAT Test

Ugh, I know. Who wants to take an exam? Maybe it has been years since you’ve been out of school or you are just tired of taking exams.

Here’s the thing though…

  • A) There are more test prep places out there than you can count. Be thorough and make sure they have some credibility, of course. It’s an option that could make the difference in preparing you for the exam. For some programs out there, a strong score could set you apart and showcase your skills. That said, start preparing for it EARLY and take a few practice tests to get a feel for areas of where you need improvement.
  • B) If you have been working full-time for 5, 7, 10+ years, you may qualify for a test waiver based on your work experience. Some schools might look at your undergraduate GPA or if your experience is relevant to the program you are applying for. Others might just look at your work experience. In any case, it doesn’t hurt to at least ask if the school offers the waiver and what the requirements are!

Side Note: Some schools are automatically waiving the test right now due to COVID! Check with the school if you are not sure. If you are thinking of graduate school, now’s the time!

3. The statement of purpose/personal statement

This is where you get to showcase your goals, your interest in this particular school and this particular program. I wouldn’t skimp on this, but wouldn’t overshare either. Here’s the thing…

Recruiters want to hear you. Your motivation. Your goals. Your voice.

I cannot tell you how many personal statements I have read that are summaries of their resume. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great that you worked at this internship and made incredible discoveries in your projects. Or maybe you’ve moved up in a particular field over the past 5, 10, 20 years. That’s amazing! Recruiters will definitely look forward to seeing this on your resume. What we really want to hear in the personal statement is your voice. We want to know the WHY behind your pursuit of this degree. That’s another thing that’s going to help us advocate for you in front of the admissions committee. What are your long term and short term goals? How will this program get you there? Why do you want this program at this school? What makes you a good fit for this program and this school? I encourage you to really think about this and make it as specific as possible.

And lastly, please check for spelling/grammatical errors as well as the name of the school in your essay. I understand applying to multiple schools involves multiple essays and applications so it’s easy to get disorganized, but please be thorough. Ask a friend or family member to read through it as well. Another set of eyes is always a good thing. You may also want to use Grammarly to double check your writing. You can also try using this handy-dandy School Application Organizer. Check it out here.

4. Resume

I definitely suggest reviewing your resume before you upload it. Make sure the fonts match. Are you jobs and internships in chronological order from most recent to the oldest? Looking at the resume tells a recruiter so many things at once. Did this person put this together at the last minute? Are they just telling me what they did or explaining why the tasks they did are important? Again, another set of eyes can be of good help here too. If you would like assistance with building a strong resume, review our article about Resume Writing and you are welcomed to schedule an appointment with us.

5. Interview

Does this program require an in-person, phone or video interview? If so, treat it like any professional interview that you would go on. Wear the suit, practice some answers about your goals, why this program, why you are a good fit, why this school? Practice in the mirror if you need to. It helps to see yourself answering the questions out loud. The more comfortable you feel in your answers, the more it will show. If you are unclear on what the interview will entail, you can always reach out to the admissions team for some helpful tips. At Balanced at Last, we’re here to help you with mock interviews too!

Remember, at the end of the day, the admissions representative/recruiter wants to help you build as strong an application as possible. Please do listen to any advice they provide on the application sections listed above and start on your application early. Most people wait until the last minute. Getting your application early will allow you to be one of the first ones they see (as opposed to the end of the process when many strong applications have already been seen). Most schools offer an early deadline so do your best to make that one. You will get your decision and the time needed to prepare for the program. It will be a tremendous weight off of your shoulders.

I wish you the best of luck in your application preparation! Take these tips and give it your all so at the end of the day, you know you did everything you could. Remember, we’re here for you if you need assistance in learning more about the process, resume building, application strategies, mock interviewing, and celebrating.

Frequently Asked Questions: Applying to Grad School

When should I make an appointment with a recruiter/admissions representative?
I suggest looking at when the program begins and speak with them the year before you want to apply (i.e. If you want to start in Fall 2022, speak with them in Fall 2021). If you are within a year of the program starting, speak with them as soon as you can.

How long should my personal statement/essay be?

This is something each school should specify in their application requirements. Make sure to note down all of the topics they want you to discuss before you get started writing. It will help you make sure you give them exactly what they are asking for. Also, make sure to review your personal statement before uploading it. Click here for a handy dandy resource to keep track of all aspects of each application you submit, including your personal statement/essay.

My grades dropped for a little bit while I was in school or there are some gaps in my work experience. How will this impact my chances of getting admitted?

In this situation, your best bet is to be upfront about this in the optional essay/miscellaneous section. Most applications have at least one of these. If there is none, you could ask the admissions team for a suggestion where you can address this. You don’t need to go into crazy detail, but generally explain what happened during that time (i.e. dealing with a medical issue, family or financial struggles, laid off, etc). This is also a good opportunity to explain how you worked through it and what the result was.

I know I need to submit transcripts and test scores with my application. Can these be scanned copies or do I need to contact my school/testing center?

Great question. This is something you definitely want to confirm with the school you are applying to. You will most likely need to submit your unofficial transcripts and test scores with the application. The official transcripts and test scores might not be needed until after you are admitted to the program.

Will I need a resume for the application? If so, how long does my resume have to be?

This is something that should be listed in the application requirements as well. In regards to the length, I’d say try to keep it 1-2 pages, if possible. If this is not possible, speak with your admission rep/recruiter about what they want to see in your resume and prioritize that. Make sure that your job history is in chronological order and have someone review your resume before you upload it for spelling/grammar errors.

I am dreading the GRE or GMAT/I haven’t taken standardized tests in years! What should I do?

You are not alone. I don’t think anyone likes taking these exams. Your best bet is to start preparing EARLY. Register for a prep class, get a tutor, buy a prep book. Do what you need to do to get yourself comfortable with the questions and the subjects. You could also ask the recruiter/admission representative if they offer test waivers or test alternatives. A test waiver/alternative allows you to apply without the test scores based on the other sections of your application such as your work experience, academic background, GPA, etc. For those of you who have not taken a test in a while, you could qualify for one of these waivers/alternatives based on your significant work experience. If this is not an option, then so be it…but hey, you never know until you ask!

Will I need to do an interview for my application?

That really depends on the program. Most business schools require an interview as part of your application. The interview could be by phone, virtual, in-person or a recording of you answers a set of questions. I would suggest that you ask the recruiter/rep about this when you speak to them. I suggest that regardless of how the interview is conducted, you dress professionally. This is your time to verbally express your excitement and readiness for the program so, just like in any interview, you will definitely want to dress to impress. Make sure you are ready to provide some answers about your goals, why this program, why you are a good fit, why this school?

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