Admission to graduate school is predicated on two primary factors, performance in undergraduate classes and scores on tests such as the Graduate Record Examination. How difficult it is to gain admission to graduate studies depends in significant part on the area of the studies. Some disciplines, such as clinical psychology, attract a lot of applicants relative to the number of students accepted. Other, purely academic disciplines, such as History or Sociology, have a smaller number of applicants per available slot and are, therefore, easier to gain admission. The reputation of the school also plays an important part in the likelihood of success in obtaining admission. The higher prestige schools, obviously, are the hardest to get into. The better the school’s reputation, the easier it is to get a job when graduated.
There are, of course, general rules regarding the strength of one’s application. Grade point average in undergraduate studies, particularly in courses related to the discipline of the graduate study are weighed heavily in the admission’s process. However, as there has been a tendency toward ‘grade inflation’, that is the tendency for schools to award high grades leniently, the grades must be considered in the context of the school that awarded them and other evidence of competence, such as the more objective scores on aptitude and knowledge tests. There are services and books that help prepare students for such tests and it is wise to utilize these opportunities because other applicants will. They help maximize performance and prepare the student for knowing what to expect. On the whole, they can add enough to the performance to be worth the effort. As it is also possible to take the tests a number of times, unless the student is satisfied with the results of the first test, taking it again can be helpful. Schools tend to look at the highest score on the assumption that it is the best indicator of the applicant’s potential.
Letters of recommendation are generally chosen by the applicant to be from professors likely to say good things. They are not usually weighed heavily unless the writer is known to the people on the admission’s committee, or they are not highly positive. Weak or downright negative letters can be fatal to admission. If prominent people can write strong letters for the applicant, this can be helpful, but it is more important to avoid any negative letter than it is to choose the most prominent professor as the writer.
Similarly, from most undergraduate institutions, the expectation is of a very good grade point average and most applicants will have GPA’s between a ‘B’ and an ‘A’. Lower averages can be seriousl impediments, but the last two years are weighed more heavily than the whole average so starting off with bad grades is not necessarily fatal. Sometimes, taking irregular postgraduate work, as a non degree student can demonstrate the ability to compete in graduate courses and persuade committees to accept degree seeking status for the student. Therefore, if a student is unsuccessful in achieving a place in graduate school immediately after graduation, another year of coursework, particularly at the graduate level, can result in acceptance on a second try. It can also be important to explain all significant activities that were done while attending undergraduate school, particularly those that might have affected grades (such as working) or that demonstrate a serious interest in the subject matter. In other words, ‘extracurricular activities’ can be helpful to the application.
The student’s statement of purpose, or letter that accompanies the application can also be very helpful if it is articulate, grammatical, mature, and relates good solid reasons for the application. It is particularly helpful if the applicant learns something about the department to which he or she is applying and writes a letter explaining the reasons for applying to that specific department. Knowledge of and interest in the work of specific professors in the department is a very effective thing to demonstrate. Although the applicant should apply to several schools, the application to each should be persuasive regarding the student’s desire to attend that school in particular. It is not a good idea to allow the school to believe that it is being asked for admission as a fallback position in case the student does not get accepted by his or her first choice, even when this is true. Therefore, it is important to know as much as possible about the strengths of any school to which a student applies and to demonstrate some of this knowledge when applying.
If an applicant makes the ‘short list’, there will be at least one contact from a member of the committee, usually the first contact is a phone interview and many departments follow this with a visit to the campus and interviews and informal contact with both students and faculty. maturity of presentation,general friendliness, and a demonstratesd interest in the school are all important in this process. Applicants should be prepared to not only answer questions about their own strengths and weaknesses but to also ask intelligent questions about the department, the school, and the community. They should leave the impression that they are positively disposed toward the school by what they learned in the visit. If, in fact, the student actually wants to go to that school, whether first choice or not, it should be easy enough to articulate why. If the applicant decides that it is not the school to attend, then it is obviously courteous and appreciated if this is communicated to the committee so that it will waste no further time and effort recruiting or considering admission. This can serve the applicant well in case the committee has contacts with the faculty of the school that the applicant wants to attend (as is usually the case) as it is a sign of maturity and consideration and might be communicated to people at the chosen school.
In addition to presenting the best credentials possible, all prospective graduate students should know why they want to enter the field and why they wish to attend the school to which they have applied. They should be able to communicate this knowledge to anyone who asks. Reasons as vague as. “I’ve always been interested in X,” without more substance and plans are inadequate. In other words, it is a good idea to have some clear understanding of goals, not only for the admissions committee, but more critically, for the prospective students themselves.