The Graduate Admissions Process in the United States
Virtually all graduate schools in the United States, whether they be academic or professional in nature, will require you to have at least a four-year undergraduate bachelors-level degree from an accredited university. For many programs, however, the admissions criteria extend far beyond just an undergraduate degree. Many schools judge their applicants on three wide-ranging criteria:
- Academic Ability
- Professional Promise (more relevant to professional programs)
- Personal Characteristics
An applicant’s Academic Ability is generally ascertained by two things: transcripts and standardized test scores.
Your university transcript gives admissions officers the information they need about your academic performance, including the courses you took and the grades you earned. However, not all colleges and universities hold their students to the same standards, so an A in one institution could be equivalent to a C in another. Therefore, standardized tests, such as the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, etc. put all applicants on an equal level. For this reason, admissions offices place great importance on your standardized test scores – much more than they would comfortably be willing to admit. The only exception is the TOEFL, which does nothing more than demonstrate your English language ability. Most schools have a minimum recommended score and scoring perfectly will usually not make your application more attractive to an admissions committee.
Many graduate programs in America now require their applicants to apply online. Most will ask that you self-report your academic transcript and standardized test scores. If admitted, you will be required to send the admissions office a translated and notarized hard copy of your official transcript before you enroll, while the Educational Testing Service (ETS) will furnish your university with your official standardized test score report (as long as you request that they do so).
Universities gauge an applicant’s Professional Promise by their previous work experience, gleaned from resumes, letters of recommendation, essays, and admissions interviews.
Your resume gives the admissions committee a concise, one- or two-page history of your education and work experience. Not all graduate programs require applicants to submit a resume, but the ones that do will most certainly be rating your ability to find employment after graduation. For programs that are professional in nature, such as business and law schools, post-graduation employment rates are a major consideration in their overall rank against other schools, so your ability to find a job after graduation is very important. Also, universities appreciate their names being attached to high-profile officials and professionals, so they pay very close attention to how successful you might be in the future.
Admissions committees generally require two letters of recommendation from a person who was (or still is) in some type of supervisory capacity. If the program is more academic in nature, they may request that the recommendations come from one or more professors from courses that you took during undergraduate. It is important to note that you should seek out professors that you know well, as if you were only one face out of 100 in a seminar and never really interacted with the professor, the recommendation will be very impersonal. For professional programs, it is very likely that the admissions committee will require recommendations from former supervisors in a workplace setting. If this is the case, you should ask the people directly senior to you and not the company president, who likely doesn’t know you very well. The admissions committee is looking to understand both your strengths and weaknesses (everybody has weaknesses) and the person evaluating you should not be shy about giving a candid appraisal.
Your essay, or personal statement, is your opportunity to tell the admissions committee directly, in your own words, about your interest in the program and why you are applying. This generally includes a discussion of your future goals and how the school to which you are applying will help you achieve those goals. Admissions committees pay very close attention to your personal statement(s) because they will judge you on how realistic they think your goals are, given your past history and the school’s offerings. You may be required to compose more than one essay, whose topics are generally behavioral in nature.
Admissions interviews are generally required of professional programs, or those that are very small, because in small programs, culture and fit with other students are important considerations. Interviews generally consist of a small discussion about you and your past experiences followed by a discussion on why you want to attend the school. It is very important to research the program so that you will be able to defend your reasons for wanting to attend. Many applicants do poorly on interviews because they do not have an in-depth understanding of what their schools have to offer. The interviewer will then ask some other behavioral questions and finish with the opportunity for you to ask questions of the interviewer. Again, it is important to research the program and come up with two or three intelligent questions for the interviewer.
An applicant’s Personal Characteristics are defined by everything they do outside of the classroom and office and can be demonstrated to the admissions committee through essays, recommendations, and admissions interviews.
What type of extracurricular activities do you have? Do you play any individual or team sports? Are you a musician? Do you volunteer for non-profit or community-based organizations? What hobbies do you have?
Extracurricular activities that are in-line with your future goals can really improve your chances of admission to a good graduate program as it proves to the admissions committee that you are a person of action, and not just words. For instance, if you are applying to law schools and your goal is to work in the field of international human rights, your application would be strong if you volunteered with international human rights NGOs, and even stronger if you held a leadership position within that organization. If you were to write your business school essays about wanting to bring management skills to performing arts organizations, your application would be much stronger if you were a volunteer board member at a community theater.
Extracurricular activities do not necessarily have to be professional in nature. Just demonstrating to the admissions committee that you are involved in your community and live not only for yourself will go a long way in rounding out an already powerful application.
By Sojin Song
President, mbaVantage, http://www.mbavantage.com