How do different parts of grad school application impact your chances?

If you have ever thought of applying to a grad school for M.S./ Ph.D., you probably know how tiring and cumbersome their application process can get. From writing a statement of purpose to getting good grades in your courses, research projects to letters of recommendation, the list seems endless. However, while all parts of the application are necessary, they don’t have an equal impact on your application. So students often wonder on what basis the universities select students in their grad program.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a straightforward answer to this question as each university has different selection criteria for their students. Furthermore, even within a university, different people reading the application packets might have different criteria that they consider important. The good news is that we know what generally works, and what doesn’t.

GPA and coursework

The courses you take in your undergrad and your performance in those courses are the single most important thing in a grad school application. Try to take courses that may be relevant to your choice of major and maintain a good GPA in them. A good GPA doesn’t necessarily mean that you should be a topper of your batch, but don’t have a GPA that would be clearly considered sub-par or below average. The reason GPA plays an important part in your application is because unlike your SOP, LORs etc, the GPA can be quantified. So this makes GPA a really great tool to objectively select or reject an applicant. An outstanding GPA in a course relevant to your major may just be your greatest advocate. This not only conveys to the selection committee that you are interested in this particular domain, but that you also have strong fundamentals in it.

Research and course projects

Actions speak louder than word and nothing shows you are ready for research than the research itself. If you manage to get some publications in your bag while you’re still in college, you can greatly improve your chances of getting admitted. Since not a lot of students have publications in their undergrad this a great way to stand out from the crowd. Even if you can’t get your paper published, at the very least try to get some projects done with the help of professors from your department.

Scores from GRE and TOEFL

The next important factor is the scores from the standardized scores. These scores are just eligibility criteria and nothing more. While your GPA can be quantitative, it’s not standard. Some colleges tend to give higher marks to their students while some colleges sparingly grade their students. Enter standardized tests. Standard tests like the GRE or the TOEFL provide a uniform metric to gauge all the incoming applications. They don’t measure your preparedness for research in any way.

The GRE is used to test your aptitude and logical reasoning. Most colleges usually have a minimum GRE score that they expect their students to have. While this score is not public knowledge, many institutions do a great work in making an educated guess. Although an exceptional GRE score will not have an astounding effect on your selection, a poor score will adversely affect your chances. Find the average GRE scores for the universities you wish to apply to and try to score above that.

TOEFL, on the other hand, is purely a test to check your proficiency in the English language. This is required so that the universities can be sure that you would be able to comprehend the academic texts and participate in discussions. Some universities also use the TOEFL scores as eligibility criteria for Teaching Assistantship (TA) and Research Assistantship (RA). So getting a good score can go a long way.

SOP and LOR

The SOP is a great platform to highlight all your achievements and overshadow any shortcomings that your application might have. Think of the SOP as a tool to tell the selection committee about you and why you are a good fit for their graduate program. Some of the topics that your SOP should contain are your source of motivation to pursue higher studies in this particular fields, some of your achievements that shaped your desire for grad school and why you chose this particular university. Instead of writing a general SOP for each school, try writing customized statements for each of them.

Letters of recommendation are the final part of your application. They complete the 360-degree view of your application. The LORs validate the claims you’ve made in your resume or SOP through the words of a person who has worked with you. A good LOR doesn’t necessarily come from a very renowned person in your field but contains highly personal insight into your skills and behavior. You can ask some of the professors with whom you’ve worked closely on projects to write a LOR for you.

Apart from these major factors, your undergrad college can also have an impact on your profile. The professors in foreign universities typically only hear about the top colleges in other countries. So if you are from one of those, you automatically get some additional brownie points. Finally, if you’ve already graduated and are currently working, your work experience in a related field can also act in your favor. However, keep in mind that grad schools generally prefer experience in research over industry experience. Unless you are applying for a professional course. In these cases, you should definitely get a LOR from your manager/mentor.

This majorly completes the list of all the important parts of a grad school application. While the weight of each of these factors is pretty standard across all universities, some of them may choose to give higher/lower priority of any of these. If you are planning to start your grad school journey, there isn’t a bad time to start acting on it. This article on the grad school application process can help you kick-start the process with all the helpful tips and pointers.

Training by ShareDhani and EduNepal at Kathmandu Nepal