Find out what makes a stellar graduate school application, mistakes to avoid and what to do to stand out. Photo by: outcast104 / CC BY

If you’re considering going back to school, chances are the application is one of the most daunting aspects of the process.

You may know how to write your CV or answer standard interview questions to land a job, but if you haven’t been in the world of academia for a while, knowing how to impress an admissions team may be out of your comfort zone.

Devex spoke with several university admissions officers to find out what makes a stellar graduate school application, mistakes to avoid and ways to stand out. If you’re applying to a postgraduate program, here are four things to know to ace your application.

1. The holistic candidate.

When evaluating admissions criteria like test scores, GPA, work history and personal essays, most universities do not focus on one specific area, but rather look at each aspect “as equally weighted pieces of a pie,” said Tim Palmer, associate director of admissions at IE School of International Relations and IE Business School in Madrid.

“We take into account all components of the application,” said University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs Director of Admissions Amy Luitjens, adding the university considers your academic preparation for the program, but also factors in related work like volunteer experience and an applicant’s personal statement.

What if you don’t have a stellar academic record or test scores?

“If anyone is low, it can be made up for via other stronger aspects of the application,” Palmer said.

However, depending on the nature of the specific program, some schools may look for specific skills and experience.

“Since our program focuses on quantitative skills, we place importance on evidence that the applicant can do the work,” Sarah Olia, Harvard Kennedy School assistant director, told Devex. They look for strong grades in previous math and economics courses, a competitive GRE quantitative reasoning score, and if prerequisite courses have not been taken, a “reasonable plan for completing them prior to enrolling,” Olia stated.

2. Commitment to global development.

For programs that focus either entirely or in part on preparing professionals for a career in global development, both previous experience in and a continued commitment to this line of work is a serious consideration.  

Candidates who are professionally prepared and can “articulate their interest in the program, what they hope to get out of it and what they will bring to it are typically more likely to be successful in the admissions process,” advised Luitjens. For notoriously competitive programs like those at the Harvard Kennedy school, “potential for leadership in the field” is also a critical factor.

READ: Opinion: Applying to grad school- making the most of your personal statement

Common application mistakes, according to Harvard Kennedy School Assistant Director Sarah Olia:

1. Not taking the time to proofread and edit essays.

2. “Name dropping” faculty without drawing any connection as to how it relates to your application.

3. Failing to mention what you can contribute to the learning environment.

4. Selecting references with impressive-sounding titles, but who don’t know you well enough to speak to your qualifications to the program.

5. Using “gimmicky” approaches in your application.

3. Professional references.

One of the biggest mistakes applicants make is not selecting the right references, Olia said.

Focus less on “name dropping” and using impressive titles and more on respected individuals who can speak specifically to your qualifications and capabilities and articulate why you would be a great candidate for their program. However, “avoid friends, acquaintances and family members,” warned Palmer, as they will be assumed to be biased and signals that you may not have people in your professional background willing to vouch for you.

4.  Plan in advance.

In order to adequately prepare a stand-out application, you will need time to prepare for your GRE, GMAT or any other required tests, take any prerequisite courses you lack and do diligent research on which programs best match your qualifications and career goals. Plan for “at least a year,” Olia said.

Application deadlines and enrollment periods can vary widely across universities as well, potentially pushing this timeline back even further. Planning in advance will also give you time to research funding options such as scholarships, fellowships and financial aid, many of which have deadlines a year in advance of when you plan to enroll in a program.

READ: Opinion: 12-month plan to submit a successful grad school app

You know you need a postgraduate degree to advance in a global development career, but deciding on a program, degree, and specialization can be overwhelming. In partnership with the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA), Duke Center for International Development (DCID) at Duke University, Duke Kunshan University, the Online Master of Public Health (MPH) at George Washington University, and the MPA/ID Program at Harvard Kennedy School, we are digging into all things graduate school and global development in a weeklong series called Grad School Week. Join online events and read more advice on pursuing a postgraduate education here.

This article was last updated on 14 November 2017

About the author

  • Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.

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