Opinion: 8 tips for standing out as a grad school applicant

Photo by: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

It’s a familiar feeling for many applicants: you’ve found the graduate school of your dreams but as you explore the website, you learn that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of others applying to the same program. You feel like you are a good fit, but you start doubting your chances when you learn that the competition is fierce. Before you click “submit” on that application, review these tips to help you stand out in the application pool.

1. Be authentic rather than trying to match the “typical” profile

Don’t write what you think the admissions officer wants to hear. Instead, focus on what you truly want to say. If you try to change your application to match the “typical” profile, you will just blend into the crowd. For example, if you are applying to business school but have aspirations to work for nonprofits, rather than making it seem like you dream of becoming the next Steve Jobs, stay true to your interests and write about learning the MBA skillset to apply it to the public sector.

Likewise, don’t let someone talk you out of what you want to say. Of course it is beneficial to have someone edit your essays, but if someone suggests cutting a section that you felt was truly important to your application, stick with your gut instinct. There is nothing worse than getting a “deny” back and wondering what would have happened if you remained true to your authentic self.

2. Help the admissions committee understand your thought process

By the time you sit down to write your essays, you should, hopefully, have already put some deep thought into your reasons for going to grad school. Let the school in on the reflection you’ve done that led you to thinking this program is a good step for you at this time. You don’t need to explicitly spell it out, but the reader needs to come away from your statement of purpose thinking “this makes sense, I know why she wants to do this program at this time.”

3. Make contact with the school (but don’t overdo it)

One of the best ways to learn about a program, and have them learn about you, is to introduce yourself to the admissions staff at an open house, regional event hosted by the school, or information session on campus. If you are going to campus, reach out to the admissions office to see if they can arrange for you to sit in on a class, meet a current student, or have a staff member answer your questions. If you are unable to travel to the school, you could still take the time to email or call with your questions to learn if you are a good fit for the program and how you can improve your application.

But be careful; some pitfalls to avoid so you don’t stand out in a negative way are asking questions that were already answered in the presentation or are easily learned online, speaking so much that none of the other prospective students get a chance, and contacting the admissions office every day with a new problem. You want to be remembered as a promising prospective student, not as an annoyance.

4. Highlight your fit for the program (and be specific!)

Be sure to tailor your application to showcase specifically why you are a great fit for the program. Do your homework — talk about why this school’s classes, faculty, research opportunities, or other features are perfectly suited to your past experiences and future ambitions. Emphasize your relevant experience — such as research projects, first-hand work experience, or a thesis written about a certain subject — so the reader can understand what you can contribute to the classroom. If your statement of purpose is identical for multiple applications, with the only difference being the name of the school, the admissions committee will brush it off as too generic.

5. Coach your references to write a great letter

We are certainly not advocating that you write your own letters of reference, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take an active role in ensuring your references are as strong as possible. When asking for a reference letter, take the time to ensure the writer understands the program, your motivations for applying, and a few stories that exemplify your positive traits. This way you can ensure that each letter demonstrates a different attribute that you bring to the program. One common mistake to avoid: choosing a high-profile name who can only write two sentences about you. Choose recommenders who know you well.

6. Ace your prerequisite courses

While having a high overall GPA is obviously desirable, graduate admissions officers ask themselves, “can this person do the work that we teach? They are most concerned with your grades in the courses relevant to the program. For example, the Harvard Kennedy School Master’s in Public Administration in International Development program (MPA/ID) requires all applicants to have completed one course each in microeconomics, macroeconomics, and multivariable calculus. Applicants who get strong grades in these prerequisite courses can make up for a low mark on an undergraduate class that is less relevant to the MPA/ID program.

7. Follow the directions

This falls under the category of “don’t stand out in a bad way.” Be sure that you are adhering to the guidelines of the application and submitting every required component without writing too much, skipping steps, getting too creative with your answers, or missing what they want to learn about you. While this seems obvious, every year we receive applications with six-page resumes or short stories for essays when all we requested was a 750-word limit.

8. Tell them what sets you apart!

Our final piece of advice to stand out from other applicants is to tell the admissions committee what makes you stand out from other applicants! Have you had to overcome an exceptional challenge? Did you take more classes than needed just because you were interested in the subject? Were your parents employed in the field and you grew up surrounded by experts? Without making your statement of purpose into a bragging listing of your accomplishments, don’t be shy about writing what sets you apart. Thoughtfully demonstrating passion, commitment, and perseverance through your experiences will leave a positive impression on an application.

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.

About the author

  • Ramie Jacobson

    Ramie Jacobson works with the Master in Public Administration/International Development Program at Harvard Kennedy School. The MPA/ID Program is designed to prepare leaders in international development. It is an economics-centered, multi-disciplinary program, combining rigorous training in analytical and quantitative methods with emphasis on policy and practice.