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Being a Competitive Candidate

Programs vary in competitiveness for admission and in what they value most in candidates. Not all universities have a centralized graduate school unit, but those that do may have separate requirements for both the graduate school and the department in which you want to study. Though both may have minimum requirements, you should be aware that satisfying the minimum requirements does not guarantee acceptance. A more accurate predictor of acceptance is how a candidate compares with the average qualifications of the current students in the program. Keep these general facts in mind:

Grade-point Average
3.0 is often the minimum, but the average GPAs of graduate students are often much higher. Some programs weigh grades in specific courses more heavily; for example, for medical school, performance in the science prerequisites counts heavily.

TIPS: Focus on getting good grades, especially in your last few years of college and in related coursework. Many graduate programs value excellent recent academic performance for admittance.

Test Scores
Test type and score requirements vary by institution and program. Typically there are minimum scores you must obtain to be considered, but again, the average scores of the students in the program are often much higher. Some programs place more emphasis on particular sections of the test (for example, quantitative versus verbal). Be sure to check each program of interest for specifics.

TIPS: Set time aside for studying and familiarizing yourself with the test format. Consider taking a test-preparation course to help study for any required entrance exams if you typically struggle with standardized testing. Consider your budget—these courses can be very expensive!

Relevant Experience
Experience gained through internships, fieldwork, a practicum, volunteering, independent studies, research, and similar opportunities can help the admissions staff see your commitment and fit while also helping you to better understand the field a develop a strong network.

TIPS: Keep current on what trends and skills are sought in your chosen profession, such as artistic techniques, computer skills, communications skills, or analytical skills. Build good writing skills and research techniques while you are an undergraduate and/or an employee. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to get involved with your faculty members’ research.

References and Networking
References and effective networking with members of the faculty and staff can sometimes move your application to the top of the stack. Look for any opportunity to make contacts at your home institution, at institutions of interest, and in your field of interest.

TIPS: Set up informational interviews with people in the field and/or alumni of the graduate program you are considering. Visit your top graduate schools, and request an appointment for an informational interview with the chair of the program you are interested in or a professor associated with it.

Professional Application
While GPA and test scores are weighed heavily as an objective measure, strong application materials allow the admissions staff to see more about your fit and potential success in the program. Reviewers are looking for strong writing skills, organization, attention to detail, and relevant skills and experience.

TIPS: Utilize resources for writing top-notch resumes, personal statements, and essays and get your statement critiqued by a competent reviewer such as Center for Career Development & Academic Exploration staff and coaches. Develop and maintain a portfolio, including letters of reference, writing samples, and relevant projects.