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Understanding the Graduate Admissions Process

By IvyWise’s Graduate Admissions Counselors

The graduate admissions experience isn’t that much different than the undergraduate application process, but there are several aspects make it special. No matter what the reason may be to go back to school, it is important to understand how and why graduate admissions offices function as they do in order to maximize your chances of admission to your best-fit graduate program.

Graduate programs are available for most disciplines of academic study and they generally entail research, gaining specialized knowledge beyond what is offered at the undergraduate level, or some sort of terminal qualification that imparts a specific skill set. Given the vast range of programs out there, it is difficult to provide insight that would help any single person who is interested in continuing their studies. However, there are a few pieces of information that could be useful to those who have made the decision to take their education to the next level.

It is a matter of fact that graduate schools are looking to admit candidates who are specialists in their disciplines. These are students who have excelled in their academic and professional lives, and who now want to become experts. At the highest ranked programs, those who are admitted performed exceptionally well in their undergraduate careers and have an impressive résumé to demonstrate their abilities in a professional setting as well. Both academic and professional successes are essential in the graduate admissions process. It’s not enough to just be qualified to enroll in a graduate program; you have to be one of the best in order to be admitted, and ultimately to thrive, at this level.

Applicant Pools are Smaller and More Competitive
The first thing to keep in mind is that graduate admissions offices receive a lower volume of applications than their undergraduate counterparts. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 17.3 million students are expected to enroll in undergraduate programs this year. Conversely, only 3 million intend to enroll in postgraduate studies across all disciplines offered by the 2,040 advanced degree-granting institutions in the United States.

Of course, the most noticeable aspect of applying to a graduate program is that every profile undergoes incredible scrutiny, given such a small applicant pool. Although graduate admissions committees are just as concerned about building “the right kind of class” as undergraduate admissions officers are, they must scrutinize all profiles to make sure that the student is really ready for graduate work.

Every application is assessed critically and compared, over and over again, to all of the other applicants. With such a small applicant pool, it is much easier make comparisons between a few hundred applicants versus tens of thousands. This places significant weight on each part of a candidate’s application, specifically the personal statement. Articulating the reason why you want to earn a graduate degree is an integral part of the process. Most people don’t need an additional degree, which makes your specific reason for wanting this degree particularly important in the admissions process. Doing your research about the school and explaining why attending that school, in particular, goes hand-in-hand with communicating your reason for attaining a graduate degree.

The Bottom Line is Important
The second thing to understand in graduate admissions is that enrollment managers are tasked with keeping lecture halls filled with enough highly qualified students “to keep the lights on.” Considering that graduate school is an immense undertaking, sought out by only a few people, having enough students to finance the entire operation through tuition dollars is essential.

Despite the fact that most universities are non-profit organizations, they must still operate as though they are businesses. Unlike businesses, their main objectives are to produce experts and scholars while simultaneously enrolling enough students to continue functioning year after year. Even though you may think that you are applying to a university just as you were for your undergraduate degree, you are actually applying to a semi-independent program within the university.

Graduate programs are smaller entities within the larger university, similar to a small department within a corporation. And like a department within a corporation, they must justify their existence and financial stability in order to continue producing graduates. Applicants can use this information to their benefit by not asking for merit and scholarship assistance. The drawback is that the burden of paying for the degree is completely on them. If money is an issue, searching for outside scholarships could be a way of avoiding considerable post-graduate debt. Although this admissions strategy is true for most universities, there are graduate programs with hefty endowments that are used to help students finance their studies. These programs tend to be at Ivy League universities in programs that may lead to less lucrative careers. Education and public service degrees typically dominate in this arena, while areas of study like computer science or finance are less likely to see large endowments.

Professional Experience Carries A Lot of Weight
A compelling work history is the third aspect of understanding the graduate admissions process. The amount and relevance of professional experience that an applicant has in relation to the discipline in which he or she wants to study is a big part of how graduate admissions decisions are made. Work experience doubles as an indicator of preparation to study advanced topics, as well as a gauge of how a master’s degree will help a candidate attain future goals.

A well-prepared student is able to offer keen insight in to the course material and draw connections to what is happening in the field. Scholars are constantly updating their research to analyze what is happening in the world beyond academia, and students with real-world experience are excellent providers of this knowledge.

What is most important, however, is that earning a graduate degree will result in a tangible benefit to the student in the effort to advance his or her career. This means that, for some, it will lead to a doctoral degree, or it will provide specialized knowledge skills in order to become an expert in the field. For example, perhaps a promotion at your company depends upon your ability to perform regression analyses as a part of your responsibilities, and a higher degree to support that qualification. Earning a master’s degree makes sense in this case.

Beyond assessing your preparation and knowing how a graduate degree will help you, admissions officers are also concerned with an applicant’s employability once he or she graduates from their school as well. The job market has become more competitive over the last decade, and this troubles universities for several reasons. When a school’s graduates are unable to acquire the roles for which it is training students, it makes the school appear as though it has no value. This is particularly detrimental to the reputation of the school even when the institution provides excellent preparation for these jobs.

In order to mitigate this risk, admissions officers select candidates who show a track record of employability; it is easier to get a job when you have work experience, after all. In a sense, they want to admit people who will boost the school’s placement statistics after they graduate. This, in turn, makes the graduate program more attractive to new applicants and ensures that the program will have enough enrollees to continue operating.

Graduate Professors Have a Say in the Admissions Process
The last piece of information that is helpful in understanding graduate admissions is that the professors in your chosen field of study are also likely to be evaluating your application. Graduate students are expected to work closely with their professors, so they are careful about choosing students with whom they can collaborate. Professors are going to select the candidates that align with their research interests, so it is worthwhile to thoroughly study what your future mentors are researching before you apply. The personal statement is the best place to write about how you could contribute to their work and what interests you most about it. Again, it is always good to do your own research about the school to which you are applying well in advance.

If you are considering graduate school at this moment, or planning to attend in the next several years, it’s always great to have an informed plan as there is a lot of information to absorb before you start the process. It is important to understand how a master’s degree will help you in the future, as well as understand the opportunities that will improve your chances of admission to the program of your choice. The best way to make yourself an impressive candidate is to plan thoroughly before you apply. For more information on the graduate admissions process and how IvyWise can help you gain admission to your best-fit graduate program, contact us today.