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Your graduate school application checklist

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Getting into your top choice grad school isn't impossible, but it will be challenging. To make the process easier, read this post to improve your odds of getting into your dream program. Having aced the entrance examinations such as TOEFL, IELTS, GMAT, or GRE, you now need to invest much of your time in producing a robust CV and references, and writing empowering essays and personal statements. But first, you need to start doing your program research.

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Choosing schools and programs

With over 1,700 universities offering graduate degrees, there are most likely several good programs in your field. We don’t believe in relying only on rankings as they can be misleading and subjective. A more reliable source of information and advice will be your professors and students who have studied in the U.S. Look at professional journals for faculty publications. Note who is publishing in the areas of your specialization and where they are teaching. Keep in mind that a department’s reputation relies heavily on the reputation of its faculty. Sometimes it is more important to study under a particular person than it is to study at a university with a prestigious name.

Program Quality

Trying to judge the academic quality of a program is difficult. However, here are some questions to answer:

  • What are the program’s resources?

  • What kind of financial support does it have?

  • How complete is the library?

  • What laboratory equipment and computer facilities are available?

  • What does the program have to offer in terms of both curriculum and services?

  • What is the student-faculty ratio, and what kind of interaction is there between students and professors?

  • What internships, assistantships and other experiential education opportunities are available?

Compare Institutions

Make a comparison chart listing the institutions you have located and look at the differences among them with respect to:

  • Research emphasis and facilities, including libraries and computer facilities

  • Size of the department and size of institution

  • Accreditation

  • Qualifications of the faculty

  • Academic admission requirements, including required test scores, degrees, and GPA

  • Length of time required for degree

  • Course and thesis requirements

  • Cost of tuition, books etc.

  • Availability of financial assistance

  • Location, housing options, campus setting, climate, and cost of living

  • International student services.

Alright. So now you know where you want to go. What now?

Work on your CV

Writing a resume for academic purposes is a more difficult task than writing a regular resume.

Here are the things you need in your resume for MA & PhD study. Please note that professors are looking for people who are strongly focused on research:

  • Any publications, conferences and journals. A good paper that has been presented at a national or international conference will make your resume strong. If your paper has been accepted in an international journal, you are an extremely good prospect for any professor.

  • All research-related work experience and summer jobs. Even if your internships and summer jobs were not research oriented, try to highlight the features that are important to research.

  • Briefly outline your guided research project in your resume and mention the advisor's name.

  • Clearly indicate your degree of fluency in English. Mention any time you spent in English-speaking countries and the number of years of formal English education you have.

  • Include any teaching experience.

  • List all higher-level courses relevant to your intended specialization, especially any graduate level course that you elected.

  • Include all your computer skills. In the USA, computers are used in every single field and in every type of work, so professors expect some sort of relevant computer experience.

  • For engineering, it is especially important to include any experience you have dealing with laboratory hardware, especially electronic hardware such as amplifiers, motors, sensors and data acquisition systems, which are of general importance.

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Recommendation letters

When applying to graduate schools that are research oriented (excluding LLM & MBA programs), it is best to ask for letters of recommendations from teachers or professors and not employers. Admissions officers are looking to supplement their knowledge of your academic performance and aptitude with concrete evidence that you are a dedicated and enthusiastic learner. Admission committees will be looking for reference to your potential to succeed as a graduate student in their department.

Ideally, people who write your recommendation letters should:

1. Know your work

2. Have a high opinion of you

3. Know where you are applying

4. Know you well enough to write with expertise

The best help a recommender can give a student is to provide specific and detailed examples of accomplishments or character traits that will validate the quality of the applicant’s record. Recommenders typically write longer letters for students they like and admire than for students they do not like, admire, know well, so that letter length per se becomes an indirect measure of recommender’s attitude.

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Essay / Personal Statement / Statement of Purpose

The essay is one of the most important parts of the application process. It is from this statement the admissions committee will discern of your intentions, your experience, and your motivation for graduate school.

The emphasis is on scholarship and research interests. You should focus more on aspects of your personality that relate to intellectual and academic interests and goals. Most schools will ask you to respond to specific questions or to emphasize certain aspects of your experience – be sure to follow their instructions exactly. DO NOT use a generic statement but make sure it is tailored to a specific program.

A strong statement of purpose will answer these questions:

  • Why are you interested in graduate study?

  • Why are you applying to this particular program?

  • What about you is special?

  • Are there items in your application that need special explanation?

  • Do you add diversity to the program?

Common mistakes to avoid:

  • Do not be overly formal.

  • Do not include irrelevant information.

  • Do not write your life story.

Graduate schools expect you to be able to write clearly, logically and with grace and imagination. Your personal statement should reflect maturity and show how your record and accomplishments have led to personal and academic growth.

The best personal statement in applying to graduate school is one that says in effect: I WILL BE A CREDIT TO THIS GRADUATE SCHOOL BOTH WHILE ATTENDING AND IN MY CAREER AFTERWARD.

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This post was penned by Arona Maskil, a pro college and university application consultant. For over 20 years, Arona had managed the Israeli branch of EducationUSA. She offers accurate, comprehensive and current information on post-secondary educational opportunities in all fields of study, from short term courses to PhD programs, and provides unbiased advice aimed at helping prospective students choose institutions from among the 3,600 American universities and colleges that are best suited to their goals. Arona is also the founder of TrainingCQ, building global virtual teams and training leaders on managing remote teams.

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