What Do Grad Schools Look for in Applicants? [2024 Guide]

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What do grad schools look for? When beginning the process of applying to graduate school, this is the first question you may want to research.

What Do Grad Schools Look for in Applicants

Applying to a masters program can be a process that requires plenty of preparation, so it’s strategic to know what grad schools prioritize ahead of time. While your undergraduate grades are a factor, programs typically look at a variety of other criteria.

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Adequately preparing yourself to apply can help set you up for a smoother process all around.

What Do Grad Schools Look For in Applicants?

masters degree students in library

If you’re about to start applying for masters program, you may be wondering, “What do graduate schools look for?” The criteria varies by school, but here are a few common factors that the admissions teams will likely review:

  • Undergraduate transcripts
  • GRE or GMAT scores (only some schools require them)
  • Personal statement
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Work experience
  • Undergraduate extracurriculars
  • Internship experience
  • Research experience

When reviewing your application for grad school, the above criteria tend to be highly valued. According to Forbes, experience outside of the classroom—whether that comes in the form of work, internship, or research experience—can typically help your application stand out.

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In a survey conducted by Kaplan Test Prep, graduate school admissions officers were asked what they looked at first when reviewing a prospective student’s application. Here were the results:

  • Undergraduate transcripts: 44%
  • GRE score: 28%
  • Personal statement: 26%
  • Letters of recommendation: 1%

In the same survey, 41% of admissions officers said they considered a low GRE score to be most damaging to an application, with 27% saying a low undergraduate GPA was most damaging. Only 3% of graduate admissions officers said that being related to an alumni of the college could give you an admissions edge.

Attending a top university for undergrad also does not necessarily give you an edge, according to USNews. It’s often more valuable for grad admissions officers to see that you participated in opportunities outside of class to gain experience in your field.

To help distinguish your application from others, you could demonstrate your dedication to your field of study through your undergrad and post-grad experience. This can mean acing undergraduate classes that are relevant to your desired masters program or securing excellent letters of recommendation.

Some admissions officers also suggest building connections at the graduate school you’re applying to. That way, you could have faculty who know your name before your application is even reviewed.

Applying to Graduate Schools

graduate school students walking to class

Every grad school application is different, but here are some general tips on how to apply to grad schools and stand out:

  • Focus on your strengths. If you got a 4.0 in undergrad or aced the GRE, for example, it’s beneficial to highlight those accomplishments.
  • Put time and effort into all aspects of your application. Even if you did get a high undergraduate GPA or ace the GRE, it’s essential to still put effort into writing an excellent personal statement, securing positive letters of recommendation, and more.
  • Come to your interview prepared. If your prospective school requires an interview, it’s strategic to come professional and prepared to discuss your goals and accomplishments.

On the flip side, it’s advantageous to try to avoid these graduate school application pitfalls:

  • Forgetting to proofread your application materials. It’s worth taking your time to make sure your grammar and spelling are correct across the board.
  • Ignoring your weaknesses. For example, if you don’t feel confident in interviews, you can choose to take extra time to prepare and review potential questions.
  • Glossing over your unique attributes. Grad schools are interested in your individual skills and passions and why you would be a good fit for their program.

In addition to these tips, don’t forget to highlight any relevant work or extracurricular experience that may help you jump off the page.

How Hard Is It to Get Into Grad School?

student applying to grad school

The difficulty of getting into grad school varies by applicant, school, and program. If you did well in your undergraduate classes, developed relationships with your professors, and got the scores you wanted on any standardized tests, you may not find the process very difficult.

Most students find some parts of the application process easy and others more difficult. If you are not naturally good at interviewing and your prospective school requires an interview, for example, you may find that area of the application to be harder.

Application requirements can vary from school to school, though. Some do not require GRE scores, and many do not require an interview. Graduate schools with low GPA requirements are also some of the easiest grad schools to get into.

Do Grad Schools Care About GPA?

grad school students studying together

Most graduate schools take your undergraduate GPA into consideration. Many programs have a minimum GPA requirement, while others focus on the grades you got in classes relevant to your graduate area of study. Some focus mainly on your junior and senior year grades.

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But, most admissions teams consider your application as a whole, as they prefer to admit well-rounded students. As such, they can value a variety of factors besides GPA, including your work experience, internship experience, standardized test scores, and personal statement.

What Do Grad Schools Look For Besides Grades?

Grad schools will review your undergraduate grades, but they’ll also take a variety of factors into consideration when reviewing your application. Here are a few other criteria they’ll most likely look at:

  • Your experience outside of classes. This can include any work, internship, volunteer, or research experience or your involvement in any projects you’re passionate about.
  • Your unique skills and passions. Grad schools want to understand who you are outside of your grades and test scores, and they’re interested in whether your goals align with the program you’re applying to.
  • Your ability to take initiative. It may help you stand out if you can show that you have pursued projects or leadership opportunities that align with your goals and passions.

In addition, grad schools are usually interested in students who are organized and can work well with others.

How Many Graduate Programs Should I Apply To?

students taking graduate programs

The ideal number of grad schools to apply to varies for each applicant. It’s beneficial to apply to enough programs that you have a better chance of being accepted into at least one. For this reason, it’s strategic to consider some safety schools just in case.

The downside of applying to too many grad schools is that you may overextend yourself and have less time and effort to put into each individual application. Plus, application fees can quickly add up. The ideal is to apply to just enough grad schools that you get in without becoming overwhelmed. With all this in mind, it’s often recommended to apply to 4 to 6 graduate programs.

Applying to Grad Schools

man applying to grad school

If you’re interested in applying to grad school, there are a variety of application materials you’ll prepare ahead of time.

If you’re worried about a particular factor, such as having a lower GPA, it’s helpful to know that most grad schools take your application as a whole into consideration. Masters programs typically look at your undergraduate GPA and standardized test scores, but they’ll also consider your personal essay, interview, letters of recommendation, work experience, and more.

You could get started on your journey toward applying to grad school today by exploring accredited universities and seeing which programs stand out.

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Stephanie Friedman
Stephanie holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of California, Irvine and a Certificate in Journalism and Newswriting from New York University. Stephanie focuses on researching affordable education opportunities, non-traditional career paths, and online learning.