A qualification from a top-tier graduate school can open a lot of professional doors, and savvy students do everything they can to get into the best program possible. The graduate school selection process is not always transparent, but a successful application often will include the following components: 

  • Undergraduate transcripts including course grades
  • Grad school test results (usually GRE, but some fields have their own exams)
  • A resume with work history
  • Letters of recommendation
  • An essay or statement of purpose 
  • An interview (either in-person or by phone)

Which of these components matters the most to universities? According to many education experts, most graduate admissions committees take a holistic approach to selecting candidates. They may have certain thresholds for GRE scores or undergrad GPAs, for example. But as a general rule, they consider all aspects of an application.

Key Takeaways

  • Most graduate schools take a holistic approach to applicants.
  • Focus on your strengths but don't neglect to address your weaknesses.
  • Good work experience may offset a less-than-spectacular GPA.

Recognize Your Weaknesses and Use Your Strengths

The best approach when applying to grad school, according to education experts, is to work hard to address the weakest components of your application. You may have stellar test results, a high GPA and a rock-solid essay, but don't be complacent and submit a mediocre letter of recommendation.

It's a good idea to seek input from alumni about standards at your school of choice.

If, on the other hand, standardized tests are your Achilles heel, try to improve the numbers by taking an extra test preparation class. Schedule the exam far enough in advance that you have time to retake it if need be. 

Does this mean that every factor in your application has the same weight? Not necessarily. Vijay Chidambaram, assistant professor at the University of Texas, Austin, ranked application components from most important to least important as follows:

  • GPA
  • Recommendation letters
  • GRE scores
  • Research/published papers
  • Industry internships
  • Experience as a teacher's assistant

Unfortunately, if your undergraduate GPA is weak, there's not much you can do about it now. But you can emphasize your strengths to compensate.

Keep in mind that some fields will have a different set of criteria than others. While GPA is important, some schools may place great emphasis on a student's work experience, which might trump a mediocre GPA.

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Applying To Graduate School: What’s Important?

Application Killers

Avoid common pitfalls when completing your application. According to College Choice, a leading authority on college rankings and resources, the most common mistakes include the following:

  • Waiting until the last minute: If you miss a deadline for an application, you might miss out on a scholarship or early approval status.
  • Not proofreading: Don't rush to press “submit.” Proofread your application and have someone else read it too.
  • Writing a generic essay: If you want to stand out, make your essay count.
  • Lying about grades or extracurricular activities: Your high school transcripts will be examined, so don't even think about it.

Get An Edge

The key to a strong application is knowing what the school is looking for and adjusting your application to fit that mold.

Talk to alumni to obtain their insights and ask them what they recommend.