Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME
By Brian Witte / Varsity Tutors
November 24, 2015

Admission to graduate school is not like undergraduate admissions. For many programs, your GPA and test scores may matter less than intangibles like letters of recommendation or professional portfolios. So what can you do to navigate these unfamiliar waters? Here are five tips for the graduate school admissions process:

Use standardized test scores in the decision-making process

While standardized test scores are not the most important component of your application, they should inform your decision-making process. For example, what test(s) will you need to take in order to apply to your top-choice schools? What scores will you need to earn? Complete several practice exams before you sit for the real test, and then edit your short list of programs once you receive your scores from the official exam (i.e. remove those schools whose average scores are significantly above or below your own).

Write your statement of purpose early on

Writing your statement of purpose early on in the admissions process can help you clarify your graduate school goals—which can, in turn, strengthen your entire application. As you work on your draft, try not to begin your statement with “I.” Instead, start with a short explanation of a problem or challenge that you are hoping to address. Yes, your statement is about you, but you should be showing your reader what you care about and how you will use your education.

Keep cost in mind

Graduate school is expensive, and the largest difference between various programs is often how you will pay your tuition bill. Professional programs—for instance, medical school—typically expect students to cover their own tuition and living expenses, though funding options like loans are available. However, academic programs vary widely. Some graduate programs will not admit a student if they cannot provide him or her with financial support. Other academic programs may guarantee tuition coverage and a stipend for PhD candidates, but not for master’s students. Devote a significant period of time to researching the financial aid at each school that you are considering. There are likely grants or scholarships available, but the application process for them may be lengthy or entirely separate from your overall application.

Arrange your letters of reference

Acquiring outstanding letters of reference is an art. For example, each letter should address the specific concerns of each individual graduate program.

Be sure to give your references at least a month to write your letters, if not longer. First, ask each potential reference if he or she can write you a positive recommendation letter. If he or she says yes, provide your reference with a packet that includes your statement of purpose, a short summary of your history with him or her (including the dates and grades of each class you took with your reference), and all of the necessary recommendation forms. Do anything possible (within reason) to help your reference write about you as a person, rather than as an email address and a grade in a distant class.

Note, too, that professors are busy, and that they sometimes recycle letters of recommendation. For example, they may send the same reference letter to every graduate school on your list. So—highlight any special information that the program requests. For instance, a research program in biology may request evidence of critical thinking. A nursing program may ask for evidence of collegiality and scientific expertise. If your reference fails to address these items, you may not receive an acceptance letter.

Take interview opportunities seriously

Most graduate programs will invite prospective students to visit. Treat this visit like a job interview. Conduct in-depth research into what makes each program uniquely attractive to you, and be prepared to talk about these features during your visit. If you will have an opportunity to speak directly with professors, review their websites (if applicable), and look up at least one of their recent papers. Prepare several questions about their writing, or their research, or their future directions. The prospective students who do so stand out as conscientious and invested not just in graduate school, but in that particular program. It is fairly well known that the job market remains terrible for recent college graduates, and that many people are using graduate school as a way to delay leaving academia. Your chances of acceptance will likely increase if it is clear that you are genuinely interested in graduate school.

Brian Witte is a professional tutor and contributing writer with Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University.

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