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Applying To Grad School: GPA Vs. Work Experience

Author: Andrew Harris

Succeeding at a top-tier graduate school can open a lot of professional doors. So it's not surprising students do everything they can to get into the best program possible.

The challenge is that the selection process is frequently shrouded in mystery. In many cases, an application will require each of the following components:

  • Undergraduate transcripts
  • Grad school test results (usually GRE, but some fields have their own exams)
  • A resume showing one's work history (see 5 Ways To Make Your Resume Stand Out)
  • Letters of recommendation
  • An essay or statement of purpose
  • An interview (either in-person or phone)

Which of these components matters the most to universities? The secret, according to many education experts, is that there really is no secret. 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 look at the complete picture.

Focus on Your Weaknesses

The best approach, they suggest, is to work extra hard to address the weakest link in your application. Say you have terrific test results, a great GPA and a rock-solid essay. Don't become overconfident and submit a letter of recommendation that doesn't make you shine.

If, on the other hand, standardized tests are your Achilles heel, do everything in your power to bring them up to par with other applicants. Take an extra test preparation class and schedule your exam far enough in advance that you can retake it if need be.

Does this mean every factor in your application has the same weight? Not necessarily. Each year, Kaplan Test Prep surveys grad school admission personnel on how they go about evaluating students. When asked what they look at first, here's how they responded in the most recent survey:

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

Unfortunately, there's little you can do about your undergrad GPA if it's less than stellar. But what the questionnaire does show is that, if your weakness is test-taking or writing, you might want to put extra emphasis on those factors.

It's also worth keeping in mind that some fields will have a different set of criteria than others. While lack of relevant work experience was a small factor in the Kaplan survey, it certainly plays a key role in some programs, such as business schools.

Application Killers

A strong application isn't just about knocking off a checklist of requirements – it's also about avoiding some common pitfalls you might not even suspect. Too often, applicants zero in on the factors that they think are most important – whether it be GRE results or a resume – and turn the others into an afterthought.

What are the easiest mistakes to make? A pair of university researchers surveyed 457 graduate admissions chairs to find out what they perceived as the kiss of death for an application. Among the most common responses were:

Weak personal statements. These include submissions that boast of implausibly altruistic reasons for seeking a higher degree, but do little to show that the candidate's research interests make him or her a good fit for the program.

Poor letters of recommendation. The authors say some students need to be more careful about who writes for them. Generally, they should be professors who are familiar with the applicant's academic accomplishments, not friends or supervisors at work. Also think twice before submitting letters that reveal any major weaknesses in your candidacy. One sign: The person you ask is lukewarm about doing the letter.

Subpar writing skills. One of the easiest ways schools weed out applications is by tossing those with errors in spelling or grammar. Also outline your essay before writing to make sure your ideas are orderly and succinct. The reality is that writing skills matter in almost every program, not just English.

Insufficient program knowledge. Avoid taking a one size fits all approach to graduate school applications, the researchers caution. Your job is to show the committee that you're a great fit for their particular program. At minimum, that means browsing the program's website to see what kinds of questions the faculty are trying to address in their own research and tailoring your letter accordingly. It's also a good way to find out whether the program is a good fit for you.

The Bottom Line

Experts suggest that students looking for one or two keys to a great application are setting themselves up for disappointment. You're better off analyzing all the materials you submit and making sure you don't have any glaring weaknesses. To help you further think through this decision, see When Is Grad School Worth It? and Balance Work And Grad School.

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