How to Get into a Top Grad School, According to an Admissions Officer

How to Get into a Top Grad School, According to an Admissions Officer

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Updated April 30, 2020 Updated April 30

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You’ll find a lot of advice on the internet with “simple hacks” outlining how to get into a top grad school, but only very rarely will you hear from admissions officers themselves. They are, after all, the eagle-eyed luminaries who make a living out of sorting through piles and piles of motivation letters to find the brightest brains of tomorrow.

Have you ever wondered what an admissions officer’s biggest pet peeve is? What they look for in an applicant, or where most applicants fail? Or even what advice they’d give a friend or relative starting out? Well, you’re in luck. To give you the very best advice, we spoke to Jutta Ruuskanen, Admissions Specialist at the top-ranking University of Helsinki, to find out how you can maximise your chances of getting into a top graduate school.

What are some of the most common mistakes people make in their applications?

The University of Helsinki has very strict country requirements for the documents people have to send in, so it can be an issue if someone applying with an international degree fails to send the right country-specific documents. Every year, around 50% of our master’s program applicants fail to do so and get rejected before they even reach the academic evaluation stage, where their motivation letters and interviews would be assessed. It’s very important to follow all the instructions given to you during the admissions process.

What exactly do you look for in a motivation letter?

It should be really fluent and written like an essay and show you are familiar with your field, and know what you want to study and research once you have completed the degre It should tell us about your academic or professional background in relation to the master’s program and it’s not a bad idea to present questions you would like to find answers to through research. We want to see that you have some idea as to what you would like to research in the future and how your previous academic degree supports your preliminary master’s thesis topic and future research goals after you have completed the master’s degree.

So, you wouldn’t recommend anything too creative or out of the ordinary like the teenage activist who got into Stanford University after writing “Black Lives Matter” a hundred times on his application?

Creativity probably won’t get you too far, but of course, it’s not a bad idea to refer to an interesting news item that is related to your field of study. We usually ask people to think about the preliminary topic of their master’s thesis and you can reflect that for example with current events in your field of study. It’s not a bad idea to show that you have been following the news in your field, not just to show that you keep up with the news, but also to demonstrate you actually like to do research keep up with things happening in your field of study.

How strictly do you abide by minimum entry requirements? Could a student with incredible personal achievements, but poor exam results or undergraduate scores stand a chance at all?

High school scores don’t really matter when you are applying to a master’s program at the University of Helsinki. We do look at the academic scores in your bachelor’s though. The weighting is always specified in our admissions criteria. It’s usually around 25-50%, though it varies between programs. You don’t need to be a straight-A student, but you should at least have performed well in your studies.

If applicants are required to interview, what are some typical questions an applicant might be asked?

Only a couple of our master’s programs feature an interview as a selection criteria to help us figure out how motivated the applicant is and whether he/she has already familiarised themselves with what they want to study. We look for signs the student has already figured out the degree structure of the program they are applying to and evidence of good communication skills, such as whether they answer the questions being asked.

What does a good answer sound like?

That’s a tough question! [laughs] I don’t know actually. I think a good answer should be well structured and sound professional. It should suggest you know your field and what you’re coming here to study.

What does a bad answer sound like? It might be easier to pinpoint…

A bad answer might entail not sticking to the facts or failing to answer the question that was asked. It might needlessly mention stuff already in your CV that you don’t need to reiterate. It could sound too much like a travel advertisement for Finland. There’s no need to make Finland sound like the best country on Earth. It’s better to just stick to why you want to be admitted to this specific master’s program.

Do you have any final tips for prospective students?
Yes, I’d like to stress how important final deadlines and instructions are because it doesn’t matter how brilliant your motivation letter is if you never reach the academic evaluation stage.

This article was originally published in October 2017 . It was last updated in January 2020