What Admissions Officers Really Want
Wouldn't it be great to know exactly what admissions officers were thinking? Well, we decided to speak to some to find out exactly what it is that they're looking for.
Most, it seems, hope to see applicants that are able to contribute to the program through their personal experiences and backgrounds. While academic credentials are undoubtedly the most important factor in the admissions process for most graduate schools, never discount your own personal circumstances – what makes you unique has direct relevance to the contribution you might make on a master's or PhD program.
Be 'three dimensional'
Randy Vener, director of admissions at France's American University of Paris (AUP), sees hundreds of international graduate applications every year for the eight master's programs available at the Paris-based university and is clear on why applicants are successful.
“Good applications are three dimensional – they combine their academic record with their personal story and their experiences. They make it clear why they want to study a specific program and how their key skills are directly relevant to success on the master's. Applicants are confident, clear and direct – if they have a particular experience that makes them a better candidate, then they address this in their application.”
You should always ensure that your application material is focused on a particular grad school, or individual program, and reflects the actual reasons for applying. Admissions staff will want to read an application that makes it clear why you should be accepted at their institution and no other, and why you will be a good “fit” for their program.
To this end, the time investment you have to make is considerable – if you’re applying to two or three grad schools, you need to prepare each of these applications individually. Tailor all of your material to the strengths and uniqueness of the program you are actually applying to and match your ambitions and aspirations to elements of the institution or the program. Without this, your application will be weaker and open to a negative decision.
Show your ambition
Professional ambition and experience can also make you stand out from the crowd. Gail Hupper, director of LLM and International Programs at Boston College in the US, views these elements as important when considering international graduate applications.
“We tend to look for people who have some work experience following their basic law degree, but this is not an absolute requirement. We do insist on high academic performance in students’ prior studies, strong English skills, and a sense that the person will make a real contribution to the legal profession after graduation.”
Most importantly, knowing what a graduate school wants from you comes from your initial research. Establishing a “typical” profile of candidates on the master's or PhD program of your choice will make writing your application considerably easier.
Tailor your application
Matching your strengths with those that the program presents, through either the current student body or recent alumni, really does help you stand out. If a particular program is competitive, tailoring your individual application to the exact profile of candidates is a very important strategy in the admissions process.
While the admissions criteria for almost all international graduate programs are published widely, either online or in university prospectuses, they generally give none of the real flavor of what makes the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful application.
Show your expertise
Make sure your application reflects your knowledge of the program or academic area you are applying to. Academic selectors read your material with the view that you will be a student in their classroom or laboratory, willing to make an active contribution to the graduate learning experience and be confident in your scholarship.
At the master's and PhD levels, students are expected to contribute to the discussion and development of academic and intellectual themes in a way that rarely happens in undergraduate degrees, requiring a level of expertise amongst all students as soon as they begin.
If you have written extensively on a subject, submit a writing sample in addition to the other required elements of the application. In this context, successful matches the program you are applying to. Keep these steps in mind and your chances of success are improved.
Attention to detail
Finally, take care not to miss any deadlines or omit any requested material. If your application is incomplete it provides an academic selector with an impression of you that may or may not be fair. Take every aspect of your application as seriously as possible, check your material against the guidelines and always read through every piece of written material before you hit the “submit” button.
This article was originally published in October 2012 . It was last updated in January 2020