Graduate school admission criteria are the minimum standards that a graduate school wants in an applicant. They vary from program to program, and you should make sure to check the specific admissions criteria for any school you apply to (including deadlines). That said, there is a set of criteria that most reputable programs follow:
Application: Most graduate programs have an on-line application form that applicants must complete and submit with an application fee. Make sure you provide all the information requested and meet the deadlines. Keep in mind that your application may be the first thing the application committee sees from you – it’s your chance to make a good first impression. (Keep in mind, too, that the admissions office will not review your file until it is completed.)
Grade Point Average (GPA): Schools generally like to see a minimum undergraduate and/or prior graduate GPA of at least 3.0 on a 4 point scale. Lower GPAs raise questions about an applicant’s ability to handle academic work at the graduate level. If you have a borderline GPA, make sure the other parts of your application offset it. These could include good standardized test scores, strong letters of recommendation from professors or teachers, and an essay or statement of purpose that explains what you’ve done to improve your academic performance.
Transcripts: Transcripts are the official university or college record of your academic work, including a list courses taken, with dates and grades, and degrees awarded. Graduate schools often ask to receive these records directly from the registrar’s office of the college or university you attended. Be sure you understand and follow those instructions. For more information on how to submit transcripts, contact the registrar’s office of the university you need transcripts from. Try to make transcript requests at least two months before your application deadlines.
It’s a good idea to get a copy of your transcripts for your own use as well. Look at your academic history the way an admissions committee member would, and ask yourself whether it meets the criteria the program is looking for in applicants. If not, you should explain in your essay or in a letter how you will fill that gap. For example, if you don’t have the economics background a public affairs program asks for, you might explain that you plan to take an economics course at a local university before entering graduate school. Obviously, if there is anything on your transcripts that reflects badly on you (failing or incomplete grades, academic suspension) you should consider discussing those circumstances in your admission essay or in a separate letter.
Standardized Test Scores: This gets the most attention of all the graduate school admission criteria as almost all graduate programs require applicants to submit test scores from one of the major standardized tests. The most common ones are:
The Graduate Record Exam (GRE) – For graduate programs in the liberal arts, social sciences, science, engineering, education, many business schools and other fields. Both a general GRE and subject GREs are available. Check to see which ones the program you are applying to require.
The Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) – For MBA programs.
Dental Admissions Test (DAT) – For Dental School
Recommendation Letters: Graduate schools usually ask for three letters of recommendation. The letters should be written by people who have taught you or worked with you and who can reliably attest to your ability to perform well in graduate school. Be sure to follow the instructions for submitting letters of reference (schools often want them submitted directly from the recommender). For more information on recommendation letters, click here.
Admission Essay or Statement of Purpose: The admission essay (or personal statement) is your chance to introduce yourself to the admissions committee as an individual – to make yourself stand out from other applicants with similar GPAs and test scores. This is a crucial part of any application. A persuasive essay can boost a borderline application, and an ineffective essay can undermine an otherwise strong one. For more information on graduate school personal statements, click here.
Resume or c.v.: Graduate schools usually ask applicants to submit a resume or c.v. as part of their application packet. Make sure that the one you submit highlights the experience and achievements that make you a good fit for the program you are applying to. The resume and application essay are especially important parts of the application package for mid-career professionals interested in returning to school. Many applicants set aside sufficient time for their essays but neglect to give their resumes or c.v.s adequate attention.
It is important to make sure that you have covered all the items listed under admissions criteria for your program. Chances are your file will not even be looked at by anyone on an admissions committee until you have submitted all the required material – the administrative staff who handle incoming applications are unlikely to pass on files that are not complete.
According to Cornell, typical problems in meeting graduate school admission criteria include:
- Deadlines not met.
- Unrealistic assessment of admissions criteria and unreasonable expectations of admissibility.
- Inappropriate application essay.
- Inappropriate undergraduate curriculum.
- Weak or ineffective recommendation letters.
- Incomplete application and inadequate follow-up checks. (often transcripts and recommendation letters not received)
- Weak academic record (poor grades) and/or low admission test scores.
- Lack of research activity, extracurricular, etc.