How to prepare for graduate and professional school applications

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By Emilio Lorenzo and Emily Tasca

Emilio Lorenzo is the assistant director of career advisement in NSU’s Office of Career Development. He understands the importance of helping students reach their career goals and works with all students, including undergraduate, graduate and professional level students, to achieve their professional goals.

Emily Tasca is a member of the career advisement team in NSU’s Office of Career Development. She works with current students and alumni at the undergraduate, graduate and professional levels.  

Preparing for graduate school can be like preparing for a major trip. Just like any major trip, you usually start preparing months before you depart. In addition, you probably have a checklist of items that you can’t forget and a to-do list that must be accomplished.

This strategic approach to planning your next vacation can also be an advantageous method for putting in a competitive application for graduate or professional school. Planning ahead will ensure that you have plenty of time to handle the variety of aspects of the application, including gathering deadline dates and requirements, developing and updating your resume or CV, building your personal statement essay and requesting letters of recommendation from faculty and professionals, as well as managing the actual application portal.

Before you get started
The first step in your journey towards applying to graduate or professional school is to evaluate programs of interest and then identify the application deadlines for each program you plan to apply to. You should also set deadline dates for yourself, to ensure that you have all of the required materials completed in a timely manner. A good rule of thumb is to have your applications turned in two weeks to a month prior to the deadline date.

Once you’ve identified deadlines and requirements, you should start a list for yourself of potential stakeholders and resources available to assist you in this process. Whether it’s your career adviser, mentors, faculty, university departments or family, these individuals can provide guidance and feedback for the multitude of areas required in the application.

Your application will require letters of recommendation. These letters are meant to provide the admissions committee with additional information about your experiences and academic background, coming from the perspective of a professional who has seen your work style firsthand. Before you even get started on the application process, you can identify individuals who would write letters on your behalf that would deliver a strong message. You want to ensure that these individuals know the real you, your motivations and the experiences or skills that would make you an ideal fit for the program.

Once you have identified those individuals and asked them to write a letter on your behalf, you can then focus on completing the other areas of the application, including your resume, personal statement and the actual application portal. Remember that when developing your resume, you should highlight experiences that showcase skill sets that are not only needed in the industry you’re pursuing but would add value to a rigorous graduate program. These experiences can range from work experiences, leadership positions, research conducted and community involvement to any other experiences that are related or will be able to provide the admissions committee with a better understanding of your fit for the program.

The resume will be the document that provides the reader with your background as it relates to the opportunity of entering graduate school. However, the resume cannot explain your passions, motivations and does not connect the dots for the reader as to what you hope to accomplish in the industry if given the opportunity.

The personal statement should fill in the gaps from the resume in terms of what you gained from the experiences, listed in a manner that gets the reader to buy into you as an individual and the characteristics that not only define you but will be a catalyst for your success. The personal statement is a very important aspect of your application because it is the document written in your own voice that is the best avenue to deliver a message to the professional program as to how your life journey has led you to this point.

Based on the professional program, you may be asked to write the document without a specific question. In this case, you should focus on answering the question, “Why are you applying to this program and this field?” However, at times, the program will ask a very specific question, and you want to ensure you are providing those details to the reader. In either scenario, you want to provide details and connect the dots for the reader through storytelling and examples.

After applying

After completing your resume, personal statement and plugging your personal and academic information into the application portal, you should start preparing for interviews, even prior to being called to schedule one with the program itself. Many students are nervous about this portion of the application process, but if you take the time to prepare and reflect not only on your fit for the program but on relevant stories to include in your answers, you will put yourself in an advantageous position for success.

The interviews are very important. Your application got their attention, but your interview is your chance to bring these experiences to life and explain how this program may align with your values. A good rule of thumb is to practice, practice, practice. Whether with a friend, mentor or adviser, mock interviews can be a very valuable exercise in fully developing your interview approach.

The application process has various layers, but if you prepare with enough time and utilize your resources appropriately, you will not only submit a strong application but one that delivers a strong message as to your overall fit.

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