10 Tips to Improve Your Graduate School Application (Extended Blog Post)

This is the extended version of Ambassador Dustin Yaworski’s blog post from February 19th, 2015.

Dustin standing by Koons Hall, home to the Doctor of Physical Therapy program he will attend starting this summer.
Dustin standing by Koons Hall, home to the Doctor of Physical Therapy program he will attend starting this summer.

Let’s face it…filling out an application to get into graduate school feels like high school all over again. Will I get in? What if I don’t get in? Should I fix my essay? Are my grades good enough?

No matter how hard we try, there is always something we want to improve when we apply. Sometimes we just say this is good enough or it’ll have to do. Sure, that may have worked

when applying to college as a senior in high school. But for graduate school, this application really matters. Getting into a post-baccalaureate program can determine whether or not the past four years were worth all the late nights and hard work, and ultimately if you can fulfill the lifelong career you’ve been dreaming about since freshman year. However, one of the things that I get discouraged to see is people who struggle with their application and wait until the final deadline to submit it. My goal in this post is to help every UConn CAHNR student looking into graduate school to use these 10 Tips to have a stand-out application. Obviously, every graduate school program is different, but these tips should be a general guideline to help you succeed when filling out the graduate school application!


  1. Boost Your GPA

Whether we like it or not, grades are hands down the most important aspect of getting into graduate school. I’m not saying you need a 4.0 GPA, but having less than a 3.0 essentially puts you out of reach for getting into graduate school. When talking about grad school with other seniors these last few semesters, I generally hear responses in the 3.3-3.7 range. This is definitely a range you should feel confident being in, but you have to remember you’re competing against a large amount of students in that range. Most graduate schools post their average GPA for accepted students, so this should give you a good idea as to how you stand. Work hard and learn how to balance your schedule to set yourself up for success.


My tips: Research the average GPA for accepted students at the graduate programs you are thinking about applying to in the future. If you are worried about your GPA, put the effort in to improve the rest of your application (including ALL the parts of this Top 10 list). And remember, be confident…you are at UConn because you are smart enough and worked hard to get here!


  1. Search for Relevant Work Experience

I totally understand how expensive college is and how hard it may be to balance your education and work. But if anyone told you that you won’t be able to work and go to school, they’ve misled you. It is 100% achievable! A graduate school panel loves to see that you are able to balance your school work and a part-time job. Try to find a job that involves the career you are going into; if you’re going into physical therapy like myself, look for jobs at a local physical therapy clinic or hospital. If you are in Animal Science, find out how you can work with the animals and farms here on campus. That’s one of the great things about UConn: there are so many opportunities to grow in your field!


My tips: Find a job that incorporates your future career. Keep up-to-date on your résumé and apply early, especially if you are looking for a job in good ol’ Storrs, CT! Do not wait until two or three weeks into the semester because by then there is a good chance the application pool is full. At the very least, apply the first few days back on campus…but I would recommend you to apply weeks before we get back. Employers LOVE to see that you can work during breaks.


  1. Focus on Pre-requisites

Pre-requisites should be among top priority for your graduate school application. Many times, graduate schools consider your pre-requisite GPA more important than your overall GPA. They use this as indication of how well you will do in your respective program. One of the graduate schools I applied to only considered my overall GPA, pre-req. GPA, and GRE scores for me to be offered an interview. Though I do not feel this shows how well any person will do in graduate school, this is a way of weaving out the hundreds of applicants from being seriously considered. Most graduate school programs tell you on their website what they require for pre-requisites. They will also sometimes say after the required section: Highly Recommended and Recommended. These are NOT required for you to take, but I would definitely consider taking some of them. If you are not happy with a particular grade, I would look at retaking the course especially if it is a pre-requisite. Anything below a B (3.0) is definitely a red flag for the graduate school committee. I also highly advise you to avoid taking a pre-requisite at a community college or a smaller university. Take it at UConn and the results can only help you in the end!


My tips: Freshman and sophomores, use your resources! The Q Center and Writing Center at Homer Babbidge Library are incredibly helpful. Trust me, I had many dates with Homer when I was in Physics. Also, highly consider taking a pre-requisite course at UConn and retake any pre-req. below a B. Do your research and take a look at the websites of any graduate school that interests you!


  1. Prepare for the Standardized Test

We all have our opinions about whether or not a standardized test is a good representation of our intelligence. I know many students are frustrated with one test having such a huge impact and I can’t say I blame them, but these tests (SAT, GRE, DAT, etc.) are a quantitative way for the admissions committee to weave out students who don’t have a strong GPA and test scores. Many graduate programs take your standardized test scores very seriously (*cough* UConn is one of them) while others don’t consider them an important factor. Though we don’t have much control over the importance of this test, we do have control over preparation for the exam. For example, as a future physical therapy student, every program I applied to required me to take the GRE’s (Graduate Record Examination). Each program posted when the test had to be taken by and the average scores for accepted students. The best way to prepare for this exam is to buy the book for your respective test. I decided on the 2014 Kaplan GRE Guide, which had incredibly clear explanations for all answers and a large amount of practice tests. Saying I didn’t have enough time to study or I wasn’t prepared for this test are definitely something you want to avoid; prepare enough so when you sit down at a computer screen in a testing center you feel confident you did all you could do to achieve high marks on your respective standardized test.


My tips: Prepare well in advance for your respective standardized test. By your junior year, know what test you will be required to take and save a small amount of cash to buy the book. My biggest tip: TAKE THE TEST EARLY. Do not wait until the last minute because this can induce a lot of stress on you to do well only taking the test once. Most tests can be taken multiple times, but you have to wait a few weeks before you are allowed to take the test again. Study hard and set aside time every week to prepare yourself for this very important exam.


  1. Build Relationships to have Stand-out Recommendation Letters

Recommendation letters should undoubtedly be a top priority for your application. Most professors are often so busy it can take them some time to get a letter prepared for you. This is something you want to have done early because waiting until the last minute can result in a rushed letter or no letter at all. But, of course many of us ask: Who should I ask to write my recommendation? This can be nerve-wracking, but you need to ask those who know you best. Graduate programs let you know who you need recommendations from and you should focus on building a relationship with the required recommenders. As an example, most of the physical therapy programs I researched require a recommendation from a physical therapist as well as a professor. I asked these respective professionals who knew my work ethic as well as my personality. I know it may be awkward or scary to ask a professor to write you a letter, but most of them are more than willing to help you out as long as they are given time to write your letter.


My tips: Start spending time getting to know a professor you like. Go to office hours and spend time talking with them about their field. Also, for whatever career interests you, look in the community for opportunities to shadow a professional in your respective field. As long as you put the effort in and do not wait until last minute, you should be set to have great recommendation letters!


  1. Write an Irresistible Résumé

A résumé is something we have been working on since high school and it is the one piece that really showcases all of our accomplishments. However, many of us fall behind when it comes to keeping up with the updates. Take the time to perfect your résumé by getting it critiqued at the Center for Career Development here at UConn. They can help your format it correctly and help you decide what should be kept and what show be omitted. Be sure to update it frequently so you don’t forget anything!


My tips: Get your résumé critiqued at the Center for Career Development. They also provide examples for students to follow. This is an extremely valuable resource for UConn students and you should definitely utilize it. Also, my Top 10 Tips include most of the content you want on your résumé!


  1. Practice Your Interview

This can be the best or most nerve-wracking part of getting into graduate school. However, you can ace the interview by practice and preparation. The Center for Career Development offers a mock interview and they critique you and help you improve your answers! Also, research common interview questions online and write down a response that is creative and showcases who you are. Interviews are really important to the graduate programs and can be make-or-break for you. If you’re nervous about the interview, meet with your advisor or one of your professors to get some helpful hints from them.


My tips: Not every school has an interview process, but most do. If you are offered an interview by a graduate school program, this is a great sign! This means you have a competitive application and they want to get to know you. So prepare yourself by visiting the Center for Career Development and taking part in a practice interview. Know your résumé and research common interview questions to get a feel for the types of questions they may ask (such as: What’s your biggest weakness?  Why did you choose our graduate program?).


  1. Volunteering: You can Never Go Wrong

Volunteer because you want to, not because you want to add it to your résumé. Of course you want volunteer experience on your résumé, but volunteer for something you’re passionate about. If you are going into a health career, volunteer at a local hospital or clinic. If you are majoring in Plant Science, volunteer at a local farm. This is a way for you to give back to the community and use it to improve your knowledge in your field. You can also volunteer with one of the numerous clubs on campus.


My tips: Set apart some time to volunteer around Storrs. There are so many opportunities on campus to join a club focused on volunteering. Be sure to go to the Involvement Fair and find a club that interests you. Volunteer experience can also improve your résumé.


  1. Be Creative in Your Essay

The essay is a critical part of the graduate school panel getting to know you. Be sure to follow the prompt given to you, but find creative ways to make the essay your own. For example, the scope of my essay involved why I wanted to become a physical therapist. The typical response is for people to say “because I went to physical therapy for an injury and loved it.” Of course that may be true, but I needed to find a way to stand out from the other applications. This can be done in any way, but it’s up to you to find a way to do this. Take advantage of the Writing Center and show why your essay is the best!


My tips: Understand what your prompt is and be creative in how you write your essay. You need to stand-out from the other applications while maintaining an understanding of the goal of your essay. Go to the Writing Center and they can help you write an irresistible essay!


  1. Get Involved on Campus and in the Community

You only have four (maybe five) years at UConn as an undergraduate, so make the best of it. College is the time for you to discover your passion in life, and you have free range to choose to get involved with whoever and whatever you want. I’m passionate about exercise and sports, so I got involved with UConn Endurance, the same one Ambassador Monica talked about in her blog! UConn has a lot to offer so make the best of your years here.


My tips: Find a balance between schoolwork and your social life. Set apart time for yourself and for your friends because school work can be overwhelming; you just need to find a balance between class and social life. Make college a positive experience and enjoy every moment of it!