It’s almost spring now, but the next grad school application cycle is looming. Applying to graduate schools can be a highly stressful process. And you as an applicant’s parent naturally want to help them through it, but how can you do so? It’s been decades since you applied, if you applied, and the process is not the same as it was years ago. Furthermore, your applicant is now an adult who has either graduated from college or is close to graduating. They might not be terribly receptive to your input.
In very broad brushstrokes, here are three ways you can support your child through the competitive application process:
- Understand the moving parts. What is required to apply to grad school?
- Learn the criteria used to evaluate your child’s application.
- Provide your constructive support when asked, while remembering that your adult child (not you) is applying – even if you are footing part or all of the bill.
The Elements of a Successful Application to Graduate School.
All grad school application processes consist of academic, experiential, and communications elements.
The written applications are online these days. The applicant typically must provide some or all of the following:
- Application fee
- Aptitude test and maybe a situational judgment test (SJT)
- English Language Test (typically for applicants who earned their undergraduate degree at a university where English is not the language of instruction)
- Short answers in boxes throughout the application (These boxes provide important context and background information. The applicant who makes the most of them is ahead of the game.)
- Resume and/or work and activity history
- Video component (less common)
- Letters of recommendation
The academic portions (transcript, test scores, etc.) provide evidence that the applicant can succeed in the grad program. Schools want to see transcripts for all accredited coursework, and many programs will require an aptitude test score. Some are now requiring an SJT, too.
More and more programs are dropping the aptitude test requirement, but that doesn’t mean that preparing for the relevant exam, even if not required, and submitting a stellar score can’t benefit an applicant. A high score is particularly important if the applicant’s undergraduate academic record leaves something to be desired. It can be critical if the applicant attended a college that isn’t known for academic rigor. It might also help secure merit-based financial aid.
Most programs also want to see letters of recommendation. Who should write the letters and how many are required can vary, so your child needs to make sure they understand what their target schools want – and provide it.
Some programs also want to interview candidates. For schools that require interviews, the interviews are usually by invitation only. If an interview is part of the process, schools typically extend interview invitations only after an initial screening. An interview invitation signals serious interest.
The Criteria for Acceptance
While different programs have different requirements, in general, graduate schools all want to know the following:
- The applicant can handle the academics and thrive.
- The applicant is a fit for the school in terms of their goals and the program’s strengths.
- The applicant and school have shared values.
- The applicant will add something distinctive to the school’s class, its community, and ultimately, its reputation.
- The applicant has a goal that the program can help them achieve.
How Can You Help Before They Apply?
Encourage your child to strive and excel academically, regardless of your personal level of interest in the topic. If you can provide financial support so your son or daughter doesn’t have to work their way through school, your financial assistance could help improve their grades, allow them to participate in valuable activities, and reduce their time in school, as well as their debt burden.
If they are preparing for an aptitude test such as the GRE, MCAT, LSAT, or GMAT, encourage them to take a test prep course or get tutoring. If you can afford it and feel it would help them, offer to pay for the assistance.
What about the experiential component that grad schools look for? The essays, resume, and activity/work history are going to reflect the experiences your child has acquired prior to applying. All graduate programs value leadership and teamwork. Specific programs might want to see community involvement, service to the underserved, evidence of compassion (healthcare, social work), organizational skills, initiative (business schools), problem solving ability (engineering), communications skills (sales, law, teaching), and so on.
Encourage your child to obtain experiences that will allow them to develop and nurture these qualities. In college, they could be a youth group leader, summer camp counselor, residence hall advisor, or tutor. They might organize a fund-raising drive for a cause important to them, captain a sports team, assist people with special needs, start a business, work at a relevant internship, or take an active (and ideally a leadership) role in student organizations or government. The list goes on and on.
Most graduate schools want to see experience relevant to the applicant’s degree goal, either on a part-time basis while in college or on a full-time basis after earning their undergraduate degree. For example, if your child is applying to medical school, meaningful clinical experience is a must. If they are applying to a research-oriented master’s or PhD program, they need research experience on their resume.
When your child is engaged in these activities, suggest that they journal about them. Here are a few questions that might trigger excellent journal entries:
- What did they actually do?
- How did they feel?
- What did they contribute and accomplish?
- How did they handle difficult interactions with colleagues?
- What would they do differently?
- What did they learn?
These journal entries can become fodder for short answers, essays, and interview responses. Plus, the applicant will develop the writing and self-reflection skills that are important to crafting a successful application.
These experiences will also help your son or daughter clarify what they want to do professionally, which they will probably also have to convey in their applications. Graduate schools want to admit candidates who know what they want and how they intend to achieve it. Applicants need to articulate how a particular program will prepare them to achieve their goal.
Because fit or alignment is an important criterion for acceptance and critical to your child’s happiness, suggest that your child carefully research the programs they are interested in. They should comb the website of any school they are considering. However, for schools they are more interested in, they should conduct informational interviews as well. They can speak with people who attend the programs or are in the professions they are considering. If possible, they should visit the schools while class is in session.
During their research, they should jot down what they like and dislike about different programs. Their research and notes will enable them to articulate why they would love to attend any program they ultimately apply to.
What shouldn’t you do? Nag. It doesn’t work.
How Can You Help As They Are Applying?
Again, nagging won’t work, but there are definitely ways you can be helpful and supportive.
When your child sits down to complete their application, they are building a case for their belonging at the particular institution to which they are applying. Their goal is this: Each element in the application should reveal a different aspect of their story and qualifications. Each answer box, essay, and piece of information should complement and add to information presented in other parts of their application while answering any questions posed and showing fit with the program. Think of pieces of a jigsaw puzzle coming together to create a beautiful picture.
What’s your role now? Being a sounding board when asked. Give your child the time and space to complete their application. You can review the material if asked, but be constructive with your feedback. If you find tension building as the process moves forward, or if you aren’t confident that your child has presented themselves well, access the experience and expertise of an Accepted consultant who can provide guidance and feedback.
Post-Application: Interviews, Waiting, Results
Your child received an interview invitation? Congratulations!
For most programs, an interview invitation is a sign of serious interest on the school’s part. The purpose of the interview is for the school to assess the applicant’s presence, ability to think on their feet, and communication skills. Most schools also assess fit during the interview.
How can you help your child at this high-stakes (they’re almost in!) stage of the process? Offer to purchase a mock interview package for them so they can practice their interview skills with an experienced admissions consultant – in many cases, also a former member of an admissions committee.
You wouldn’t expect or want your child to go on stage or enter the finals in a sport without significant practice. They likewise shouldn’t go into an interview without practice and the opportunity to make mistakes before the Big Day.
Now you enter the next stage: waiting for an answer. This could take a couple of weeks, or it could take months, especially if your child is placed on a waitlist. Waiting for an answer is tough. After so much effort, your child hears crickets.
Be positive. Don’t harp on weaknesses, but do gently encourage them to improve anything that needs enhancement. Any improvement in their qualifications after submitting the application could really help them if they are waitlisted, or it can position them for a successful reapplication in the future. Here are a few examples:
- If their earlier grades were below average, they can take classes and earn top grades now.
- Is a test required, but their score was mediocre? If a higher score will be considered, maybe a retake is in order.
- Perhaps their leadership experience is on the weak side, or they could use more experience related to their intended field of study. Increase whatever kind of experience needs to be improved and augmented.
Hopefully, your children will craft a compelling application that presents them at their best and results in acceptance. Following the tips we’ve laid out here will contribute to their success – and keep the temperature and tension in your household at a comfortable level.
Would you like your child to have one-on-one guidance throughout the application process? Accepted has a highly experienced team of admissions consultants, many of whom were formerly admissions directors at a wide variety of programs. They would be delighted to guide your child through this grueling process. That kind of support from you could make a great birthday or any-day gift for your son or daughter. Check out Accepted’s service options, ranging from a couple hours of advising to more comprehensive application packages that provide advising, essay editing, mock interviews, resume support, and a helping hand throughout the process.
By Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted. Linda earned her bachelors and MBA at UCLA, and has been advising applicants since 1994 when she founded Accepted. Linda is the co-founder and first president of AIGAC. She has written or co-authored 13 e-books on the admissions process, and has been quoted by The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News, Poets & Quants, Bloomberg Businessweek, CBS News, and others. Linda is the host of Admissions Straight Talk, a podcast for graduate school applicants. Want an admissions expert to help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!