The application process is a tricky balancing act: You want to show your target schools that you’re a perfect match, but you don’t want to blend into the multitude of applicants or become just a number. How can you show your authentic self in the application process? How can you present your strengths, and stand out? This series shows you how.
In our last post, I discussed the first necessary ingredient of “fit” – demonstrating you can do the work in your target program. The next key to showing your fit as an applicant is demonstrating that you’re a perfect match for the program’s culture and mission.
This means going beyond the rankings and doing research on each program you’re applying to. Ask yourself the following:
• What are the core values of the program?
• What type of community does the program promote?
• What unique opportunities would you have at the target program that make it a perfect fit?
• Does the program have a distinct mission or teaching philosophy? For example, if you’re applying to an MBA program, are you drawn to schools with a case-based methodology? An emphasis on experiential learning?
• If you’re applying to medical school, do you want a research or clinical focus?
The key here is research. Your reasons for choosing a particular school need to go further than rankings and deeper than platitudes.
How to Research Schools Effectively
There are many ways to do this research.
• Your first stop is the school’s (or department’s) website. Scour it for information related to your goals. Many programs offer the opportunity to contact or meet with current students or alumni, or attend admissions events. Those are all great opportunities to learn more.
• Reading student blogs or student-run newspapers can also give you insight into what life is actually like on campus.
• If you’re applying to a research-oriented program, read up on the current projects that people in the department are working on. Department websites normally provide profiles of professors, along with their CVs. You may also find profiles of current or recent grad students, with descriptions of their research topics. This is all there for your benefit, so take advantage of it!
Using Your Research to Demonstrate Fit
Once you’ve done your homework, it’s time for you to demonstrate cultural fit throughout your application. Your coursework reflects your interests. Your work experience, hobbies, and community service reflect your values and impact. The way you describe what you’ve done can highlight those experiences that scream shared values.
Finally, there are the essays – prime time for showing fit.
Whether it’s in the context of an MBA goals essay that also discusses how a particular program will help you achieve those goals, a MA/MS or PhD statement of purpose that highlights why the department is a perfect match for your research and career goals, or a med school secondary essay that discusses the school’s mission statement head-on, your essays are the first place for you to show your fit with the school’s culture.
Show you’ve done your homework by referring to specifics: which opportunities (such as research opportunities, experiential learning, clinical training, etc. – depending on your field) make their program compelling? It is never enough to say that a program is appealing because it has a great reputation and is in a location you like. Instead, you need to go deep.
Pay Attention to the Details
As you identify the school’s core values, think about how you exemplify them, and keep that in mind as you choose examples for your essays and your resume/activity history. For example, some med schools place an especially high premium on volunteer service. Say your target school specifies a minimum of 300 hours of volunteer service. Your further research has revealed that admitted students actually average about twice that. You should definitely highlight your service experience in your application, since this is a core value of that school.
One thing to remember: don’t just repeat the school’s mission statement or phrases from their website. Do your research and show how your experiences make you a great fit for what the school is looking for, as well as how the school’s offerings make it a perfect fit for your interests and goals.
In our next post in this series on “fit,” we’ll talk about the importance of defining and demonstrating your realistic goals.