Getting into Grad School is More Than Just a Numbers Game

You’re not just a number, at least not to grad school admissions committees. While your GRE® score (or whichever graduate or medical school test you take) and your GPA are certainly important, they aren’t the sole deciding factors when it comes to acceptance rates

In 2019–2020 there were 898,000 master’s degrees and 192,800 doctorate degrees conferred in the United States.* Within those graduates, there are a lot of smart people who probably did pretty well on their entrance exams and had impressive GPAs. But in today’s higher ed market you’re going to have to bring more to the table than good scores and grades.

Holistic admissions

After an intensive search you’ve narrowed down your final list of programs to receive your application. However, things have changed since undergrad when a good SAT® score and transcripts were the main ingredients needed to get into a good school. Graduate programs want to know more about who you are as a person to determine whether you’re a good match for their program, just as you want to learn if they’re a good match for you.

The concept of holistic admissions has become a common term in the higher ed world, and the rising competitive factor is causing admissions committees to look beyond transcripts and test scores.

The top five toughest schools to get into whether you’re an undergrad or grad student isn’t surprising: Stanford, Harvard, Caltech, Princeton and MIT have some of the lowest acceptance rates of any other schools. While these may be the pickiest of the bunch with single-digit acceptance rates, these schools are definitely looking beyond the numbers when searching for students who will be successful in their programs and go on to do great things with their degrees.

The deciding factors

Arguably, it could be said that just about all students applying to Stanford may have near perfect GRE scores and 4.0+ GPAs, so how are they going to choose the best of the best?

This is where the other just-as-important elements of your application come into play: Personal Statements, Statements of Purpose, Letters of Recommendation, your resume and the in-person interview. It’s imperative to remember that each of the following application items must be customized to each program you are applying to. This is not a one-size-fits-all situation.

Personal statement

Your personal statement should be exactly as this requirement states — personal. Maybe you have to dig deep or maybe there is something right on the surface, but either way this essay should showcase a challenge, a triumph or a hardship that you endured and conquered in your life. It should show how the challenges you overcame in your life can be applied successfully in the program you are applying to.

Statement of purpose

Your statement of purpose (if your program requires both) describes why you want to participate in the program you are applying to and how you plan to use that degree when you leave (preferably to improve the world a bit). Many schools may interchange this with your Personal Statement; however, you should think of the Personal Statement as who you are, and your Statement of Purpose as why you want to be on the program. This is an important piece of your application because admissions committees want to know that they will benefit from having you as much as you will benefit from being in the program.

Letters of recommendation

Your letters of recommendation should not be from your dog walker. Admissions committees want to see what kind of character you have, how you are to work with, what kind of work ethic you have, your drive and motivation, and your overall personality. The people who can best assess that are those who you’ve worked for, studied under or mentored with.

Resume or CV

Your resume or CV will obviously list your academic and professional (if applicable) accomplishments, but don’t forget to highlight your awards, volunteer work, out-of-classroom or office experience, relative memberships, etc. to show that you are well rounded. Use research templates and examples to ensure that you’re following proper education resume formats.

In-person interview

Your interview is your chance at a face-to-face sit down — and this time, it’s not just about you. This is your chance to interview the admissions committee to see if the program is the right match for you as well. Both you and the admissions committee can each determine whether what’s on paper matches up to the live versions.

The whole candidate

Together, these essential application elements along with “the numbers” should show the best of you. If you’re successful, the program you’re applying to will see that it’s getting someone who will not only excel academically within the program, but will also make relevant contributions, help others, act respectfully with professors and peers, and go out into the world and succeed in a way that makes that institution proud that you’re an alumni.

Bottom line: Putting as much, if not more, effort into your whole application, not just test scores and transcripts, will increase your chances of acceptance significantly.

Degrees conferred by degree-granting institutions, by level of degree and sex of student: Selected years, 1869–70 through 2021–22