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Secrets of Standing Out From the Pile: Getting Into Graduate School

Matthew T. Huss
If you are beginning the process of applying to graduate school this year, you are realizing it’s not easy. You are learning schools are looking for GRE scores of 800, a GPA of 4.5 on a 4.0 scale, at least two dozen publications, and a letter of recommendation from Sigmund Freud. Maybe not, but you probably have felt as if this were at least close to the truth at times. I had similar thoughts when I was just applying to PhD programs, especially after I didn’t get into a school the first time around. As a result of my first-time failure followed by my later success, I learned there were more factors involved in getting into graduate school than grades or GRE scores. I hope that what I have learned can help those of you just starting the process.
When people speak of the keys to getting into graduate school, GRE scores and grades are usually the focus. They are usually seen as first-order criteria. They are referred to as first-order criteria because schools often look at these particular aspects of an application first. While this is true, and the importance of such criteria cannot be overemphasized, they are simply screening mechanisms for most schools. Schools have certain minimums or average scores they have found are characteristic of successful students. If programs advertise that their students’ average GRE scores are about 650 and their average GPA is 3.75, realize these are only averages. There are students who were accepted with 800s and 4.0s, but there are also students who were accepted with 550s and 3.3 grade point averages.
Depending on the area, a graduate program may receive anywhere from 50 to 500 applications in any given year. Most of these applicants are going to have high GRE scores and good grades or they wouldn’t be applying to graduate school. All of these applications are going to be thrown into the pile. As long as your scores are around these averages, you can stay in the running. You can stay in that pile. The longer you stay in the pile, the better your chances are of getting into the school. If you have the basic credentials, the things that enable you to stick out from the rest of the applicants are going to get you admitted into the program.
One of the best ways to stand out from the rest of the pile is research, research, research! Most graduate programs are at large universities where faculty are under pressure to publish. Prospective applicants who have demonstrated they are capable of undertaking research projects and have acquired a number of research skills are very attractive to a program. These are skills faculty members won’t have to spend time teaching a new student.

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