5 Tips to Help You Ace Your Graduate School Application
Friday, October 9, 2020
The following post was written by Topher McDougal, Associate Professor and Emily Nagisa Keehn, Assistant Dean of Graduate Programs at the Kroc School.
Applying to graduate school is high stakes and can feel intimidating. The process can also be confusing, as each graduate program asks for the same kinds of materials, but assesses applicants in their own particular way. We want you to apply to your dream program at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, feeling confident that you are telling the most compelling and polished story about yourself that you can. This article contains helpful advice on what the admissions committees for our degree programs in Peace and Justice, Social Innovation, and Conflict Management and Resolution are looking for, and how to avoid some pitfalls common to graduate school applications.
1. Tell a compelling and authentic story in your personal statement.
We will jump at the opportunity to admit you if you can tell us a compelling story about yourself--your capacities, your accomplishments, your drive, and your smarts in a way that weaves into an authentic portrait of your potential. Your personal statement is the opportunity to do just this.
It’s easy to forget, so remember: respond to the specific essay prompts. Admissions committees ask these questions for a reason. Do not just cram your generic personal statement made for other grad schools into our essay prompts. In a way, these essay prompts are your first taste of what the Kroc School is all about. Across our degree programs, we ask you to identify a problem you are interested in solving, to analyze why it exists, and some ways it might be solved. We want to know what or who set you on your path to becoming who you are now, and who you want to be. And we ask why the Kroc School and the specific degree program you are applying to are what will let you blossom into that person.
Take your time with your writing to tell this story in a clear and engaging way. Get your mentor or someone else experienced to review and give you feedback on your statement. Proofread, edit, re-read and edit again. Make sure your statement is as polished as it can be.
2. Letters of recommendations matter more than you think.
Take letters of recommendation seriously, and line up your referees as early as you can. Make sure to get relevant letters of recommendation. Find referees who are/were your professor, a superior or mentor (i.e. not a non-supervisory colleague). Ideally, you will have letters from at least 1-2 professors. It is a huge boost if your recommendation can come from someone whose work is in a field relevant to our graduate programs. At the least, your letters should be from people who can write convincingly about your academic aptitude and professional promise.
One tip for securing meaningful and insightful letters of recommendation is to meet with your referee about your graduate school plans. Do not just send an email; reconnect with them. Make sure your referee knows why you want to apply to this graduate program, understands the change you want to create, and the kind of career you want to have. Remind your referees of your brilliance, and help them make a strong case for you.
Also, chances are your referees are busy people. Give them ample notice that you would like them to write you a letter. Once they have agreed to write you a letter, give them polite nudges along the way. Polite reminders are helpful and usually welcomed.
3. Do your research on the faculty, the school, and the graduate program.
Your personal statement should convey that you have extraordinary potential to incorporate the skills, the tools, and the knowledge that we offer here at the Kroc School, in order to launch yourself into a career of purpose to make the world a more peaceful, just, and sustainable place. The question, “Why the Kroc School?” is crucial, and you should answer it in a forward-thinking way. Your response should explain how the Kroc School and your chosen degree program are going to enable you to accomplish your particular goals in the future. Identify the attributes that you like about the Kroc School and our degree program, and then tie them to your purpose for going to graduate school.
But how can you get to know the Kroc School when you’re not yet one of our students? Reach out to us! Ask for a meeting with a professor to learn about their research and courses. Talk to a team member about our programs and services. We would love to learn about you, to have a conversation about the impactful work we’re doing, and how you could fit into the picture. We can also put you in touch with current students and alumni to get a more unadulterated perspective about the Kroc School.
4. When it comes to your academic aptitude and institutional fit, tell us your whole story.
Yes, academic aptitude matters, but aptitude is not just about grades. Of course, we do actually care about grades. If you have a cumulative GPA of less than 3.0, it is very unlikely that we will admit you, though again, there are a number of factors that play into our consideration because we apply a “holistic review” approach to our decisions. By this we mean that we look at your undergraduate grades in their broader academic context, that is, your experience, your background, your goals, your letters of recommendation, etc. In the case of poor performance, consider writing a supplemental statement detailing the reasons for your grades, and describe any upward trajectory that we might observe after the hardship you experienced (if any). Do not leave us to read the tea leaves if, despite your GPA, you are in fact ready for the rigor of graduate studies.
And if your undergraduate studies do not have an obvious link to peace studies (for example, you studied ancient Mayan archaeology or were an accounting major), tell us how you fit into our programs. Address this head-on in your personal statement and make the connections for us--again, craft that compelling story about you.
5. Get started on your application early, and submit it complete and on time.
Lastly, and this may seem obvious but it is nonetheless worth stating: submit your application complete and on time. Pulling together your application will take longer than you think, and many of the required components are not fully under your control. Therefore, allow yourself plenty of time to pull all the pieces together. Give your recommenders plenty of notice to submit their letters, your undergraduate institution plenty of time to submit your transcripts, and yourself plenty of time to do the research and write that polished personal statement. We cannot review your application until we have all the required components. Also, we award merit scholarships on a rolling basis as we admit students, so being an early applicant works in your favor.
Last note: We are here to support you as you prepare your application. For further advice, reach out to Hilary Beggs, our Interim Assistant Director for Admissions and Recruiting.