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Congratulations on deciding to apply to grad school! You’re entering a very exciting, but tense, period of your life. You’ve done your research and know which schools you want to apply to – and what your dream program is.

Your application is the adcom’s window into how well you will fit in and succeed at their program. What will you show them through that window? Here are the key admissions elements you need to know when you apply to graduate school, and tips on how you can be sure that that they shine through clearly in your application.

8 key elements of your application

#1 Grades

Check out the school’s class profile to see where your grades fall relative to the averages. If you see that your grades are above average, you have this element covered. If they’re below average, you will need to put more effort into boosting this aspect of your application, or into demonstrating academic ability in other ways.

Admissions committees look at your grades as an indicator of your future potential. Schools want to be sure that you have the aptitude and discipline to excel in a challenging educational environment. Providing a past history of excellent grades allows the adcoms to predict that you will thrive in grad school too. If your grades don’t provide this level of confidence, you will need to explain why they aren’t indicative of your ability. You may have to take extra classes – and excel in them – to prove that you have the self-discipline and acumen to succeed. 

#2 Test scores

Grading standards vary widely from college to college and even from professor to professor. It’s very difficult to equate grades and compare grades. Standardized tests are important in the admissions process because they are the common denominator -– everyone takes the same test. There are no variables in the difficulty of the test, and your test scores have been shown to predict your success in your chosen grad field. They are also used as publicity to show the high “caliber” of students attending a given program.

#3 Your essays

Essays are your opportunity to show fit with a specific school. Although programs have the same basic intent, they each have their own strengths, weaknesses, and other differences. Use your essay to show how you will fit, benefit from, and contribute to a school by:

  • Allowing the adcom to get to know you. This is your chance to let the adcoms see beyond your stats. Show them that you have the same values and purpose as the school, and you would be the perfect fit.
  • Showing your personal side. Use your essays to show your interpersonal and leadership skills. Use stories and examples to show your abilities so that the adcoms see deeper into who you are. This is also your opportunity to discuss what impact you plan to make after you have completed your degree.
  • Displaying your communication skills. Although asking for videos is becoming more commonplace, writing remains the key way admissions committees judge your communication skills until you are asked for an interview. 

Be sure that your essay is well-written, clear, and concise. An essay that’s messy, rambling, and has grammatical errors will give that same impression about you. Have someone review your essay. This will help ensure that you are presenting your best self through your writing.

#4 Your resume

Your resume provides a picture of what you have done outside the academic arena up to this point. Different types of grad programs look for different things in your resume:

  • MBA/post-experience programs want to see how your career has progressed. They want to know that you have been assigned leadership roles and been successful at them, and have advanced from your first position. 
  • Non-traditional applicants will want to be sure to emphasize parts of their past career that are especially applicable to their chosen field of study. For example, if you are coming from retail/sales, you have been working on your communication abilities and finetuning your marketing skills (perfect for business school). If you’ve been in academia, then you have been explaining complicated material to your students, a skill that will come in handy when debating law. Use your essays and interviews to show how your experience will help mold you into an excellent professional in your specific field of choice. 
  • Academic research programs need to see a strong research background. This is part of the job you will be doing upon graduation.

Your resume should reflect a connection between your past experience and the career path you want to take in the future. The admissions committees should see how your education will help you bridge your past and your future.

#5 Letters of recommendation

Choose whom you ask for a recommendation carefully! The adcoms use these letters to get a third-party judgment of your potential. To ensure the best possible letter of recommendation, go to the recommender 6-8 weeks before the letter is due. Provide them with 1-2 pages of your accomplishments and the characteristics/values of the program you are applying to. This summary will help ensure that your letter accurately portrays your potential.

#6 Community service/extracurricular activities

These endeavors provide the admissions committees with insight into many different qualities. Law and medical schools look for commitment to service, while business schools look for leadership and organizational skills. Be sure that you show a connection between your experiences and the field you ultimately want to enter. 

Community service also shows that you have interests outside of academics. These experiences make you a more well-rounded person and often demonstrate that you care about society and its betterment. 

If you are lacking this component of your application, start as soon as possible. A short time spent having a meaningful experience is better than nothing. If you postpone your application unexpectedly or need to reapply, you will be able to demonstrate a longer commitment.

#7 Extra materials/optional essays

Be sure to use these opportunities to explain low grades or gaps in your employment. Tell your story – don’t leave it up to the adcoms to figure it out for themselves. Some optional essays let you add something that wasn’t covered in other parts of your application. Write this essay if you have something worthwhile to add, such as a specific experience that helps you demonstrate fit.

#8 Video

These are becoming more common in MBA applications, and will likely become part of all grad apps. They provide an opportunity to judge your presence and poise and your ability to think quickly. 

Make sure your window is clear so you’re clearly seen

By maximizing each part of your application, you will have created a shiny, clean window for the admissions committee to clearly see you.

For individualized assistance in maximizing the impact of your application, explore Accepted’s Graduate School Admissions Consulting. Work one-on-one with an experienced advisor who will help you GET ACCEPTED.


For 25 years, Accepted has helped applicants gain acceptance to top undergraduate and graduate programs. Its expert team of admissions consultants features former admissions directors, PhDs, and professional writers who have advised clients to acceptance at top programs worldwide including Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Columbia, Oxford, Cambridge, INSEAD, MIT, Caltech, UC Berkeley, and Northwestern. Want an admissions expert to help you earn an acceptance letter? Check out how Accepted can help you and your application stand out