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Create a Perfect Application Package while applying for Higher education

Graduate School Admissions Part 2: Create a Perfect Application Package main image

In an earlier post Dr Sridhar Pappu described how to shortlist universities for graduate school admissions, He discussed a step-by-step approach to shortlisting universities based on your GRE scores. This second part discusses how to put together a compelling graduate school application package that will help you get noticed by the admissions committee.

Step 1: Identify your USP (Unique Selling Point)

You will have to spend a good deal of time on this step. It may appear easy, but it is not. Note that many of the other applicants will have a similar (maybe even better) academic record and test scores than you have.  But that should not be cause for despair.  You still can stand by highlighting your USP. Here’s how:

  • Start by jotting down your strengths. Use Word, Excel, or just good old paper and pencil – whatever feels most natural to you.
  • Be specific and give examples. Don’t say that you are hardworking, motivated, creative, blah, blah, blah… so is everyone else! What you need to write down are specific examples and instances from your academic/professional/personal life that can vouch for the strengths you are claiming to possess.
  • Make sure to focus on strengths that will help you succeed in the program you’re applying to. You may be an expert at yodeling, but that’s probably not going to help much with your Masters in Analytics ! On the other hand, if you are an active member of a debating society, you can showcase that to highlight your communications skills.
  • You may sometimes need to provide proof for your claims. While you can certainly highlight some of the courses you have taken on Udacity or Coursera to show your passion and motivation to learn about new subjects, so can everyone else. And given that a vast majority of MOOC enrolees never complete their courses, having a certificate of completion or achievement could help you stand out from the crowd.
  • Categorize each strength into categories such as academic, professional, social, communications, technical, etc.

Spend a significant amount of time on this step, as this will eventually help you put together a powerful application essay or Statement of Purpose.

Step 2: Write a one-page application profile

Most resumes are boring. And you could use that to your advantage. If the graduate school admissions committee is going through 100 application packages, they may easily miss important points in a long multi-page application profile.  Just like a 30-second business pitch, you should create an application profile that is no longer than one page, highlighting all your strengths and achievements.  To do this, you need to be creative and innovative.

For example, if you are applying to a master’s program that has a significant emphasis on visual design or user interfaces, your one-page application profile should be creatively written to inherently highlight your visual design strengths. Likewise, if you are applying to data sciences programs, your profile should highlight data-related aspects and present information using relevant charts and graphics.

The flip side, however, is that you need to be extra careful while presenting information in this way; if you show charts but forget such basics as labelling the axes properly, you may be shooting yourself in the foot by highlighting a lack of knowledge in the areas you claim to be competent in. But, then, you can’t stand out if you don’t work hard enough!

Step 3: Provide additional relevant information as appendices to the application profile

Now, you may have a genuine concern that you cannot present all the information you want to in a single page without cluttering it. Use appendices to your one-page application profile as a space to include brief project descriptions, copies of certificates you have earned, details of relevant courses you have taken, publications, presentations, extra-curricular activities and so on. Try to stick to half a page or less for each summary.

These appendices help the graduate school admissions committee see the details if they want to.  But your one-page profile should give the overall picture even if they skip the rest. 

Step 4: Tell a story through your SOP (Statement of Purpose)

Your Statement of Purpose (SOP) is the section of your application package that gives you the opportunity to pour your heart out and make up for some of the lacunae you might have in your academic credentials. But this doesn’t mean you start telling a sob story. Your focus has to be on why you are applying for higher studies – ie. THE PURPOSE.  And this is where you start consolidating the strengths you jotted down while creating your USP.

The Statement of Purpose should flow as smoothly as a story. Unless the university asks you to write your essay in the form of answers to specific questions, you could use the following template to create your Statement of Purpose story:

  • Briefly introduce yourself and your academic background in two or three lines.
  • Talk about your short-term and long-term goals in one paragraph.  These goals have to be as specific as possible, and not “in the long run, I want to invent a new type of computer” or “my long-term goal is to create products that are useful to the society”.  If the long-term goals are not yet clear, say so, and state that those will evolve as your progress through your short-term goals.
  • Describe your academic and/or any professional background that is relevant to your purpose in one to three paragraphs.
  • Describe what motivated you to pursue further studies in one paragraph.
  • Describe why you chose the university you are applying to in one paragraph.  This is the paragraph that will change for each university you apply to. To make a good job of it, you must research the program, curriculum and faculty so you can talk in detail about specific aspects that attracted you to this university. Do not write general statements such as, “the university and the faculty and well known and hence I decided to study at the University of…”

Some dos and don’ts while writing your Statement of Purpose:

  • DO NOT make it longer than 1.5 pages; stick to word limits, if specified.
  • DO avoid spelling and grammatical errors.
  • DO NOT include quotes and complex words.  The Statement of Purpose is not meant to show off your literary skills or your vocabulary (unless, of course, you are applying to a relevant program); it is meant to convey your purpose clearly and unambiguously.
  • DO make sure you use words and phrases familiar to the committee. For example, saying you passed out in some countries may mean that you graduated, but in others may mean that you fainted. If you make the effort to communicate clearly across cultures, this will make your application easier to read and show strong international communications skills.
  • DO NOT include references to studies such as “McKinsey has reported that there will be a shortfall of a million engineers by 2020”.  The admissions committee most likely already knows this; you need not educate them. And your Statement of Purpose should be dictated by your passion, not because someone has predicted some shortfall in a field at some point in future.
  • DO be specific, and include examples/experiences to support/reinforce your statements.
  • DO demonstrate your passion. Above all, be truthful, honest and have a positive attitude.

Once you have written your Statement of Purpose, ask some others to read it to ensure the flow is smooth and there are no errors; if required, take their help in editing it to get the message across that you really want to convey.

Step 5: Carefully identify your referees

Here again, don’t just ask any two of three people who you think know you well and will give you a good recommendation. Refer back to your strengths in the USP you created and think about all the people who can vouch for different strengths – academic record, motivation, creativity, communication skills, integrity, etc.  More likely than not, there will not be a single person who would have observed all your skills well enough to strongly vouch for them all. You must identify people who can collectively cover most of your strengths.

If you are a recent graduate, you may get all your recommendations from your undergraduate faculty. However, if you have been working for a year or more, get at least one reference from both your academic institution and your workplace. In you have been working for over three years and have completely lost touch with your alma mater, you may get all your referees from your professional contacts, but it is always advisable to get at least one from someone who can talk about your academic strengths and potential as well.

While there is no magic recipe or guarantee that following the above will lead to success at every university you apply to, following these steps should help maximize your chances for graduate school admissions success. At the end of this whole process, your efforts should be such that you should feel that you couldn’t have done any better. Wishing you all the best.

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Thanks Suman for the post.It is really helpful specially the point of adding the charts and graphics while applying for Data Science or other data related opportunities. 

Thanks for the post. While attending  data scientist course In Hyderabad we discussed about this topic side by side with big data, hadoop and cloud concepts.

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