Higher Education > Advanced Advice

Six Ways Not to Get Accepted

Graduate school offers plenty of challenges, getting in shouldn't be the worst of them

By John M. Torkelson, Ph.D.

So you're applying for graduate study in engineering. No fear: The procedure is easier than applying to college. But some students make mistakes that, with a little guidance, they could easily have avoided and improved their chances with their first-choice programs. Here are some pitfalls to watch out for:

MISTAKE 1: TAKING ALL YOUR ELECTIVES IN LIBERAL ARTS OR MANAGEMENT AND NONE IN ADVANCED MATHEMATICS, SCIENCE OR ENGINEERING.

Not a good idea. To the admissions committee, academics is primary. In addition to your grades, your selection of courses is also important. Take electives that will be useful to you in graduate school. While taking good liberal arts and management courses can be a plus, mathematics beyond the minimum requirement is seen as a positive preparation for graduate study.

MISTAKE 2: TAKING THE ENGINEERING ACHIEVEMENT TEST OF THE GRE, EVEN IF IT'S NOT REQUIRED.

Most programs require the GRE, and outstanding scores can help you surmount less-than-stellar grades. But most departments don't require the Engineering Achievement Test. It's a very broad test, and if it isn't required, taking it probably doesn't offer any advantage.

MISTAKE 3: NEGLECTING TO GIVE YOUR REFERENCES ENOUGH INFORMATION ABOUT YOU.

They have their grade book. Why reveal any more about yourself and risk diminishing their opinion of you? Well, to write a letter that will make you stand out from any other good student, they need to know more than just your score in their class. Ask to meet with them to discuss your plans. Leave them with your resume and a statement of purpose for attending graduate school. At least two of your references should be professors, but if you have one from outside academe, he or she may need even more information about your academic experience and plans. And by all means, let each of your references write all of your letters at the same time!

MISTAKE 4: GETTING OVERLY CREATIVE ON THE STATEMENT OF PURPOSE.

Here's your chance to show the admissions committee you're as clever as Michael Jordan on a fast break, then delve into your childhood to demonstrate the depth of your sincerity and the purity of your motives. Actually, your statement of purpose can set you apart but you don't want to be in that pile. The statement of purpose is just that, nothing more. Why do you want to go to graduate school? A simple and straightforward answer will come across better than false sincerity or attempts to over-impress. Be mature and conservative. Strive for clarity. Edit again to make it concise. Finally, PROOFREAD. Spell-checking is not sufficient. And remember: Punctuation has rules; it's not just an attitude.

MISTAKE 5: APPLYING TO AS MANY PROGRAMS AS YOU CAN.

It only improves your odds, and may result in more offers to choose from, right? Not necessarily. The admissions committee, which may ask (and can find out) how many other programs you are applying to, has to play the odds too. The university may let the department offer some special fellowships to top candidates. But if those offers get refused, the money goes back into the big pot. Last year I wrote letters for two students who each applied to only two schools. Those programs extended their best fellowship offers to those students partly because they knew the odds of either of those students accepting were good.

Keep your list short, even if you don't think you're a contender for a top fellowship. How many? Probably no more than six, and certainly fewer than 10. Applying to a dozen programs carries a whiff of desperation or lack of focus.

MISTAKE 6: ASSUMING EVERYONE SENDING DOCUMENTS IN SUPPORT OF YOUR APPLICATION HAS COME THROUGH FOR YOU.

Professors are busy people, and registrar's offices are overworked bureaucracies. Do you think it is possible that your transcript or letter of recommendation might slip through the cracks? Do you trust the post office and the university mail room with your future? Check with all the departments to which you applied to make sure their file on you is complete before the January deadline.

In the end, the best way to avoid costly mistakes in the graduate admissions process is to let your own maturity guide you. Graduate school offers plenty of challenges getting in shouldn't be the worst of them.

John M. Torkelson, Ph.D., is associate dean for graduate studies and research at Northwestern University's Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

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