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How to Build a Compelling Application File for Graduate School

By School of Public Affairs

Building a compelling graduate school application begins long before you actually apply. As you consider graduate school, it is critical that you understand the importance of managing the application process. Learn as much as you can about components required, school-specific preferences, priority deadlines, and decision-making, including who will review your file and in what time frame. Here are 10 steps to building a compelling graduate school application file.

1.      Do your homework.

Learn as much as you can about the program before you apply, from the faculty and administration to student body to available support services.

  • Faculty and Administration
    Start with the faculty directory. Identify key faculty members in your field of interest and review their Curriculum Vitae (CVs) to learn more about their scholarship, teaching, and service. Look for experts and practitioners who are doing work in your prospective field so you can be sure your interests will be supported. Administrators (i.e., admissions officers) also can prove valuable in learning more about an institution’s graduate degree offerings including curricula and the application/admissions process(es).
  • Current Students
    Take advantage of opportunities to meet current students and learn about their experience within the program. While each cohort will be different, you will still get an impression of how well you will fit within the program. Ask why they chose this program, what they like most, and what suggestions they have to ensure your success.
  • Student Service Support
    Student services, such as Academic Advisors and Career Services, can play an important role in academic success, internship opportunities, and future employment. Find out what services are offered, level of support provided, and hours of availability.

2.      Learn about essential application file components.

Most application files for graduate school have comparable requirements. These commonly include:

  • Unofficial transcripts from all previously attended postsecondary institutions
  • Personal statement
  • Resume/CV
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Official test scores (i.e., GRE, GMAT)

Be sure to check with the institution directly for any additional requirements. For example, international applicants may be asked for additional test scores related to English proficiency.

3.      Pay attention to the deadlines.

While programs may accept applications on a rolling basis, priority deadlines are often promoted for applicants seeking merit aid consideration. Be aware that submissions received after the deadline may be subject to space and resource availability.

Deadlines for The School of Public Affairs (SPA) at American University include both Fall and Spring admission terms:

  • Priority-February 15: Master’s first round consideration for Fall merit awards
  • Priority-May 1: Fall deadline for international master’s applicant submissions
  • Priority-September 15: Spring deadline for international master’s applicant submissions
  • Priority-November 1: Master’s first round consideration for Spring merit awards

4.      Know your audience.

Find out who makes admission decisions. Admissions professionals may have different priorities than a committee of faculty members. At The School of Public Affairs (SPA) at American University, faculty-led admissions committees give each applicant’s file a thorough, holistic review. Successful applicants will demonstrate what they can add to the academic community, as well as their professional promise.

5.      Choose your references wisely.

Professors and employers are usually good resources for letters of recommendations. Recommendation letters are important, so take the time to visit with each of your references to discuss your graduate school and career aspirations. You may also consider sharing a draft of your personal statement to seek input and/or to better inform their letter. Finally, most recommenders appreciate your direction on what skill sets and attributes you hope they will speak to in their recommendation. Investing in selecting, informing, and coaching your references may considerably strengthen your application file and set it apart from others.

6.      Write a strong personal statement.

Your personal statement should reflect how you will fit within the program. Address what you want to study and why, how your experience has prepared you, and what you plan to do after completing your graduate degree. Be sure the statement is tailored to the specific school/department, it is succinct (1-1.5 pages, double-spaced), and, most importantly, is, indeed, a personal essay.

7.      Be sincere.

Write your application specifically for the school you want to attend. If the field you write about doesn’t truly interest you, that will come across in your application. Your references also should speak to how you will fit with the program.

8.      Give yourself prep time.

Most programs require admissions tests, and international applicants may also need to provide scores from English proficiency tests. Your scores may be important for both admissions decisions and merit aid consideration. Be sure to check with your schools/departments of interest to confirm what test(s) you need to take, the priority given to the test score(s) within an application file, and recommended test score thresholds.

9.      Position yourself for merit aid.

Start with all of the steps listed above, then make sure your application file is complete before the priority merit-aid deadlines. Proactively seek information from your graduate programs of interest about their merit aid allocation strategy so you can understand what they prioritize in determining merit, the types and levels of merit aid offered, and the timing for these important decisions to be rendered.

Graduate students are also eligible to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for consideration for Federal Loan options.

10. Get the answers you need.

Admissions professionals are available to help. The Office of Graduate Admissions (OGA) at The School of Public Affairs welcomes your questions.

  • Phone: 202.885.6230
  • Email: SPAapp@American.edu




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