Four Key Steps to Consider When Applying to Graduate School

Four Key Steps to Consider when applying to graduate school

College students and graduates often come to me a year or two before they are applying to graduate school with the same question: “What should I be doing NOW if I plan to apply to graduate school in a few years?”

I am always delighted to hear this question. It makes sense to map out a plan for the graduate school admissions process. Students don’t typically decide at the end of 12th grade to apply to college, and the graduate application process requires similar time and thought. While each student should focus on individual strengths, challenges, and goals, there are four key aspects to any successful application, especially for graduate programs in law, business, and medicine.


Professional graduate programs certainly value academic rigor and success, but they also focus on college classes related to the chosen field of graduate work. A student should not apply to medical school with C’s in core science classes, or to law school without having taken any political science courses. An unusual but appropriate academic concentration may be differentiating – say, a Classics major applying to medical school – but applicants must still demonstrate proficiency in organic chemistry and other pre-med requirements. If that Classics major had mediocre pre-med grades, I would likely advise a post-baccalaureate program to strengthen the application.

Similarly, in law and business, students should demonstrate core competence. Are they equipped to contribute to class discussions and manage the work? Law schools focus on relevant academic rigor – studying moral reasoning and philosophy, writing a senior thesis – because this demonstrates the ability to read, reason, and write well. Business schools appreciate success in economics, finance, and marketing, but they also note broader skills, such as a class in negotiation.

Extra-curricular Activities:

Graduate schools look at how college students and graduates spend free time. They seek people who will participate in campus and community activities, be good classmates, and serve as research or teaching assistants. However, it’s a mistake to dive into 12 activities to enhance a résumé.

Instead, I encourage students to invest in appropriate work and service activities, assuming a leadership role when possible. I’ve had students who participated in a weekend acrobatics club, worked on a cooking show, and mentored a mentally ill young adult. Serious athletes in college (and beyond) should choose a few other key activities, which highlight their interests and personal qualities.

The bottom line: Be authentic. If you are telling graduate admissions committees that your professional goal is to be a bilingual counselor for at-risk youth, you should not only develop appropriate language proficiency, but also show community involvement that reflects this passion.


Graduate tests have different “shelf lives”. GMAT, GRE, and LSAT results are generally considered good for five years, and there are advantages to studying for and taking those tests in or right after college, while in an “academic” mode. If graduate school applications are delayed, it is important to check that the test score will be acceptable.

The MCAT is generally valid for two or three years, and the Association of American Medical Colleges tracks medical school admissions policies on their website.

The other essential consideration in graduate school testing is a student’s personal schedule. When in the next years can the student best prepare for the test? A business school hopeful working 80 hours a week in management consulting or finance cannot also cram for the GMAT. In these situations, active schedule management is needed – a break between jobs, time off, or other ways to carve out the weekly time needed for strong results.


I ask my clients the same question: “So, your recommenders love you and think you are brilliant, right?” Each recommender should know the student personally, with a positive connection through work or studies. A graduate teaching fellow who knows a student well may write more compellingly than a tenured professor. At work, students should similarly seek people who can highlight their analytical skills, teamwork, and work ethic, rather than a CFO or Senior Partner.

Planning ahead remains important. I recommend that college students “bank” some recommendations as insurance for the future. They can ask a favorite professor to write and file a recommendation at the school. Writing compellingly about a student’s work years later is challenging! I recommend tactfully “reminding” potential recommenders of specific examples of the student’s engagement and success, underscoring the value of the professor’s feedback and support.

Being aware of the different aspects of a graduate school application can make a big difference in how you conduct yourself in college. While every student is different – and so each graduate school application process must be different – the advice I’ve offered in the four areas above should help you get started as you chart your own future.

If you would like more information, we’d love to speak with you. Please contact us to set up an appointment with me or one of our other admissions counselors, or contact Alex Evans to speak with one of our test prep tutors. If you’d like to see what your score would be on a real GRE, GMAT or LSAT, we offer free, proctored practice tests in our Bethesda, MD, Washington, DC, and McLean, VA offices.


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