Six Things Grad Schools Want You To Know Before Applying

Yale's Graduate School of Arts and Environmental Sciences. Yale University

Deciding what to do after earning a university undergraduate degree can be daunting, particularly for students thinking about getting a master's. Many prospective graduate school students struggle with questions like, "What should I study? Where should I apply? Can I afford it? Is it worth it?"

Each fall, dozens of graduate schools from around the world including NYU Steinhardt, Oxford, Columbia and Princeton, come to NYU Abu Dhabi to address these kinds of questions, offer advice, and guide students through the decision-making process. Here are six things grad school recruitment specialists say you should consider before applying.

It's more than the name.

It is easy to gravitate toward schools based on fame or published rankings, but a school can easily see through a surface-level selection. MIT, for example wants to see, "focused interest and strong understanding” of your intended field. When considering a program, look beyond the brand and investigate how your interests align (or don’t). Even a spokesman from MIT says, "It’s not just about going there because it’s MIT.”

It's not you versus admissions.

“I look after my students…I fight for your case," explains Aidan O’Halloran from the University of Oxford. Admissions committees are genuinely interested in building a cohort that reflects the priorities of the institution, spending up to five hours on a candidate application. Schools understand how difficult it can be to finance graduate school and are ready and willing to talk about options. They will even put you in touch with current students from a specific industry, background, or interest, so you can gather information. Reach out. Ask questions you won't find answers to on their website.

Start with the end in mind.

Who do you want to become as a result of graduate school? What do you want to accomplish? Graduate school has an expiration date, at which point you must enter the world of work. Grad school can help you reach your goals, but make sure the program you’re considering actually helps you get there. Don’t assume that X experience + Y degree = Z outcome. Ask the institution where other graduates have ended up.

Be passionate about a cause and want to do something about that [cause].

Gabriella Emszt, Central European University

It's not (always) linear.

Some degree programs have specific prerequisites but many programs welcome academic diversity. A spokesman from Yale says they welcome students from all different academic majors and professional backgrounds. In fact, their most recent incoming scholars include students from backgrounds like law, government, classics, psychology, economics, and political science. You can learn a lot about who has been admitted to grad schools in the past and what they've achieved using LinkedIn Education.

Be focused but don't rush it.

Successful graduate students have a clear but flexible focus. You don’t have to know your dissertation topic right away, in fact, you probably shouldn’t. But you should be “passionate about a cause” and “want to do something about that [cause],” explains Central European University’s Gabriella Emszt. If you don’t yet have a focus, consider delaying graduate school until you find one. It's a huge investment by both you and the school you choose.

Grades aren't everything.

While your undergraduate grades matter, graduate school admissions committees consider a variety of data points. Tests are a common pain point, but the most neglected part of the application tends to be letters of recommendation. Ben Young from the University of Hong Kong recommends getting a letter of recommendation from someone who knows you well and can speak to your future success as a graduate student. These types of letters are the result of building meaningful relationships in the years before you apply. Many schools even say they review social media accounts of candidates as part of the admissions process.

By Dana Downey, associate director, NYUAD Career Development Center