The graduate admission process often feels like a mystical machine in which the student inputs hundreds of pages of proof that they have a brain along with lots of money and the machine outputs a random answer based on some sort of algorithm. It seems that there is little, if anything, that can be done to swing the outcome in the desired direction. Having been both the graduate school applicant and a part of the graduate admissions team I can assure you that this is not the case. On the contrary, in addition to properly communicating your academic achievements, there are several things you can do that will have an impact on the final admission decision, and among them a few common mistakes prospective students make that ultimately destroy their chances of getting admitted. Allow me to share a few key ways to avoid unintentionally sabotaging your graduate application.
First, be prompt. Getting your documents in before the deadline will not necessarily make a positive impression, but I can assure you that submitting them late makes a negative one. If there are unavoidable circumstances that require you to submit your paperwork after the deadline, make a phone call and very very sweetly ask for permission to be tardy in your submission. Even if there is a “grace period” and they would have processed your application regardless, most of the time a phone call results in a note being added to your file that tells reviewers you were responsible enough to call and request an extension. Since most application materials are stamped with the date they were received, this is important.
Second, be pleasant. Whether you are talking to the Department Chair, the Administrative Assistant, or the Janitor you ran into in the hall when you visited campus, be friendly, pleasant, and patient. The wheels of admission turn slowly and for the waiting student whose life is on hold this can be frustrating at best. But no matter how frustrated you are, NEVER let that show. Realize that people on the admissions team talk among themselves, and the person you considered “just” a secretary will have mentioned to the Admissions Chairman that you were rude and demanding when you called to ask if a decision had been made. If the admissions decision (or funding decision) comes down to you and the super-polite, nice person with the same academic credentials you will lose because departments are very close knit units and they don’t want to add a rude, impatient person to their daily lives.
Finally, find the correct person to communicate with. A phone call or two should assist you in finding the right person to email or call for whatever you need, and you should take advantage of that. Whatever you do, don’t send mass emails to everyone whose email address you can find. It is considered extremely rude because it wastes the time of a lot of people, and in many cases it is viewed as you trying to find someone to tell you what you want to hear. Trust me when I tell you that the admissions teams talk regularly, they WILL realize what you have done, and more than likely your emails and your application will get tossed to the bottom of the pile. If you cannot figure out the appropriate person to contact, start with an administrative assistant in a likely department and ask who you should contact with your question or concern. If you manage to narrow it down to two or three people, it is equally acceptable to send a single email addressed to all of them and mention that you were not sure who to contact so you are sending an email to all of them. Apologize for the inconvenience and thank everyone for their time. And, for whatever it’s worth, finding the right person to communicate with and building a rapport with them will often facilitate your admission, because a significant part of the admission process is determining if a student has the right chemistry to do well in a particular department or at a particular university. When you have exchanged several emails with the key people on the admissions team, or key secretaries who talk to the admissions team, they will be able to offer a recommendation of your personality fit.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is an insider’s advice on how to avoid sabotaging your graduate application. I wish you all the best of luck with both the admissions process and life as a graduate student.