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7 Ways to get Positively Noticed as a Graduate School Applicant by Dr. Don Martin

When attempting to accomplish anything important in life, there are many do’s and don’ts.  When it comes to applying for graduate school abroad, the don’ts can profoundly affect the likelihood of being accepted. However, even more important are the do’s.

Over more than three decades as a graduate school admissions dean, I witnessed dozens of positive steps taken by applicants. Of these, seven particular and simple steps, beyond the preparation of applications that all candidates undertake, will help you get positively noticed by the admissions committee.

1.  Carefully consider and prepare for your first contact.
For better or worse, it is not a cliché: first impressions are lasting and take a long time to change. At some point you will engage in a first contact with the admissions office. Whether via email, phone or in person, it is critical to make sure you do everything possible to plan and prepare your first outreach. As you do, focus on leaving a lasting positive impression. After that first contact, take the time to send a hand-written thank you note. Despite an “instant messaging” world, a hand-written note really stands out and is a great way to positively reinforce your initial interaction.
2.  Follow directions.
This cannot be overstated. Do what you are asked to do—no more, no less. If you have a legitimate question about an application requirement, ask. But please do not assume. One’s ability to follow directions sends a very positive message and allows a candidate to move through the application review process without the unwanted attention many applicants receive simply because they did not do as instructed.
3.  Choose recommenders who really know you.
While submitting a letter of recommendation from someone famous or a prominent graduate may seem like an impressive strategy, if these individuals do not really know you the impact is entirely lost. Your best approach with recommenders is to ask someone who knows you very well, has been associated with you for at least a year, and can point to and validate specific personal, professional and academic qualities that make you stand out.
4.  Smile.
A smile is part of the universal language. It is simple, easy to do and can make a huge difference. When meeting any of the admissions staff or even speaking on the phone, smile. It sounds so simplistic, but it works. It helps lessen nervousness, lightens the moment, and makes personal interactions more relaxed. It also demonstrates that you are a nice person. And believe me, admissions folks, like all of us, respond positively to nice people.
5.  Stay calm and keep your cool, always.
Admissions personnel are not perfect. They sometimes make mistakes. It is not altogether uncommon for certain elements of one’s application to be misfiled or disappear. This is obviously not deliberate, nor is it a test.  Given the amount of time one takes to prepare an application, and even more, if the institution is one’s first choice, it would be easy become unraveled if something goes wrong. But do not let that happen.

Keep your cool and see it as an opportunity to practice handling disappointment and the mistakes of others, which you’ll undoubtedly be doing throughout your life. Be appreciative and positive. Do your part to correct the situation as soon as possible. Believe me, when application issues arise, admissions staffers often receive quite negative reactions from applicants. So remain calm and responsive. It will help you stand out in a very positive way.

6.  Demonstrate that you did your homework.
In American universities, graduate school students, staff and faculty have great pride in their institutions and expect the same from applicants. Showing that you have a broad understanding of the institution, the program, and the application process will make a positive difference.

One excellent way to impress and demonstrate due diligence is familiarizing yourself with faculty research. Select one or two faculty members with whom you would like to study and review their published research. When communicating with decision-makers or faculty, be prepared to discuss elements of their expertise in appropriate context. Demonstrating that you cared enough to explore academic information of this depth at this stage in the process, and can discuss it intelligently, will make a strong impression.
7.  You want in. So, let them know.
Let the admissions committee know you want to attend. If a program is honestly among your top choices, or your number-one choice, it is perfectly acceptable to let the admissions office know that. But here is a critical tip: when you do, be prepared to explain what you believe you bring to the table as an applicant. Provide specific and relevant reasons that illustrate the match. Also, focus on issues that are important and highly valued by that institution. Remember, the application process is a relationship-building exercise. Therefore, begin the relationship motivated not only by the value the program gives you, but also by the value you bring to the program.
All the best with your graduate school application(s)!
Dr. Don Martin, Ph.D., is a higher education enrollment expert, author, and former admissions dean at Columbia University, University of Chicago, Northwestern University and Wheaton College.   For additional tips on the graduate school application process, visit


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