Have you ever read a university’s post about what it looks for in applicants? It’s all fluff. It’s hard to distill the flowery language they use into actionable items you can apply to your application,. Take a look at Harvard’s How Your Application Is Considered post online. You will see phrases such as “growth and potential,” “interests and activities,” “character and personality,” and “contribution to the Harvard community.” Many other schools claim to look for similar things. Some will just use a bunch of buzzwords like “leadership” and “teamwork” to describe what they are looking for. So what does this all actually mean? What do you need to think about when you are actually putting together your application? We have the answers.
Before we dive in, the most important thing for you to understand is that there are only 4 items that set you apart from other applicants: your résumé, personal statement, recommendations, and interview (for schools that offer one). While GRE scores and transcripts will also be considered, they will only influence an admission board’s decision if they are significantly higher or lower than the average score of their admitted candidates.
Here at Prompt, we have helpful content on dealing with all four items that can set you apart. For more details on how to separate yourself from your competition, check out How to Differentiate Your Graduate School Application.
Without further ado, here are the specifics you need to include in your application to differentiate yourself from your competition.
Drive and Initiative
Achieving challenging goals and consistently going above and beyond expectations is a strong indicator of future success. Universities may talk about “growth and potential,” which means that they are interested in knowing what you have done in the past to indicate a successful future. Graduate programs are looking for candidates who are hardworking, driven, and constantly striving for success. Make sure your résumé, essay, and recommendations all clearly point to your propensity for taking on challenges and being successful. Here’s how you do it:
- Write an IMPACT-focused résumé. Some programs may ask for your activities to be entered into their format, while others want a full résumé; the end result is the same. When writing the details of each experience, do not describe mundane tasks that anybody could do. Instead, focus on the impact you had on the organization, and indicate what you did to achieve that impact. There is a simple formula for writing your points: accomplished [X] as measured by [Y] by doing [Z]. Read Writing Impactful Descriptions on writing killer résumé descriptions to make sure you do this right.
- Tie in your essays with your future ambitions and past successes. If you have solved tough problems in the past that may be relevant to your future career choice, focus in on those challenging situations. Ideally, you should focus on past successes where you had to take the initiative to move a situation forward and to achieve an amicable and successful resolution for all parties. Read through chapters
- Make sure your recommenders can speak to your personal drive and continuous need to take the initiative. We recommend you choose recommenders who have known you for multiple years and have seen you succeed in difficult situations (e.g., jobs or internships, leadership roles, challenging coursework). Make sure your recommenders are articulate and will put in the time required to write you a convincing recommendation.
Being able to interact with people in an effective, constructive, and empathetic way is vital for success. In fact, interpersonal skills are the single most important skill to success in your future career. Colleges talk about “character and personality,” but what they really mean is that you need to be a nice person who plays well with others. It’s hard to make this come across in your application, but if you do it successfully, you will have a significant leg up on other applicants. Here’s how you do it:
- Display clear evidence of strong leadership and teamwork skills on your résumé. By highlighting your experience in working with and leading others, you will demonstrate your interpersonal skills and abilities to serve as an effective team member. Use examples like, “Led team of four to design and create an underwater basket-weaving robot that took second place in a regional competition.” This clearly indicates that you were able to lead an effective team and are likely to have strong interpersonal skills. “Designed an award-winning basket weaving robot,” on the other hand, does not indicate interpersonal skills.
- In your personal statement, tell stories in which you resolve a conflict within a group of people. Relaying a story in your essay where you play a central role in resolving a conflict between two or more individuals (including yourself) will clearly display your interpersonal skills.
- Select recommenders who have seen you work in or lead teams. Ask your recommenders to write about specific situations involving conflict resolution in which you played an integral role.
- Do an interview if offered. An in-person interview is generally the best way to showcase your interpersonal skills because it allows the school to see how you interact with people. You will likely be asked questions that allow you to discuss your interpersonal skills, such as “tell me about a time where you had to lead,” or “tell me about a time where you had to solve a difficult problem with a team.”
Diversity of Thought
Graduate programs are trying to “build a class,” which means they look for candidates who have focused, niche interests within their field. When programs consider your experience and interests, they are attempting to understand how your personality and specific field of study will fit with the other students they are selecting. Contrary to popular belief, programs are NOT looking for “well-rounded” people unless the candidates are exceptionally skilled in more than one area. Instead, they are looking for “spiky” applicants, meaning a person who shows exceptional commitment to and knowledge of a specific topic within his or her field. As you will be applying to a program in a specific field, your “spike” should be related to this field; the more specific, the better. Admissions officers look at a person’s “spike” to determine their potential contribution to their campus community. In other words, you need to showcase what makes you unique – your “spike.” Throughout your application, you should use every possible opportunity to show readers how you will fit in, both academically and interpersonally, with the rest of an incoming class.
- Showcase your focus and uniqueness on your résumé. You should especially highlight accomplishments and activities that directly relate to your chosen field, and demonstrate that you are committed to unique, specialized research.
- Write a unique essay that demonstrates your commitment to a specific topic of research. For example, we asked a successful applicant how his essay stood apart from the rest. The applicant responded as follows:
“Before I applied for a PhD program in business economics, I was involved in several start-ups that focused on green business and sustainable energy models. In my application, I focused on my interest on environmental issues, and tried to show readers that I had a clear focus. By writing my personal statement about my experience helping green businesses grow, I showed admissions boards that I had a specific game plan for my career.”
This candidate was accepted into several top programs, and his success was directly linked to his emphasis on his unique specialties within his field. Your résumé and personal statement are both important opportunities for you to demonstrate which specific interests you will contribute to a class. Read on to learn how to leverage your interests, experiences, and focus to create a successful application.