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7 Tips for Completing Grad School Applications

Being relaxed and focused during the final stages is critical, says a former admissions dean.

Allow enough time to complete and review your grad school application, experts say.
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The final stage of the graduate school and business school application process yields both relief and stress for prospective students—as I learned from my experiences as a former admissions dean who has interacted with candidates hoping to get into their dream schools. 

Matt Merrick, senior associate dean of students at Wake Forest University's Schools of Business, agrees. A candidate's ability "to think clearly and focus" during the final stages of preparing to submit an application can make a big difference, he notes. 

[Read tips on how to write M.B.A. application essays.] 

Based on my experience reviewing thousands of b-school and grad school applications over nearly three decades, here are a few tips for completing your application: 

1. Relax: The graduate or business school application process is a major learning experience, and often applicants learn as they go. Staying positive and maintaining calm allows the applicant to be reflective and thoughtful. 

"Worrying and obsessing during the final stages of putting one's application together will not help," Merrick says. "In fact, it will likely hinder the ability to think clearly and focus on preparing the best application possible. 

2. Allow enough time: At minimum, take a few weeks to gather and compile all of the required material. Then check and recheck to make sure all of the elements are in line. 

"Make sure you don't wait until the last second before pushing the send button for your application," Merrick says. "Believe me; admissions teams can tell. Even if it is later in the year, take a few weeks to prepare adequately, complete all required sections of the application, and do a thorough review." 

3. Follow directions: Not following directions raises questions about how the candidate might adhere to policies and procedures once admitted and enrolled. If there is a word limit for essay questions, follow it. If you are asked for two letters of recommendation, do not send more. If you are asked not to follow up via E-mail or phone, don't. "Following directions shows respect and in doing so you'll earn some in return," Merrick says. 

[Get more advice on how to get into business school.] 

4. Be professional: Maintaining a professional demeanor in all circumstances is a sign of maturity. Graduate school is a big deal and can be stressful; if you're someone who easily loses his or her cool, then you're likely not ready. 

"It's OK to have passion and confidence, Merrick explains. "In fact, it's something we really to try draw out of our students here at Wake Forest." It's never OK, however, to be overly aggressive, abrasive, or demanding. 

5. Focus on content and presentation: A candidate might have the greatest GMAT or GRE scores, a superb undergrad GPA, and impressive letters of recommendations, but if the application contains obvious misspellings or grammatical mistakes, it's going to be a problem. Rightly or wrongly, admissions committees will assume the applicant was not entirely serious about his or her application. 

"It's important that candidates not be so distracted by the content of their applications that they don't carefully consider and review the style and presentation of their material," Merrick says. 

6. Be yourself: Embellishing your application or making excuses for weaker parts of your application will not help. No one is perfect, and applicants that try to make themselves look perfect raise a bit of suspicion. Presenting yourself in a genuine and honest way is very important; for Merrick it's a "fundamental character trait that is very important to us at Wake Forest." 

[See 5 questions to ask during MBA admissions interviews.] 

7. Make contingency plans: Considering a backup plan is not an indication of lack of confidence. And it may be a plan less about what to do next, but how to do what's next. 

"It's not enough to consider the nuts and bolts, the bread-and-butter issues," Merrick says. "You need to reflect on how you'll respond viscerally if you're denied and have an emotional contingency plan to help you move forward with a positive attitude."