A major concern for many graduate school applicants is the question of how much impact their application really has in the selection process. Prospective students often ask me whether the materials they submit actually make a difference. "Isn't the decision making process based more on high grades and test scores and 'whom you know' than on genuinely admitting the best applicants?"
It's true that most institutions try to achieve certain enrollment goals, such as quality, diversity, and a strong acceptance percentage, to name a few.
These enrollment goals are set by the senior administrators rather than the admissions committee, and tend to be subject to budget considerations. So when the application evaluations begin, there are already some fairly firm goals in the mind of the chief enrollment officer. Additionally, there are times when whom an applicant knows at a certain institution could have an impact on the application decision.
[Check out the U.S. News 2013 Best Graduate Schools rankings.]
However, it has been my experience that what is contained in the actual application can and does make a huge difference. When you exhibit confidence, behave in a professional manner, follow directions, and present a solid application, you can rest assured that you will be noticed and that your application will be evaluated.
The bottom line is that graduate schools want to enroll students who will succeed and become productive and loyal alumni. The admissions director and committee aim to match the program's offerings with candidates who are seeking admission. While many graduate schools publish a minimum GPA or test score requirement, in just about every case, they evaluate every application. On occasion, they offer admission to a candidate who falls below published minimums.
This was my experience as an admissions dean. Every year, I admitted applicants who were not stellar academicians, for example. Through other parts of their applications, or through interviews, these applicants demonstrated that they had what we were looking for. In other words, the entirety of their applications definitely had an impact.
I realize that this next piece of advice is given often, but it cannot be overstated: Just be yourself. The way you can do the greatest harm to your admissions chances is to be fake. Admissions staff are not psychologists, but they usually can tell when someone is not being honest. Put your best foot forward, and let the admissions committee come to know you.
Gaining admission to graduate school requires more than just meeting a minimum GPA or test score requirement, or personal or professional connections. You might be surprised at the number of applicants with top grades and test scores, or with quite prominent recommenders, who are denied admission.
If you assume you are at a disadvantage because of less competitive academics or a lack of connections, you could be tempted to do less than your very best on your application. Do not yield to that temptation. Your attitude, confidence level, and authenticity will stand you in good stead, and could lead to a notification of admission.