Succeed as a Nontraditional Grad School Applicant

Grad school applicants should highlight real-world experiences like entrepreneurship and travel.

By + More
Older grad school applicants can highlight work experience and achievements to make up for a low undergraduate GPA.
Older grad school applicants can highlight work experience and achievements to make up for a low undergraduate GPA.

It might seem like most graduate students come fresh from a bachelor's degree, but that's not the case. Contrary to popular opinion, thousands of graduate school applicants have been out of college for several years.

According to a report from the Council of Graduate Schools, the largest percentage of enrolled students in fall 2007 were between the ages of 25 and 29 – which was also the case 10 and 20 years earlier. Also in 2007, there were nearly the same percentage of students between the ages of 30 and 34 as there were between the ages of 22 and 24 – and 22 percent of enrolled students were over 40.

Graduate school applicants who have been out of college for some time often worry about the effect their undergraduate academic record will have on their application, especially if their grade point average is a 3.5 or lower.

[Learn how to apply to graduate school with low test scores.]

The good news is that what an applicant may lack academically can be positively offset by a successful track record since receiving his or her bachelor's degree. As a dean of admissions, I read thousands of applications from individual of all ages.

The oldest applicant I evaluated was 67 years old, and she was admitted! Her life experience was fascinating and it vastly outweighed her past college career.

When applying for graduate school, highlight all of the experience you have garnered since college. This will have a positive effect on your application in just about every case.

[Decide if you should consider taking a break from graduate school.]

1. Discuss travel experiences: Many applicants decided to take a year or two off from school to do some traveling. This is a great way to see the world, learn about other cultures, become familiar with another language and expand one's awareness of the global community. This type of experience is viewed very highly by admissions committees.

2. Emphasize participation in community service: Quite a few college grads spend a few years working with organizations like the Peace Corps or Teach for America. Once again, this is impressive to the admissions committee. It shows that there is not only a verbal commitment to service, but actions to demonstrate that commitment.

3. List all successful employment experience: Work experience is a valuable addition to anyone's application. Whether it be several years at the same employer, or a few different opportunities, performing well at one's job is a plus. Getting a promotion is great, but so is solid and steady output, as indicated by a strong recommendation letter from a supervisor or colleague.

[Craft a career plan early in your graduate school program.]

4. Include solid research and writing: Some applicants decide to so some independent research, or write a book. When I was at both Columbia University and University of Chicago, we evaluated applicants who had done this. It was very unusual, interesting and added to the diversity of our applicant pool.

5. Highlight entrepreneurial achievements: Regardless of outcome, having the initiative and motivation to take a risk to start one's own business is very well received. This shows tremendous discipline and the willingness to take a chance. It shows you understand there could be a chance for some rough terrain, and potentially, failure.

I was always impressed with applicants who had done this – their learning curve was rather steep, but they were ready to start their graduate career with some excellent real world experience.

So don't despair if you do not have the strongest undergraduate GPA. Mine was a 3.0 – definitely nothing to write home about – when I went back for my master's at age 26. But my employment background, writing skills and expertise in the field of enrollment and student services definitely helped during my master's and doctoral application process.

Don't let your undergrad background hold you back from showcasing all you have done since college. You will most likely be a very attractive applicant.