How to Stand Out as a Memorable Candidate for Grad School

Contrary to popular belief, high test scores and a perfect GPA do not make for a memorable candidate. At least, not on their own. Sure, having test scores in the 99th percentile and a perfect GPA in challenging and relevant coursework are fantastic. But by their very definition, very few people have those numbers. Graduate schools everywhere would surely shrivel up and die on the vine if numbers were all it took to stand out and be a memorable candidate.

We chatted not too long ago with a professor who runs a PhD “program” that, in fact, holds such lofty standards. As a result, they have not enrolled a new student in the past 5 years. If the program is empty is it still a program? I’m not so sure.

For most programs though – and we mean the real kind with actual students here – numbers mostly serve as thresholds. Every program decides their own thresholds based on what they think is a good indicator of potential success in their program.Two neighboring programs at the same institution could have widely different thresholds. Think of these numbers as a way to get your foot in the door: the better the numbers, the more doors you can open (generally speaking).  

What often matters most is what happens once you are “in the room”, so to speak. Your numbers may put you into the consideration set, but most people would be surprised to learn that numbers are rarely what makes someone stand out and be a memorable candidate. Once you are in the room, your due diligence as an applicant and other less quantitative qualities are what matter most.

If not the numbers, what REALLY counts?

So what is it exactly about certain applicants that makes them stand out? Over the years, I’ve become VERY familiar with the student application process and what makes some candidates very memorable while others fade from memory soon after their interview. I’ve reviewed hundreds of applications, interviewed scores of students, and spent countless hours in admissions committee meetings for a handful of our graduate programs at Emory University, including our pharmacology and our MD/PhD programs, which typically have acceptance rates of 10% or less. Since starting Gradschoolmatch, I’ve been even more immersed in these issues, speaking with many people who run programs at other universities and identifying what types of student profiles stand out, so I know that what I’m sharing with you isn’t just my personal opinion – it’s a fact.

Speaking from our joint experiences, standout candidates have the following characteristics in common.

Being a memorable candidate means being a red gummy bear in a sea of white gummy bears.
Stand out in a GOOD way.

A memorable candidate has:

  • A strong background and experiences in an area relevant to what she wants to study
  • Clear insights about his/her core motivations
  • An overarching vision that connects the dots from his/her academic and work history to grad school to future career plans
  • Evaluated the program structure carefully to understand its various strengths and weaknesses relative to his/her own interests and goal
  • Reviewed the program people and understands the scope of their specializations
  • An ability to articulate how well his/her own interests aligns with what the program offers and what he/she can uniquely bring to the program

There is much more that could and should be said on this subject, but the bottom line is that it is not some je ne sais quois. It really is not complicated at all: numbers allow you to be considered, but it is EVERYTHING else that makes you a unique applicant with the ability to stand out. Through due diligence and preparation, a memorable candidate demonstrates clearly that he/she is familiar with what it takes to excel and how he/she can contribute to a program. They stand out because, through self-reflection and researching programs thoroughly, they can make a strong case that they belong.

So you want to be a memorable candidate? Make sure you can honestly and thoroughly answer the following questions.

  1. What about your background (educational or professional experience) has prepared you for an advanced degree in this field?
  2. Why are you interested in pursuing further education in this field?
  3. What do you intend to get out of graduate schools and how does that relate to your future career aspirations? How does this particular program fit into that vision?
  4. Why are you specifically interested in this program out of all of those in the same field? Which of the program’s strengths lend themselves well to your goals? Which professors or courses particularly interested you?
  5. Why is now the right time for you to pursue a graduate degree?
  6. What is it that you (and only you) can bring to the program?

If you’re able to articulate the answers to those questions, you have a much higher chance of standing out from the pack (in a good way). Lastly, it may go without saying, but they don’t want uninteresting or rude intellectuals milling about their campus; they are looking for people they would want to be around and work with, so don’t leave your manners or conversational skills at home.

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Author: TJ Murphy

Gradschoolmatch Founder