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Beyond the Grades – What Do Grad Schools Look For?

Posted by Shelly Quance on 10/6/23 7:22 AM

  October 06, 2023    

Beyond the Grades

There are misconceptions about what makes a good graduate application.

When choosing a graduate school and when navigating the graduate school admissions process, hopeful students can submit (in addition to undergraduate transcripts) other program-specific materials, which may include interviews, portfolios, résumés, test scores, recommendations, and essays.

Though high grades and test scores are highly commendable, the true picture of an individual is revealed in these supplemental requirements.

Note: Explore our incredibly informative digital resource - A Guide to  Financing Graduate School!

Ask the Expert: What Are Graduate Program Directors Looking For?

A former colleague of mine who was the Director of a Physician Assistant program placed much more emphasis on the interview than the GPA for admissions. He would tell applicants, “If I wouldn’t want you taking care of my grandmother, I don’t want you in my program."

Sounds blunt, but in a highly selective program such as his, he wanted only the best attitude, drive, presence, compassion, listening skills, and future bedside manners. His standards for admission were difficult to define, but highly important in the selection of students who would succeed in his specific program.

So, if they aren’t just looking for a high GPA, what do grad schools look for?

1. Unique and Original Candidates

You've probably heard this before: “We want interesting people, not just smart people in our program.”

Again, the writing samples and interviews are your opportunity to reveal who you are and your distinctive qualities. Describe what makes you different and what you can offer to the program.

Dig deep to find your “why” and be honest throughout the entire process. 

2. Interesting, Professional Experiences

Admission committees are looking for post-school experiences that prove your dedication to the field such as internships, volunteer work, international travel, research, conference presentations, or a job in the related field.

Be sure to pursue robust experiences outside of the classroom and incorporate them into your application.

3. Overall Organization and Timeliness

In order to be successful in a graduate program, time management and organization are musts. Double-check with references that letters were submitted, and double-check with prior institutions to confirm transcripts were sent.

Admission into graduate school is competitive–don’t miss out on a technicality. Make sure to answer all questions in an application and include all required documents. Follow the instructions as written, be concise and thorough, and read directions more than once.

4. Inquisitive and Innovative Thinking

A student needs to ask questions that are appropriate for their discipline. This scholarly inquisitiveness emerges in written materials, interviews, and communications with the departments.

Programs are looking for students who have clear, specific, and perhaps, novel research directions that intrigue their interest and curiosity.

5. Noteworthy Motivation

Programs are looking for applicants who are self-motivated. They like to see applicants organize their own opportunities, reach out to other students or professionals, and express the efforts they are making to reach their personal and professional goals.

The landscape of twentieth-century graduate education has evolved, increasing the intensity, rigor, and competitiveness. There is no foolproof recipe to the application evaluation process, but a good GPA by itself is no guarantee of admission.

It is powerful to display self-direction, commitment to scholarly enterprise, and the desire to succeed. Graduate schools are looking for candidates that can show this drive and follow through as students. 

Thinking of applying to West Virginia University? Download our resource: Everything You Need to Know About Applying to West Virginia University.


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Topics: Graduate School Resources

Posted by Shelly Quance

Shelly Quance has spent almost 20 years working in higher education marketing communications. She currently serves as Director for West Virginia University’s Office of Graduate Admissions and Recruitment where she works collaboratively with College leadership to develop, implement, and evaluate creative and effective comprehensive communication and marketing plans to increase graduate student enrollment.


About the Blog

Deciding what graduate school to attend can be daunting at times, and navigating the admissions process can be that much more difficult. We hope to make the journey from considering graduate school to enrolling in a graduate program easier by publishing content that will be helpful to you as you discern if, when, and where, to pursue your next degree.

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