From Zoom video meetings becoming the norm to masks trending as the must-have fashion item of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented change as the new constant this past year. Graduate school admissions are not immune to such change. The pandemic’s adverse effects – including the decimation of jobs and derailment of the global economy – have led to an increase in the number of individuals seeking to pursue advanced degrees as a way to "reinvent" themselves and improve their employment prospects.

This motivation stems from the fact that master’s degree holders typically see more job opportunities – including a higher chance of achieving leadership roles – than those with only a bachelor’s degree. They also tend to receive higher salaries; in fact, a study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce reports that master’s degree graduates make approximately $2,671,000 in lifetime earnings, while bachelor’s degree graduates make $2,268,000.

The benefits of completing a master’s degree are, indeed, appealing. In addition to serving as a springboard into career advancement opportunities, a master’s degree provides individuals with opportunities to gain specialised expertise in a field, build their network, and develop professional skills. These benefits don’t come easy, however. In order to even take the first step towards enjoying these in the long term, one must conquer an important hurdle: the graduate school application process.

In the last application cycle, the Council of Graduate Schools published data revealing that international graduate application and enrollment rates significantly increased at US higher education institutions. The recent surge in applicants to graduate programs has made the admissions process even more competitive than ever before. This growth applies across broad areas of study, ranging from biological and agricultural sciences to arts and humanities.

In this year’s application cycle, there was an average increase of 20 per cent in MBA applications at leading business schools in the US. Likewise, data from the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health reports a 20 per cent increase in applications for over one hundred Master’s in Public Health programs. Even more jaw-dropping, Stanford University witnessed a 50 per cent increase in graduate school applications at their School of Medicine.

With the major surge in applicants to graduate programs across the board, it is imperative for prospective master’s students to be aware of specific ways they can make their applications stand out from the rest. Based on my personal experiences as a master’s degree graduate of Harvard University, I have put together my three most important tips to consider when planning to apply for graduate studies.

Demonstrate interest

In light of the global pandemic, US higher education institutions have made an active effort to create more digital avenues in order to attract prospective students. In doing so, they expect applicants to go the extra mile to attend virtual events and information sessions, whether they register to talk one-on-one with a graduate admission officer, or participate in an online chat with a student or alumni ambassador.

Many universities even have integrated software tools to track and monitor prospective student activity on their websites, creating profiles on prospective students for graduate admission officers to measure how likely they are to apply to their university.

With the pandemic’s impact on job security and the economy, many are pursuing advanced degrees as a way to reinvent themselves and improve their employment prospects

Therefore, what may seem like small actions – attending a virtual information session or perusing a graduate admission website – can actually make a big difference by boosting one’s chance of acceptance. In fact, some graduate school applications even contain a section that directly asks if the applicant has attended an official admission event.

But, wait, isn’t submitting an application already a demonstration of interest? It certainly is, but being more active in demonstrating interest in a university and graduate program can help graduate school applicants build a more competitive application. Aside from potentially increasing one’s chance of acceptance, attending virtual events and information sessions organised by graduate admission officers can also be helpful for applicants to provide more specific details regarding their respective program in their application, namely in their Statement of Purpose and interview.

Applicants can leverage the lessons they learn from graduate admission officers, current students and alumni to craft a more compelling and competitive application that reflects their insights, as well as a genuine, informed interest in the specific graduate program.

Gain research experience

Something that I wish I had taken more seriously prior to attending Harvard for my master’s program is knowing that research forms an integral part of graduate school. Strong undergraduate academic preparation is crucial not only for graduate application purposes, but also for overall success in graduate school.

Gaining experience in quantitative or qualitative research prior to attending graduate school would be extremely helpful. For example, nearly all graduate students in the International Education Policy program at Harvard are expected to learn Stata, a statistical software used for analysing data and producing graphical visualisations. Learning the basics of Stata or R statistical software would provide prospective students with a solid foundation for excelling in graduate-level quantitative research.

Open online course providers, such as edX and Coursera, offer free, university-level online courses in both Stata and R. Moreover, several universities provide structured undergraduate research experiences, such as the MIT Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.

Undergraduate research projects can take various other forms, as well. From assisting a professor on a large research project to conducting a smaller, independent research project, there are several ways that prospective students can engage in the art and science of experimentation and analysis while developing key skills such as data collection and critical thinking.

Write a compelling statement of purpose

The statement of purpose is the main essay — and, for several graduate school applications, the only essay — that is required in one’s application for graduate admission. This essay must cover three components: research interests, accomplishments and academic and professional plans.

While applicants should write about their relevant experiences, they should not simply regurgitate descriptions from their resume; this is the biggest mistake I have observed when proofreading statements of purpose. Rather, applicants should reflect on how their past experiences have prepared them for graduate study, as well as how their unique accomplishments would enhance the program.

The statement of purpose should never include vague platitudes like, "I want to learn new ideas." Specificity is key. It is never advisable to send the same statement of purpose to all universities; while applicants can "recycle" parts of their essay, each essay should be tweaked and tailored to the specific program they are applying for. As such, it is important to research professors, courses, events, seminars, and research opportunities offered by each program.

Lastly, follow the formatting guidelines! If the application specifies using Times New Roman 12-point font, do not use Comic Sans!

With graduate enrollment on the rise, graduate school admissions have become increasingly competitive, with the Covid-19 pandemic changing the graduate admissions game drastically. Yet, it is not impossible to master the master’s degree application process. With demonstrated interest, exposure to research, and a coherent and compelling statement of purpose, one is already in the right direction towards conquering the graduate school admissions hurdle — which one might find is not so much of an intimidating "hurdle" after all.

Arienne L. Calingo obtained her master’s degree in International Education Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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