Some grad applicants are different. While everyone else seems stressed, overwhelmed, and anxious they won’t get accepted anywhere, others breeze through the process like it’s nothing. These astoundingly successful grad applicants often earn double-digit admissions. They receive scholarships. And all the while they stay calm and composed, confident in the uniqueness of their destiny.
Makes you jealous, huh? It makes me jealous too.
Actually, I’m lucky to have known a number of these superstars, both as students and friends. Yet, they probably aren’t who’d you’d expect them to be. Sure, a few were 4.0 geniuses with stunning research credentials – the kind who cure cancer and locate hidden black holes in their free time. Others, however, were far more normal. 3.5 GPAs. State universities. No research or extracurriculars to speak of (or just normal internships).
Who were these rock stars? Well, just to name a few…
- A Master’s in Health Administration applicant, an international student, who was admitted to 7 of 8 schools and received a full scholarship from a Top-5 program.
- A hard-science PhD who was admitted to 19 of 20 schools. (No joke.)
- A Master’s in Computer Science applicant who was admitted to all 5 programs he applied to.
- A neuroscientist who received interviews from 10 of 12 PhD programs, and was admitted to 5, in the most difficult admissions cycle ever.
- Another MHA student who was offered admission and a huge scholarship in his first Zoom interview.
- And of course, Pranava, an engineer whose SOP I’ve already gushed over.
In getting to know these students, I’ve noticed very distinct patterns in how they approached their applications. The similarities are striking, and I wish I could teach ALL of my students to be like these superstars.
That’s why I’ve compiled this list. So you can start working in the relaxed but focused way the most successful grad applicants do.
Habit #1: Be proactive in reaching out to target programs
When I started talking to JZ (the MHA student above), she made me feel lazy. She’d already done half of my job for me.
It was the summer before her senior year at a Top-100 US university. She’d been a pretty good student, but as an international, she’d had some trouble adjusting in freshman year. Her GPA was good, but not astounding. Also, she had this curious predicament: she was applying to Health Administration programs, but her major was completely different – Gender Studies, which she didn’t love. She had picked up a Healthcare minor though, and taken a handful of CS classes, and had one solid internship at a Medical Tech company in her home country. So, I thought she was in fairly good shape.
Little did I know, she was in amazing shape.
During the previous spring and summer, JZ had systematically contacted every school on her list. She’d signed up for every mailing list. She’d attended the earliest admissions webinars. One school suggested she enroll in their Healthcare Leadership summer enrichment program, and she did so immediately. She even visited three of these schools of Public Health afterward, choosing them because, in her words, “the coordinators were really cheerful and charming.”
Throughout that fall, whenever JZ had a question about a school, she never bothered asking me. She’d call the program coordinators directly. And they were happy to talk. They told JZ very pointedly which aspects of her admissions profile were weak, and exactly what she needed to do to improve them.
And she did. She improved them all, boosting her GRE and taking an extra class in Data Analysis.
In the end, she was admitted to 7 of 8 highly competitive programs, one of which gave her a full scholarship. The lone straggler made her laugh. It was the only school where she hadn’t taken the time to speak to the department directly.
Reach out to your target programs as early as possible – ideally 1 year before you apply. Attend their webinars. Get to know them. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone. If you have questions, don’t ask a bunch of anonymous goons on Reddit or GradCafe. Ask the admissions coordinators themselves. They want to hear from you, and it’s better to be at the top of their mind than to be a faceless name at the bottom of the application pile.
Habit #2: Turn weaknesses into strengths
As an undergrad Biology major, Dave took a handful of computer science classes and discovered that he absolutely loved them. Data analysis was particularly intriguing. Yet, with only one semester left, Dave had a problem: he didn’t have time for a double major, and he didn’t have the prerequisites to apply to master’s programs. He was in a kind of “no man’s land.”
Yet, Dave didn’t logon to social media and ask: “Are my credentials enough to get into grad school?” He already knew the answer. No. He wasn’t good enough, especially with his unremarkable 3.4 GPA. But, this is why I love Dave: he didn’t let these obstacles stop him for a minute.
Instead of shotgun-blasting applications and “hoping” someone would see his potential, Dave gave himself two years to become a supremely qualified computer scientist.
Afterward, while working full-time, Dave enrolled in community college night school. Earning an A.S. in Computer Science, he studied computer architecture and assembly, data structure and algorithms, object-oriented design, and more. He earned perfect grades all the while.
Even so, Dave still didn’t feel like he was competitive as he needed to be. He wanted to study in a top CS master’s program, after all.
So, while he continued working full-time, he took online classes through Datacamp and Dataquest. He also took a weekend job at a tutoring center, where he taught programming, data visualization, and analytics to employees from the same companies where he hoped to work in the future.
After two years, Dave applied to 5 of the top-10 master’s programs in Computer Science. He was admitted to them all. Now, as a full-time graduate student, Dave thinks his life is remarkably easy. “I don’t know what to do with all of these nights off,” he laughed.
Don’t hope. Don’t feel like you have to rush into grad school. Instead, determine exactly what your weaknesses are and eliminate them. If your GPA isn’t stellar, take night classes and earn straight As. If you don’t have the lab or clinical skills, sign up for an NIH training program. If you need to brush up your coding competency, enroll in a bootcamp like Fullstack Academy or study for a Google certification. With a little time and effort, you can become a rock star. This is about building a career after all, and grad school is only one step in the journey.
Habit #3: Ask big (humanistic) research questions
In this article, I already discussed how one high-achieving engineer dealt with that all-important aspect of the SOP – elaborating a scholarly purpose. As she said to me:
“…you inspired me to formulate a research question. I read a ton of papers in my field of interest and was able to identify gaps in current research. I, then, came up with possible solutions to tackle those issues. You’ve no idea the kind of confidence boost I got knowing that I’m able to ideate and identify issues.”
This student spent over 400 words describing her research questions in detail. She explained how they’re related to overarching societal concerns – how they’re important to real people. She highlighted current research problems. She explained potential solutions she’d like to explore, and most importantly, she explained exactly how her target programs would allow her to do this.
She was admitted to 7 programs, and her experience is not unique.
Just yesterday, I received an email from a student who was admitted to 5 PhD programs in the 2021 cycle. This was the most difficult year in admissions history, and she was a magical success. When I re-read her SOP, the reason was obvious.
After explaining how she developed her neuroscience focus through two years of lab work, Martina wove all the threads together. She explained how her own experience as an athlete, her double-major in philosophy, and her deep work in neural regulation of metabolic development forced her to ask big questions about the obesity epidemic in America. By linking these specific research questions to larger public health issues, and highlighting exactly how professors at her target universities were approaching these problems, Martina proved that she understood exactly why their research is important. And she was rewarded for it big time.
At both the master’s and PhD level, successful applicants ask big questions and prove they understand how problems get solved – with many teams of researchers working step-by-step. Study papers in your field of interest. Study current research at your target schools. Identify obstacles. Don’t propose solutions (you’re not a PhD yet). But, do prove that you’re willing to work with other dedicated scholars to solve the incremental problems that already exist.
Habit #4: Be early, organized, and systematic with your applications
This should be obvious, but I can’t repeat it enough. When I look over all the super-successful grad applicants I’ve known, all of them applied very early. Usually they finish the entire process two months before the deadlines.
Seriously, it pays to be early. Just ask Kyle, an MHA applicant who finished his applications in mid- October, when the deadlines were January 15th. On October 28th, he emailed me to say that he’d been offered admission right smack in the middle of his Zoom interview with a top-10 program. By that point, 90% of applicants hadn’t even finished their SOPs.
Or, we could learn from JZ above, who submitted every one of her applications within 2-3 days of the portals opening.
Or, you might learn from Nina, a Biostatistician who came to me 5 months before deadlines with an intensely detailed spreadsheet of application requirements for all her target schools. (And, not to mention, intensely detailed notes on Structure is Magic!) She submitted her applications 3 months early, and was admitted to both the 1st- and 2nd-ranked schools in her field, along with a whole slew of others.
Actually, I could probably change this habit to “use oddball spreadsheets to track your applications.” I don’t get it myself. Spreadsheets give me nightmares. But whenever a student contacts me months early with a meticulously cultivated Notion roadmap, I know I’ve got a rock star on my hands.
Don’t wait until the last minute. Or the last month. Or the last two months. Start planning your applications one year early if possible. Collect the deadlines, contact info, and last year’s essays prompts in a Google Doc. Call up the departments to see if they expect any changes for the coming year. Give yourself a whole summer to contemplate the essays. No one ever achieved huge success by scrambling across the finish line at the last minute.
Habit #5: Be incredibly detailed about WHY you’re applying to each school
This might be the underlying theme of all my SOP advice. Whenever I read essays written by amazingly successful grad applicants, they all dive deep (and I mean deep) in their Why This Program section.
When I first encountered Stephanie on Reddit, she’d already achieved insane results. She’d been admitted to 19 of 20 PhD programs in an intensively competitive natural science.
So, why did she seek me out?
Because she had no idea why she’d succeeded so wildly.
She sent me her SOP and asked if I could tell her what “worked.” And, it was funny. Stephanie’s SOP didn’t exactly follow the template I recommend in Structure is Magic and the SOP Starter Kit. It was kind of upside down.
BUT. It did two things that were remarkable.
First, she spent a whopping 500 words detailing her research interests (see Habit #3 above). Honestly, her experience was fantastic – she’d done tons of research. But more importantly, she didn’t just describe the research she’d done in the past. Instead, she constantly related those experiences to the big questions she wanted to pursue as a PhD. It wasn’t about her past experience. It was about her future research interests.
Then, in the coup de grâce, Stephanie wrote an additional 200 words in which she explained exactly how EACH school would allow her to pursue her interests. This paragraph was dense and tight. Her deep familiarity with her target program shimmered. She mentioned three potential PIs. For each, she wrote 2 insightful sentences. She didn’t just mention their research specialties. Instead, she talked about novel techniques they’d used in recent projects, and how those techniques could be used in her own proposed research. She showed that she’d spent a LOT of time reading her target PIs work, understanding it, and visualizing what it meant for her own future at the school.
I can’t fathom the amount of time Stephanie took to do this research for 20 schools. (Habit #4!) But, it paid off. I’ve never met nor heard of another student who achieved such remarkable success.
Now, I believe this is the single most important key to becoming a successful grad applicant. Spend as much time as necessary figuring out exactly how and why a program is perfect for you. When you’re explaining “Why this program?” don’t just flatter them. Don’t say they’re great. Look at the curriculum. Look at the professors. Plan out exactly what you want to achieve, and explain how this program will help you achieve it. If you’re unsure how, read this.
Success leaves clues, as the wise sages tell us. In my experience, those clues manifest as 5 specific habits that the most successful grad applicants all seem to use in some form or another:
- Be proactive in reaching out to target programs
- Turn weaknesses into strengths
- Ask big (humanistic) research questions
- Be early, organized, and systematic with your applications
- Be incredibly detailed about WHY you’re applying to each school
If you can employ these habits and strategies in your own applications, I have no doubt you’ll succeed the same way all of these rock stars did. Start planning early. It’s a long journey. But the goal is one I know you can achieve.