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Seven Ways to Stand Out as a Graduate School Applicant

Seven Ways to Stand Out as a Graduate School Applicant

By Dr. Don Martin, Former Dean of Admissions at Chicago Booth

During my time as an admissions dean (including 11 years at Chicago Booth), I personally evaluated well over 120,000 applications.  I also heard quite a few well-meaning tips on what an applicant might do to “stand out” amongst other candidate. 

Based on my experience reviewing thousands of graduate school applications over nearly three decades, here are a few tips to genuinely help you stand out as an applicant:

  1. Allow enough time. At a minimum, take a few months to gather and compile all of the required material. Then check and recheck to make sure all documents are in order. Do not wait until the last second before pushing the “submit” button.  Believe me: admissions personnel can tell. How can they tell?  Because often there are mistakes, missing information, and/or essays that clearly were written for another program.   
  2. Follow directions. Not doing so raises major questions about how the candidate might adhere to policies and procedures once admitted and enrolled. If there is a word limit for essay questions, follow it. If you are asked for two letters of recommendation, do not send more. If you are asked not to follow up via e-mail or phone, don’t. As one admissions director once said to me, “Following directions shows respect and in doing so you’ll earn some in return.”
  3. Use good recommenders. This is so important.  A good recommender is someone who knows you long enough and well enough to provide credible and persuasive information about your personality, work ethic, strengths, and yes, a weakness.  Applicants and recommenders erroneously believe that presenting a less than perfect representation will hurt the chances of admissions.  In fact, it is presenting a perfect representation that ends up hurting a candidate. 
  4. Focus on content and presentation: A candidate might have the greatest standardized test scores, a superb undergrad GPA, and impressive letters of recommendations. But if the application contains obvious misspellings or grammatical errors, it’s going to be a problem. Rightly or wrongly, admissions committees will assume the applicant was not entirely serious about his or her interest. 
  5. Be professional. Maintaining a professional demeanor in all circumstances is a sign of maturity. Business/graduate school is a big deal and can be stressful; if you are someone who easily loses his or her cool, then you are likely not ready.  You should be confident and self-assured, but not to the point of becoming or being perceived as overly aggressive, abrasive, or demanding. If something goes wrong, keep your cool.  This makes a major and positive impression.
  6. Be yourself: Embellishing your application or making excuses for weaker areas will not help. No one is perfect, and applicants who try to make themselves look perfect raise a bit of suspicion. Presenting yourself in a genuine and honest way is very important. We all have met individuals who we initially perceive to be fake, or pretending in some way.  What was my usual response to these individuals?  Clearly, it was not positive.  As the saying goes:  “Be yourself – everyone else is already taken.”
  7. The application process is a major learning experience, and often applicants learn as they go. Staying positive and maintaining calm allows you to be reflective and thoughtful.  Worrying and obsessing during the final stages of putting the application together does not help. In fact, it will likely hinder your ability to think clearly and focus on preparing the best application possible.

Do you have questions about what you’ve just read?  Please feel to reach out to me via email at  And stay tuned for my next MBA Tour blog in November:  “Seven Deadly Sins for MBA Applicants”

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