If you live on this planet, chances are your life has been inevitably altered by COVID-19. Even higher probability: if you’re a 2020 college grad, the global pandemic and its economic ripple effects have encroached upon your post-graduate plans. As Time Magazine aptly stated in an article titled How COVID-19 Will Shape the Class of 2020 For the Rest of Their Lives,
“This year’s graduates are staggering into a world that is in some ways unrecognizable.”
Summer internships have been canceled, postponed or transitioned online. Companies have instituted hiring freezes, and the Fulbright and Peace Corps programs have suspended their programs for U.S. participants. Many companies have even rescinded job offers to college graduates. It’s a grim outlook, so it makes sense that many grads are seeking opportunity elsewhere, specifically in higher education. Graduate schools continue to accept new students amid COVID-19, adjusting their programs to hybrid or exclusively online formats accordingly.
As a beleaguered economy makes for scant job opportunities, pursuing your secondary degree can be a great option. I’ve advised students and professionals embarking on this decision for more than two decades. I’ve also sat on admissions committees, presented applicant trends to top gatekeepers at the most prestigious business schools in the world, and have frequently provided expert commentary to the media. What sets aspiring graduate students apart, regardless of where they attended undergraduate school or the GPA they achieved, is two criteria: preparation with appropriate lead time, and constructing a thoughtful application narrative. Here, I’ve compiled a check-list that will help you get started on both.
Where to apply? You will base this decision on what you want to do with your graduate degree. Do you want to go into consulting? If so, what MBA programs have the highest ranked consulting concentrations? Perhaps you know what specific role you want, but aren’t sure which degree presents the best means to get there.
This proves to be the most difficult stage of the entire process for some applicants I’ve worked with, as they ponder questions such as: What programs do I qualify for? What am I seeking in a graduate program? Or even -- What do I really want to do with my life? Talking through these ideas with a trusted family member or mentor can be a great starting point. Additionally, brainstorming lists and charts is helpful. If you seek expert guidance, a graduate admissions counselor serves as a terrific resource, providing an unbiased sounding board with a trove of expert information about grad programs. More on that below.
However you go about it, narrow your choices to a feasible number of schools. This number may dwindle as you proceed through the application process. I generally recommend no more than five, if you’re getting started at this time. You will likely also need to begin working on a budget during this stage, as applying to each school entails an application fee, too.
So you know what schools you want to apply to. How much time do you have to craft your application? Graduate admissions processes run through cycles just like undergrad, and it’s important to ascertain what stage of the cycle you are breaking into. The great news is that now -- during the summer -- is an ideal time to begin your application process.
Most graduate school first-round deadlines fall between September and October, and some programs offer an “early action or decision” option, for eager candidates to indicate interest and preparedness as well. (An increasing number of top-tier business schools are also offering deferred admission for current undergraduates and full-time master’s degree students such as Harvard Business School’s 2+2 program.)
Calculate how much time you have until the date your application is due to create a timeframe for your grad-school application check-list. Within this timeframe, you can then create deadlines for items listed below, such as taking standardized tests, completing prerequisite courses and writing essays.
After selecting your programs, you’ll want to aggregate a to-do list. Perhaps one program requires macroeconomics and microeconomics classes, but you’ve only taken macro. Maybe your top program requires the GRE, and all admitted students tend to fall into a certain score range. How up-to-date is your resume?
Take a close look of each program’s requirements and compile a list of what you will need to accomplish before each application deadline.
At this point, you may feel the need to consult with an expert. Graduate admissions consultants specialize in understanding the application process and working with you to craft a compelling personal narrative that will intrigue admissions committees. As an admissions consultant, I’ve helped applicants each step of their graduate school journey -- from talking on the phone to offer feedback on career goals, editing essay drafts, revamping client’s Linkedin pages, to mock interview preparation. Some clients need help with different aspects, so that’s why I tailor my work to meet every client’s specific needs.
A surprising number of applicants work with a consultant, and hiring one isn’t cheap. Perhaps at this point you take a second look at your budget. Would having an admissions consultant helping you with your top two dream schools be worth forgoing applications to three other schools? While there is a price tag for advisors and prep, you'll want to consider the ROI for getting into your dream school as well as merit-based scholarships that can significantly reduce the “sticker price” of the program. You can also schedule a free initial consultation to gauge whether working with a consultant is right for you.
While this section surely elicits groans, many schools still require standardized test scores and take them into consideration when assessing an applicant. A majority of schools accept either the GRE or GMAT, but you’ll need to read the application requirements to be sure.
Test-taking requirements have changed due to the pandemic, and you can find updates for the GRE here and the GMAT here. Conduct research in deciding which test you will take -- for some schools, it doesn’t matter. If your dream school prioritizes test scores, you may want to allocate more time and money to test preparation. You'll want to identify whether the specific support you need is content mastery, test-taking strategies, time management or mindset, and then plan accordingly what your study plan will be.
With some quick research you will find an abundance of test prep resources that vary from free, to low cost, to very expensive. The diversity of resources ensures that however you want to study, you will be able to find a plan that works for you. A consultation with an advisor can also help you get the lowdown on what test will be better for your particular program and professional goals.
Submitting your resume is required for every application I’ve ever seen, so it’s deserving of some time. Take an afternoon to update it and remove any high school achievements.
I recommend tailoring your resume for each program to which you apply. You can do this by including a “Statement of Purpose” at the top, in which you state why you are applying to that program in particular. Attempt to at least slightly tailor your resume to each program, even if it means just making a few tweaks here and there. Whatever you do, don’t submit a resume tailored for one program to a different school entirely!
Letters of Recommendation
These vary based on each individual, so it’s challenging to provide all-encompassing advice. However, some general rules of thumb are:
- Aside from your essays, letters are probably the most telling aspect of your application. Be thoughtful in selecting your recommendation writers!
- Try your best to let your writers know one month in advance.
- Send an initial email stating your goal of attending grad school and requesting a phone-call catch-up, if possible.
- Request the letter over the phone, and send a follow-up thank you note that reiterates your goals of attending graduate school. Also include details on the specific program, and why it is a good fit for you.
- Send periodic check-in emails to your letter writers, if you haven’t heard from them.
Essays + Your Narrative
Your application essays are arguably the most important component of your application. Read: these are not to be written the night before the application deadline! Essays that succeed in impressing the admissions committee will have received a great deal of thought and undergone multiple revisions. As aforementioned, I’ve served on several admissions committees, and thus, stood in the shoes of the audience for these essays. The time dedicated was evident. This is the part of your application you should not skimp out on. If you aren’t able to work with a professional consultant, ask one or two trusted friends or colleagues to read them over.
Be authentic, be vulnerable and set yourself apart from other applicants. What makes you unique? You’ll want to give application readers something that lingers in their mind, something that makes them believe you are special once they begin sorting through the applications. This may require you to do some beyond surface level introspection. Some of the strongest essays I have read -- in serving on admissions committees and assisting my clients -- convey the applicant’s weakest moment, their greatest struggle, a life-changing incident or some profound aspect of who they are as a human. The application readers aren’t robots, and relating to them on a human-to-human level and evoking a sense of compassion is perhaps the best thing you can do.