Tag: Application Tips (page 1 of 2)

You Ask, I Answer: How to Email the Admissions Office

I’m continuing the “You Ask, I Answer” series where I respond to the most common questions I get from prospective or admitted students (you can find a previous You Ask, I Answer: When Should I Start Graduate School? here). If you have a question you’d like me to answer in the next post, be sure to comment below!

To be honest, this actually isn’t a question that I get from prospective students too often, but at graduate fairs, students often mention that although they have the desire to reach out to admissions contacts, they aren’t sure how, or feel awkward or nervous about contacting admissions personnel directly. Which I totally get! When you’re writing a message to someone in an admissions office, you should think of your email as serving multiple purposes. First and foremost, you’re trying to get an answer to a question you have, either about the program or the application process. That should be what the content of the email is focused on. But secondly, you’re also trying to make a good first impression on the people who will be involved in your application process. This doesn’t mean that you should re-iterate the highlights of your application to demonstrate why you’d be a good fit for the program, but it does mean that throughout your email, you should be making an effort to show that you’re interested in the program, you’ve done your research, and you’re a clear communicator. Let’s take a look at a (fictional) email from a prospective student and then talk about what the student could have done better:

To: AdmissionsContact1@college.edu, AdmissionsContact2@college.edu, ProgramManager1@college.edu, DeanOfCollege1@college.edu

From: FictionalStudent@gmail.com

Subject: questions

Message:

hey ProgramManager3,

,my name is Fictional Student and i want to ask some questions about the mpp porgram ur school. i graduated 1st in my class in fictionalprogram at fictionalschool with a GPA of 3.76. since then, i worked at fictionalcompany for 4 yrs as a fictionaljobtitle, where i had fictionalresponsibilities. then i got a job at fictionalcompany2, where i works as a fictionaljobtitle2, which has the additional responsibilities of managing people. i also volunteer as a volunteerposition, and in my spare time i like to read and play music. but now i’m interested in advancing my education threw youre mpp program  bc i want to make a difference in the world. can u tell me when the deadline to apply to the program is??

thanks, Fictional Student”

You can probably tell that this email probably wouldn’t make the best first impression, but what could FictionalStudent have done better? First, they could have looked up the person in the admissions office that handles the program that they’re interested in and emailed that person (and only that person!). Sometimes students email multiple people in the hopes of getting an answer to their question, but it actually can backfire and create confusion among staff, even resulting in students not getting a reply because everyone on the email assumes that someone else will take care of the student’s question. Next problem? The tone is very informal, especially the text-speak. This doesn’t mean that you have to write in an overly formal way, but you should aim to write as a slightly more polished version of yourself, the same tone that you would use if you were emailing your boss or someone you have a job interview with. In addition to the too-casual tone, FictionalStudent also didn’t remember to proofread their email; a single typo isn’t going to ruin your chances of getting accepted to the program, but an email riddled with spelling and grammar errors definitely isn’t going to make the best impression.

Those are the more obvious errors, but I’d also add two more that may not be so obvious. First, the student is including information about themselves that isn’t relevant to their question and will most likely be repeated in their application. Think of it this way: your application is your opportunity to share more about yourself with the admissions committee, but when you’re emailing someone in admissions, that’s your opportunity for the school to share more about itself with you. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t include any information about yourself (in fact, there are a lot of instances where you’ll need to include information about your background and interests), but try to keep the content of your message focused on the question you have and include only the information that’s relevant. Secondly, the student asked a question that can be very easily found on the website. I’m not saying that you have to make sure you scour a school’s webpage before you email someone in admissions, but things like deadlines and application requirements are almost always on a school’s website. Sending an email asking for something that’s featured prominently gives the impression that you haven’t taken the time or the effort to do your research. Let’s end with a corrected email that’s sure to make a good first impression:

To: AdmissionsContact1@college.edu

From: FictionalStudent@gmail.com

Subject: Questions about Submitting Test Scores

Message:

Dear AdmissionsContact,

I hope you’re doing well! I’m Fictional Student and I’m currently applying to the MPP program at your school. While reviewing admissions website, I saw that the GRE requirement is waived for students applying to the MPP program for the Fall 2022 semester. I have already taken the GRE, and I’m considering whether or not to submit test scores as a part of my application. Would you be able to tell me how the GRE is used when evaluating a students application, or what the average scores are for successful applicants? Any guidance you could provide would be very appreciated.

Thank you, Fictional Student”

The Fall 2022 Application is OPEN!

We’re excited to announce that the Heller application for Fall 2022 entry is now open! Today, I’ve compiled some frequently asked questions from students and included a list of resources

FAQS

What is required for the application?

The application is designed to be accessible and is comprised of the following elements:

  • The Heller online application, including biographic information, education history, and work history
  • Statement of purpose
  • Resume or CV
  • Three Letters of Recommendation (two for Social Impact MBA applicants)
  • PhD and SID/WGS joint program only: Writing Sample
  • International students only: TOEFL, IELTS, or Duolingo English Test results, unless you qualify for an English Proficiency Waiver
  • The MPP, MBA, and PhD programs have extended their test-optional policy through the Fall 2022 admission cycle due to the COVID-19 pandemic

You can view a full list of requirements for each program on our “How to Apply” page. 

What are the deadlines for the application?

You can find deadlines for each program on our “Application Deadlines” page.

How can I start an application?

I would recommend starting by reviewing the “How to Apply” page for your program of interest before beginning an application.

What are you looking for in an application?

The best way to find out what each program is looking for is by connecting with one of our admissions representatives, but you can also read our blog series, “Which Program is Right for Me?”

Resource List

 

FAQs for Prospective Students, from Sami

Woman in glasses smiling at the camera

Sami Rovins COEX/MS ’21

As a Graduate Assistant with Heller Admissions, I hear from so many prospective students interested in studying at Heller. Often, they have similar questions to ask me about the admissions process and the Heller experience. I’ve narrowed it down to the top three questions I’m most commonly asked to help you to streamline the process of completing your application, to improve your application to Heller, and to make important decisions about your plans to study in grad school.

  1. Based on my professional/academic background, should I apply to Heller? Yes! One of the things I like most about Heller’s admissions process is that it is truly holistic. Instead of looking at just GRE scores, or reference letters, or grades, the Heller Admissions department takes everything into consideration. If you’re worried about a lack of professional experience, for example, or less-than-ideal grades during a semester of undergrad, keep in mind that we take into account the whole package that an applicant has to offer. We know you can’t simply be boiled down into grades or test scores, and we want to see who you are, and how you intend to change the world after your time at Heller.
  2. What should I write about in my statement of purpose? What you write about is entirely up to you, but keep in mind that we want to get to know you in a meaningful way through your statement of purpose. Tell us what inspires you to apply to graduate school, and what a degree from the Heller School will ultimately help you accomplish. Convey to us who you are as an individual, a student, and as someone who wants to make their mark on the world through positive social change. Tell us what you are passionate about, why you’re passionate about it, and what you intend to do about it.
  3. What is life like for a Heller student? Life as a Heller student is both challenging and rewarding. At times, your work load will certainly be intense. But all of us are 100% capable of getting our work done, and getting it done well – That’s why we’re all here! I simply can’t even describe how rewarding it is to turn in an assignment that felt completely impossible at first glance. Life as a Heller student is also about the community you’ll find here. The friendship and support you’ll gain from your classmates will be your most valuable tool as a graduate student. There will be challenging moments during your Heller experience, but there will be far more rewarding moments filled with accomplishments and a strong sense of community.

As we get closer to the 2022 application launch date (early September!), I hope these are helpful to all of our prospective students, and remember: you can always contact us with any of your questions!

Putting Your Best Foot Forward: Writing Your Statement of Purpose Part II

In my head, I’ve been calling this post “What a former English teacher can teach you about writing a statement”, because the truth is, even though your statement of purpose isn’t the same as a personal statement, it is still a narrative. You are still telling a story. Your challenge will be to write an engaging and compelling story, while presenting all of your qualifications. So… how do you do that?

Any English teacher will tell you that the backbone of any good story is structure. You could have the most amazing and creative story in your head, but if your reader can’t follow it, your story is ultimately no good. The same goes for your statement of purpose: you could be the most amazing applicant in the history of Heller, but if your statement of purpose doesn’t connect the dots between your impressive resume to why you’re interested in this program, and from this program to your future career goals, it all falls apart. Today, I’m going to share what I think of as “the anatomy” of a good statement of purpose.

Section One: Hook + Introduction

In this section, you want to introduce who you are and what has inspired you to pursue a graduate-level degree. Pretty straightforward, right? Not really. Think of it this way: the committee reading your application is probably reading tens of applications a day, and hundreds over the course of a cycle. Your job in this section is to make yourself stand out. You want to share what made you seek out a graduate-level degree in an interesting and engaging way. That means avoiding cliches like, “From a young age, I have always been interested in x”; instead share a concrete story that shows your interest in x! If your interest really was sparked at a young age (and by the way, it’s okay if it wasn’t!), tell the story of when you first realized it. “I was seven when I noticed that my classmate had holes in her shoes” is a much more interesting opening line than “I have been interested in economic inequality from a young age”. The golden rule here is show, not tell.

Section Two: Why Me?

Next up, you want to begin to lay out what makes you qualified for this program. Don’t repeat your resume verbatim (we have that too!), but focus on the skills and accomplishments that you’ve obtained over the years and be specific. Rather than saying, “I worked at XYZ Organization for five years as a program manager”, say “During my time as a program manager for XYZ Organization, I was responsible for running weekly reports on X initiative and presenting these reports to shareholders, which as a result, significantly strengthened my data analysis and visualization skills”. Some questions to ask yourself while writing: What qualities and skills do you have that show that you would succeed in the program? What do you bring to the program that’s unique? What differentiates you and your viewpoint?

Section Three: Why This Program?

In the previous section, you’ve demonstrated what you already have; in this section, you want to think about what you’re missing, i.e., what you want to gain from this program. This can include what skills you want to gain, what areas you’d like to strengthen, which faculty you’d like to work with, what opportunities you want to take advantage of, and why this program is appealing to you. Again, specifics are key here, so do your research! It’s easy to say “I’m interested in working with Professor X” or “I want to take Y class”; tell us why! Much better to say, “Professor X’s research on health outcomes for rural populations is extremely relevant to my interest in opioid addiction in rural communities” or “Although I have a strong background in quantitative analysis, I am interested in taking the Applied Qualitative Research Methods course in order to develop my ability to ask complex questions about the healthcare system”.

Section Four: Conclusion + What’s Next?

So now you have what led you to graduate school and what you hope to accomplish while in graduate school. This last section is to tie it all together: With the skills that you’ve gained (enumerated in section three), what’s next for you? Ideally, this will underscore the importance of your choice to pursue graduate study.

In general, your first and last sections will probably be a little shorter than your second and third sections, and you may find that your second and third sections might work better blended together (for example, a paragraph about your research interests in the past and what you’re interested in researching while in school, or a paragraph about your professional accomplishments and what your professional skillset is missing), but these are the basic questions that will form the skeleton of your statement of purpose and help guide you as your craft your narrative of what led you to apply, what you hope to accomplish in graduate school, and what your goals are for after you finish.

Putting Your Best Foot Forward: Letters of Recommendation

I don’t know about you, but for me, asking for letters of recommendation was the hardest part of my graduate school application. The statement of purpose was fine, because I like writing and I had a clear sense of why each program would have been a good fit for me, and I already had what I felt like was a fairly strong resume, so I only had to make a few tweaks. But reaching out to my professional and academic contacts to ask them to do something for me felt… awkward! I hate feeling like I’m inconveniencing people, and I felt certain that everyone I was asking had about a hundred and one more important things to do.

Now, after having worked as both an instructor of record and a manager, I’ve written several letters of recommendation myself and really enjoyed doing so. Especially with people I had close professional relationships with, it was always a pleasure to reflect back on my experience with that person and share what I thought would make them an asset to a program or a job position. But I’ve also realized that there are several things an applicant to do to ensure that their recommender is set up to write them the best recommendation possible.

First, and I cannot emphasize this enough; before you add a recommender to your application, check in with them first and confirm that they will be willing to write you a recommendation.  In this first email, make sure you’re clear about when the deadline for the program is. These letters do take time, and the person may not be able to make that commitment depending on what else is going on in their work or personal life. It’s also just good manners!

Once your recommender has agreed, reply with a thank you note and attach your resume so they can reference specific accomplishments or timeframes. When applying to a graduate school, you can also share what appeals to you about this program, as well as letting the recommender know what you’d like them to highlight in their letter. A good thank you note could go something like this:

Dear _________, 

Thank you so much for agreeing to write a letter of recommendation for my application to X Program at Y University. I have wanted to pursue a graduate degree in Z field for a long time, and I believe that your letter of recommendation gives me an advantage in this competitive field. 

Your class on _______ helped to spark my insight in Z field, and I hope that in ______ class, I demonstrated an interest in A, B, and C, all of which are very relevant to this program. Something that drew me to X Program was it’s _____________, and I feel your recommendation could underscore my interest and qualifications in this area.

I am very grateful that you’ve agreed to write this letter of recommendation; I know it will be an asset to my application. I’ve attached my resume for your convenience, but please reach out to me if there’s any more information that I could provide that would be helpful to you. 

Sincerely, 

Your Name

Just like that, you’ve not only thanked them for the time and effort they’ll be taking in writing your letter of recommendation, but you’ve also given them a clear idea of what you’re hoping their letter of recommendation will highlight and connected the dots for them between your experience and interests and this program. This can be the key to getting a great letter of recommendation versus an average one.

Putting Your Best Foot Forward: Your Resume or CV

Already in this series, I’ve discussed the difference between a statement of purpose and a personal statement; another similar question I get from students is the difference between a resume and CV. For the Heller application, we allow you to either upload your resume or your curriculum vitae, and in fact, these documents will often contain a lot of the same information, but the small differences might have a significant difference on how you choose to structure these documents. Today I’ll be taking you through the anatomy of both, and talk a little about which might be best for you, depending on your situation.

Resume:

Chances are, you already have a resume, as they’re more commonly for job applications. Your resume should, at a minimum, contain your work experience, including key responsibilities and achievements in each role, and your education. Many students also include sections for their skills, awards, publications, and licenses and certifications, if they’re relevant. Typically, work experience and education will come first on your resume (though not necessarily in that order), followed by these additional sections, but as a rule, you’ll want to keep your resume under two pages at most.

In terms of what not to include in your resume, you’ll notice that in that last paragraph, I used the phrase if it’s relevant. This is key, but an often over-looked piece of advice. Many students, in an effort to beef up their resume, will include every piece of information possible, including their babysitting job when they were twelve and which high school they went to. When it comes to the work experience you do list, I recommend that when listing your job responsibilities and achievements, you try to tailor them to the program to which you’re applying. Try to connect the dots for us between your skills-your career objectives-the program to which you’re applying, as much as possible.

A few more things to leave off your resume: although this differs across cultures, in the U.S., you shouldn’t include your picture on your resume, physical characteristics, or personal data aside from your name and contact information. That means you don’t need to list your date of birth, race, religion, or marital status on your resume; in the U.S., making hiring or (in our case) admissions decisions based on any of these characteristics can be considered discrimination, so employers and institutions in the U.S. prefer that you don’t include it.

C.V.:

C.V. is short for curriculum vitae, or “course of life”; as the name suggests, these are typically longer than a resume, and are focused largely on your academic achievements. You should still include your education and work experience (although in a C.V., you’ll generally put the education section first). But in addition to these sections, you could also include your publications, any teaching experiences, conferences you’ve presented at, relevant coursework, certificates you’ve earned, languages, research interests, and any fellowships you received.

A good way to think about the difference between a C.V. and a resume is that a resume is typically meant to highlight your experience and your C.V. is meant to highlight your credentials. With that in mind, I’d like to close with a quick guide on which might be best to use in your application.

A resume might be best if…  You have significant accomplishments in the workplace that you’d like to highlight, your primary field isn’t academia, you’ve been out of school for a significant amount of time, and/or you’re not applying to a PhD program (a resume, in other words, might be the more appropriate choice for most applicants)

A C.V. might be best if… You’re applying to a PhD program, your primary accomplishments have been in the field of academia, and/or you’re a recent graduate without much work experience.

Writing the Perfect Statement of Purpose with Andrea Tyree

A young woman leans against a tree, smiling.

Andrea Tyree, MPP’22

Disclaimer: My advice cannot guarantee your entrance into Heller. I’m only an MPP student who has seen the values of The Heller School up close. I’ll show you what I think made my essay a success, now knowing Heller a bit better. This essay reflects my own views as a student and is no way the official guidance of The Heller School.

So, you’re applying to graduate schools and have to convince each school why you’re the ideal applicant. Easy, right? Who doesn’t love talking about themselves?

Me. I don’t. (Which is ironic considering I’m always blogging…)

Luckily, grad school apps are less about “What makes you special?” and more about “What makes what you want to do special?” And if you’re applying to a graduate program, you probably have a good reason for it. So here’s my advice on how to make that reason shine:


  1. Ground Yourself: What brought you here?

What inspired you to go for this degree? Did a professional experience show you the cracks in the system and make you realize that a graduate degree could help you mend those cracks? Or were you so inspired by your undergraduate studies that you want to continue your learning and fine-tune your expertise in order to make a greater impact? Or maybe it was a personal interaction that opened your eyes to all that could be accomplished with a graduate degree? Either way, help the reviewers understand why you want this degree.

For example: I spoke about the two communities that molded me: East Timor (where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer) and the Black community in West Virginia (my home). I expounded on some of the lessons I learned living and working in both of these communities and tied it a sector of policy that I hoped to research. I even included some policy research questions such as: “How does the use of excessive force by the police, and the policies that license it, inhibit the socioeconomic progress of Black Americans?”

  1. Be Honest: What do you know and what don’t you know?

We all come to graduate school with our own expertise. Even if you don’t think you’re an expert in anything, trust me, you know more about certain subjects than most of your peers! Believe that and use it. Show the review committee what you know by stating some facts (or, even better, stats). But no one knows everything about everything. And the review committee will certainly call your bluff if you claim that. So save yourself the trouble and admit to the concepts that you still want to learn more about. You could highlight a particular skill or subject, or you could post a research question to which you’d like to find the answer.

For example: I compared the poverty and disparities facing East Timor and West Virginia: 41% of Timorese live below the country’s poverty line, while 19% of all West Virginians and 31% of Black West Virginians live below the US poverty line. West Virginia only has a Black population of 3.6% yet we’re living in a poverty rate that is comparable to a country that is still trying to rebuild after decades of occupation. How is this so? Could it be a result of power dynamics in both regions?

  1. Say My Name, Say My Name: Who do you want to work with?

Graduate school is not just about the degree or the research you’ve completed; it’s about the connections you make and the things you learn from those around you outside of class. Apply for a program with a list of faculty in mind from whom you want to learn. Research professors from within and outside of your program in order to find the people with expertise most relevant to your interests. Naming faculty within your statement will show the reviewers that you’ve done your homework and that you’re ready to be in this program.

Pro Tip: Reach out to those faculty members before school starts. Heck, you could even reach out to them before you apply; chances are, they’ll answer! Faculty members aren’t usually the ones making admissions decisions, but if you’re interested in their research or you think they brought up a salient point in a recent interview, ask them about it! Being able to throw that conversation into an application shows great initiative. It worked for me, it can work for you too.


Good luck with your application! And remember, if you truly believe that you’re right for Heller (and I’m sure you are), make that shine through your whole statement!

Putting Your Best Foot Forward: Writing Your Statement of Purpose Part One

I think December is the perfect month to write a statement of purpose, and I’ll tell you why. There’s a deeply rooted inclination towards reflection in the winter months: if fall is the time to reap your harvest and spring is the time to plant seeds, winter is surely the natural time to hunker down in your home, and to think about what’s to come. As the past year draws to a close (after what seems like approximately 47 months) and with the new year approaching, it seems like peoples’ thoughts naturally shift to reflection, goal-setting, and of course, resolutions.

This is the perfect mindset to be in when you’re writing your statement of purpose. You’ll notice that I call it a statement of purpose, and not a personal statement. Don’t be misled by articles that tell you they are essentially the same thing: the two are in fact very different. When you applied to your undergraduate institution, you most likely wrote a personal statement, which is much more, well… personal. Most undergraduate programs recognize that at seventeen or eighteen, you probably don’t have as many concrete goals or plans, and that the ones you have now may shift over the next four years. That’s what college is for, to discover yourself and what you want to do! But when applying to a graduate program, we want to hear much more about your skillset, your goals, and answering your specific questions of why this degree and school are right for you.

To write a statement of purpose, that’s where you need to start, and that’s where I think this special time of the year plays a crucial role. Reflect back on your experiences and what has led you to this exact moment. Be as specific as possible: if you want to help people, that’s great, but tell the reader why you want to help people in this way. I would recommend nailing down concrete, specific answers to the following questions:

  • When did you decide you would need a graduate degree to accomplish the work you want to do? When did you decide that a graduate degree from Heller would help you to best accomplish that work?
  • What skill-set will you bring to a graduate program? Why are you qualified for this program?
  • What skills do you want to gain? How will a graduate degree from Heller help you to gain those skills?
  • What opportunities do you hope this degree will open up? What do you hope to accomplish during graduate school?
  • What do you hope to accomplish after you complete your degree?

Again, you want to be as specific as possible, both about yourself and the program that you’re applying to. There are millions of students applying to hundreds of thousands of graduate programs this year, but what sets you and your chosen program apart? Think of it in terms of new years resolutions: vague goals like “exercise more” or “save money” almost never work out. Rather, you want to nail down specific things like, “Exercise at least three times a week for at least thirty minutes” or “Save at least 15% of your paycheck every month”.

Over the next week, take some time to pour yourself a cup of your favorite warm winter beverage, curl up on your couch and really take some time to look back on what you’ve accomplished and what you hope the years ahead bring you. Journal out your answers to those questions if you need to. If you find yourself slipping into generalities, try to force yourself to name something concrete that drew you to the program. Next week, we’ll dive into the structure of your statement of purpose, the essential scaffolding that will set your statement.

 

Interview Tips from One of Our Interviewers

Man in plaid shirt smiling at camera

Doug Nevins BA ’11, MPP ’21

In my role as a Heller Admissions Grad Assistant, I have had the pleasure of conducting interviews for the MPP and MBA programs. As these are my degree programs here at Heller, I love talking to prospective students about their backgrounds and reasons for considering these degrees. I enjoy interviewing people – I always found it interesting to take part in interviews of job candidates while I was working full time, and in my prior career as a college admissions counselor I conducted many interviews with high school students applying to college. Interviewing Heller applicants is a new experience, since our prospective students have substantial academic and professional experience, but are also often looking to pivot industries or learn new skills.

While I am by no means an expert, I thought that for this week’s blog post I would try to come up with a list of tips for folks considering an interview with Heller.

In no particular order….

Be yourself!

This probably goes without saying, but it helps neither you nor us to present an inauthentic version of yourself in the interview. Heller students come from many backgrounds and have varying levels of real-world experience with policy and management – and that’s ok! We want to know what experience you DO have, and how it has inspired your interests and relates to your graduate school goals.

THAT SAID….

Don’t be afraid to brag!

It’s helpful for us to know what you have accomplished and what you’re proud of so far in your academic and professional career. It’s totally fine to talk a bit about your achievements in the interview. I usually begin by asking interviewees to “tell me a little about yourself,” and end by asking if the applicant has questions OR anything else they want to share. Hopefully, these moments provide a chance for people to share some points of pride.

AT THE SAME TIME…

Be prepared to talk about challenges you’ve encountered.

It’s common in job and grad school interviews to be asked about both your strengths and weaknesses, or successes and failures. It’s a great idea to spend a moment reflecting on how you would answer these questions. Discussing a challenge you’ve encountered or an area in which you’d like to improve is a great opportunity to give us a sense of how you’ve grown and changed, and of how graduate school can help you to continue leveling up your skills.

Think of a couple questions to ask.

It’s always a good idea to have a couple questions in mind to ask your interviewer. For one thing, that’s what we’re here for, and we’re sure you have questions! In addition, this can really demonstrate that you’ve done some research about our programs and are at the point where you have specific questions that aren’t as easily found on the website.

The interview is informal, but professional.

Our interviews are not meant to be intimidating or overly formal. I try to conduct my interviews as a conversation as much as possible. And I will certainly not be wearing a tie. That said, it’s best to try to find a quiet place to do your interview, and be sure you’re ready to get started on time.

LASTLY…

Have fun!

Again, we hope that the interview is a fairly relaxed experience that enables you to learn as much about Heller as we learn about you. Getting a sense of “fit” when looking at grad schools is important, and we hope that the interview is an opportunity to do that, while hopefully enjoying the experience! I hope these tips are helpful for any prospective students reading, and I look forward to interviewing some of you in the future!

What Does “Holistic Review Process” Mean, Anyway?

Students entering college this year will likely have no memory of cut scores (in which colleges wouldn’t consider applications from students with lower than a certain SAT score or GPA), but for those of us who remember what a VCR was, the transition to a holistic admissions review process can sometimes seem like a catchy but meaningless buzzword. Every year students ask me, “I have a quantitative GRE score of 150, what are my chances?” or “My GPA is below a 3.0, should I bother to apply?” and every year I have to give them the most frustrating answer… it depends. Because I get so many questions about what a holistic admissions process really means, and because students often don’t realize how this process can work in their favor, today I’m going to be giving you the definitive explanation of what a holistic admissions process means for you and your application.

Put simply, a holistic admissions process means that your application is considered as a whole, rather than individual data points. Of course, we still consider your grades and test scores, but we use other pieces of your application to provide context. Let me give you an example of how that might play out.

Student X and Y are both applying to the same program at Heller. Student X has a 3.8 GPA, and Student Y has a 3.0 GPA; a traditional application review process would suggest that we favor Student X over Student Y because of this higher GPA score. But in a holistic application review, Student Y’s resume might reveal that they were working in a nursing home throughout their undergraduate degree, and their statement of purpose might tell us that they were providing care for an elderly parent in their final year of college. Both of these experiences led them to develop an interest in improving health outcomes for the elderly, or patients on Medicare. With that in mind, we might determine that the professional background and life experience of Student Y make them a good fit for the program, even if their GPA isn’t as high. This doesn’t, by the way, mean we wouldn’t accept Student X; we would look just as hard at their application to see what experiences they would bring to our community.

So knowing this, how can you use a holistic admissions process to your advantage? You can’t change your GPA or (if your program requires them) your standardized test scores, and it’s probably too late to get a new job to put on your resume, but you can decide who your recommenders are going to be, what to highlight on your resume, and what to write in your statement of purpose. I’m going to use another example to show you how that can work to your advantage.

Student Z is interested in Heller’s PhD program, but knows that they don’t have strong  GRE scores (editor’s note: the GRE is now optional for students applying to the PhD program for Fall 2021), and low grades in the quantitative classes like statistics or economics they took in their master’s program, although they’ve been out of school for some time. However, they do have more than five years of work experience in a research lab, and their mentor from their master’s program is well known in the field. What can they do to make up for the weaknesses in their application? First, and easiest, they could move their work experience to the top of their resume, and take care to highlight their accomplishments in the years since they’ve graduated, especially accomplishments that would show that they’re capable of performing high-level research. If they have publications, they could find a way to highlight that on their resume as well. When they’re thinking about their recommenders, they could certainly ask their mentor to write one, but they would be smart to make sure that the other two recommenders are people they’ve worked closely with on research projects, who can testify to their quantitative skills or how they respond to new challenges. When they submit a writing sample, they could choose to submit a sample that shows a high level of data analysis. And just like that, their application would demonstrate that despite the weakness of their GRE or GPA, they are perfectly capable of succeeding in a quantitative research program.

This is just an example, of course, and it’s likely that your situation will be quite different. Regardless, the key here is to think strategically about how your application will appear as a whole and make efforts to supplement any potential weaknesses. So take the opportunity to look at your application as an outsider: What’s missing? What part of your story aren’t you telling? What strengths are underrepresented? At Heller, we’re not offering admission to your GPA, we’re giving it to you, so make sure you give us a good sense of what you would bring to the Heller community.

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