coronavirus COVID-19 grad school Graduate Admissions

Grad School in the Midst of COVID-19

By: Dr. Kristen Willmott

To say that the 2020 academic year has been interesting would be an understatement. We’ve been swamped with inquiries from parents and students trying to understand the changing college and graduate school admissions landscape.


Do you fall into any of these categories?

  • A current college student who was ushered off your college campus quicker than you could really even pack your bags,
  • On the job market or about to be,
  • A working professional whose hours have been cut and you’re now working from home, OR
  • A working professional who just got furloughed, laid off, or you’re worried you will be.

It’s new territory for sure.


  1. It might be a terrific time for you to apply to graduate school this May, summer or fall. Remember, just because you apply and get in doesn’t mean you have to accept. Many programs have extended their application deadlines so what was ordinarily a Feb. or March deadline has bumped out to May or June.
  1. Universities are actively brainstorming new ways to recover lost income. As Inside Higher Ed recently reported, the Penn State System of Higher Ed is expecting over a $52 million loss due to COVID-19 and that’s after the federal stimulus money they’re banking on is applied. Recovering part of that loss will be key and many schools are trying to assess if they want to admit students to study online only (meaning they could take more students, possibly even at a lower tuition rate than the on-campus offerings). Many more online-only degree programs from top graduate schools will emerge in the coming months, we believe.
  2. VISA and travel issues are at play for many international students and the programs they’re attending or want to. That impacts those seeking to start in August as well as those applying this fall who will now be applying to programs where the yields are low and they’re looking to accept more students than years past.
  3. Graduate schools are looking for new ways to snag students. For example, Loyola University reported that “graduating seniors with a 3.0 GPA and above will be offered “easy or automatic admission” into many of the university’s graduate programs, WITH a portion of merit aid. Students with a GPA between 3.0 and 3.49 will qualify for a merit scholarship totaling 25% of the cost of the chosen program. Students with a GPA between 3.5 and 4.0 will qualify for 35%.” At first glance, that might sound like a great way to pursue graduate school. But really, what they are aiming to do is keep their students on (who they know can secure a 3.0 min.), AND lock in a committed 65% of the tuition and fees from students, as the merit aid is capped at 35%, they state). Grad-School-Standardized-Tests
  4. Standardized testing for grad school has entered ‘the new abnormal’ across the board:
    • The GRE, LSAT, GMAT, TOEFL and MCAT are not currently offered in person.
    • You can now take the GRE from home with a human proctor assigned to observe your screen.
    • Students in mainland China and Iran do not have a way, as of now, to take the TOEFL or GRE.
    • An online GMAT is now an option as well and the analytical writing section is removed.
    • Students who were registered for the April LSAT have been pushed to the LSAT Flex instead, which is remote.
    • MCAT exams have been canceled until May 21 but new dates have been opened up and registration for those starts May 7.

Try to take advantage of any benefits available to you when it comes to graduate school applications and admissions. Grab it while you can!


That might include deadline extensions, merit aid offers, prerequisites being waived, programs now accepting pass/fail in core courses pre-application, online options to take standardized tests from home, etc. If you’re prepping for the GRE or the GMAT right now, consider taking it this summer for SURE. It’s not going to hurt you. (EX: The GMAT online exam scores are valid for 5 years and will not count towards your 12-month and lifetime GMAT limits). If anything, it’s great practice and you might be surprised at the score you can obtain in your pajamas on your laptop in your bedroom. That’s a level of comfort with graduate school standardized testing that no one before you could snap up!

We are here to help you with your graduate school admissions questions. Space is limited so contact us ASAP. And, read more graduate admissions posts here and here.

College Enrichment Program coronavirus COVID-19 Graduate Admissions Seniors

College Enrichment Program: Maintain Your Scholarly Focus

You are asking and we are listening.

We’ve been flooded with inquiries from parents whose college aged kids are home and unclear how to maintain their scholarly focus. Hopefully everyone is heeding the social distancing mandate, but with time on your hands you CAN take action.


This month has NOT gone to plan for you with the multitude of closings, cancellations coupled with the move to virtual learning for almost all students due to COVID-19. We’ve spoken with students in the U.S. and internationally who were hurriedly ushered off their campuses, have received little academic guidance as their courses flip to online formats, are unsure how to arrange backup summer plans, and are seeking to ensure their academic, research foundation and overall college (and eventual grad school) plans don’t fall off track.

You don’t have you do it alone!….


Dr. Kristen Willmott​​ will help ​students​ sharpen an academic area, define a clear research-based foundation, and take tangible steps to demonstrate scholarly achievements at the college level. Even better, our College Enrichment Program is fully virtual so no coronavirus concerns. Consulting is done via email, phone and/or Skype/Zoom and sold in 5-hour increments. 

Our program includes:

  • Personalized College Enrichment Action Plan
  • College Course Selection Guidance (including summer online courses for credit)
  • Identification of Unique Academic and Research Opportunities Customized for You
  • Recommendations and Assistance with Appropriate Fellowship, Scholarship, Internship, Conference Presentation & Publishing Opportunities
  • Resume or Curriculum Vitae Guidance/Editing

You lost important access to your on-campus academic, college, internship, and research advisors  –we are here to fill that gap. Contact us today to learn more. Limited availability.

Graduate Admissions

How the Coronavirus Impacts Grad School Admissions

By: Dr. Kristen Willmott

The impact of the coronavirus is one we are actively following for our students past, present and future. So far, we have had high school students with cancelled spring break immersion programs, college tours and campus visits like those at MIT, admit weekends like those at Harvard, summer programs, study abroad plans, and test center closures.

While there are indeed “admissions disruptions,” as the University of Washington’s grad school admissions websites notes, from where we stand, there are some critical grad school admissions implications to be mindful of (in no particular order):




  • Top colleges and grad schools have switched in-person classes to be online only, as Stanford did through March 19 and Vanderbilt did through March 30.
    • For students seeking to attend office hours/prep via on-campus study groups/use the writing center/bump up their grades in the final hour of the course, AKA at the end of the quarter, that’s a big stumbling block now.
  • Current grad school students who went home for the long holiday break, which for some extends into mid-February or later, were unable to return to the U.S. for the spring term due to travel restrictions, and students traveling for spring break, or hoping to head home now that their classes are online only, are having a hard time finding flights home.


  • Grad school and college admissions offices have stepped into unprecedented territory as they move to predict enrollment and yield data (and corresponding admit offers in the coming year).
    • As Inside Higher Ed recently confirmed, “From an enrollment management perspective, the uncertainty throws yield calculations into serious question.” That affects admit numbers, waitlist offers, and more.
  • ~300 million K-12 students are missing classes globally, which is impacting parents’ work schedules, childcare demands and needs for younger children and siblings, available income that families will have to devote to higher education and campus visits, summer program opportunities, college courses outside of high school, etc.
  • PhD applicants seeking to work with faculty who have similar research interests may have newfound struggles as faculty travel restrictions have been imposed.
    • For faculty with research and/or grants that necessitate travel, their ability to take on new students and advisees may change, access to national and international funding opportunities may decrease, etc. This could affect PhD admit numbers and funding in the upcoming admissions season of 2020-2021.
  • Faculty across the U.S. and internationally are being met with sudden demands from university administrators to flip their courses to online formats.
    • For thousands of faculty, there was little to no training on that sudden request, they’re unfamiliar with it, they’ve been using adaptations of the same syllabus for years, etc.
    • The rush to move courses online happened overnight at some colleges, with more coming, and a syllabus doesn’t get crafted (or scrapped and re-crafted) overnight.
    • As the Chronicle of Higher Ed noted, Stanford put out a 21-page GoogleDoc with advice for faculty pushing their courses to online formats quickly. BUT, the impact of rushed online content, e-discussion boards, feedback and grading will likely have ripple effects, i.e. students contesting final grades, confusion about course expectations including final exams/papers, and perhaps even students who question rushed course prep when university tuition and fees hover at over $3,000 a class.
  • Admissions-savvy grad school applicants, including those working with us, seeking to boost their research foundations in the form of conference presentations may be unable to present at top national and international conferences.
    • This impacts those submitting proposals to try to present, as well as those who have already secured conference presentations.
    • This carries across all fields from STEM (the American Physical Society canceled its conference for over 10,000 physicists in Denver March 2-6) to the humanities (the American Bar Association canceled its National Institute on White Collar Crime March 11-13 in San Diego) to even our own field of higher education (the American Educational Research Association (AERA) flipped its annual conference to be held virtually instead of in San Francisco April 17-21; this affects over 20,000 planned attendees.


In a sea of news stories with the word “panic” in the title, it’s important that students and their families feel supported and ‘in-the-know’ on a plan of action, and that’s our goal here at Top Tier Admissions on a daily basis, even outside of this story. The good news is that opportunities for online learning are plentiful for most, and many universities and schools and education leaders (ourselves included) are working to take quick action for the benefit of students, their higher education pathways and goals, and their families.

For our students who have been impacted already, we are working to find creative solutions for them, from online learning and research opportunities, to unique program options, to added test center choices, summer program application guidance, conference pursuits, connections with faculty and more. And of course, we will continue to monitor how forthcoming news impacts students in the land of higher education with a close eye –and super clean hands.

Graduate Admissions Insider Tips Top Tips

Get Into Grad School With a Low Undergrad GPA

By: Dr. Kristen Willmott

We are often asked “How can I fix my undergrad GPA?” by those considering grad school admissions consulting. How low is too low? What’s the cut off and why don’t more programs publish that? How holistic is a “holistic graduate admissions review?”

How does a 3.2 or 3.4 happen? It’s more common than you’d think.

  • Perhaps it’s a family situation that meant missing a high number of classes and finals;
  • OR initial difficulty adjusting to college life and challenging freshman year courses with high expectations,
  • OR, a needed switch of college majors and fields,
  • OR, as is unfortunately the case more and more often these days, anxiety and mental health challenges that were not addressed until later in the game.

Any of the above can result in a smattering of B- grades on an undergraduate transcript (it doesn’t take many of those to pull you under a 3.4!), and the trouble is, when you apply to graduate school, they want the full transcript, not just the GPA. So, the letter grades are reviewed, the course levels are reviewed (please don’t take all 100-200 level courses even if your advisor lets you!), the major GPA and undergraduate cumulative GPA are also reviewed, but that GPA is not the only data point (of course, there is the GRE, GMAT or LSAT, but that’s a topic for another post.)


The good news is that almost everyone on the planet needs some time to adjust to college life (new bed, new room, new location, new people, new community, new food, new weather, new freedom, new rules –ahh!) and coursework freshman year, and graduate school admissions officers and faculty know that and have lived it themselves; their children might even be living it right now. The other good news is that the undergraduate transcript and the GPA are not the only pieces that make up a complete graduate school application. The trick is using that fact to your advantage when you apply, and determining what ELSE you can submit that bumps you in.

Sometimes I chat with potential applicants who are considering graduate school but they’ve been out of college working for years and they’re concerned that B- and C grades will again fill their graduate transcript despite working hard, OR, they want to be 100% certain of their selected graduate school field, and even institution, before they jump into a set 1-2 year program, or 4-7 years for PhD programs.

I remind them:  you don’t have to jump into the graduate school pool until you’re ready.


You could start by dipping a toe in as a non-degree student taking graduate school level courses, either for-credit (they might transfer!) OR non-credit, online OR on campus. There are tons of options –you just have to know where to look and when.

When you take a grad level course for credit online or on-campus pre-grad school, you walk out with:

  • A letter grade
  • A (hopefully) solid faculty connection
  • Connections to peer scholars in your field
  • Access to unique campus offerings like advising and writing services/coaching for that term of the course, even for online students
  • A potential supplementary letter of recommendation
  • And, a graduate level transcript that gets virtually tacked onto that undergraduate transcript you may previously have preferred to keep under lock and key.

So, how can this really play out?

  • An A grade in a 4-credit Global Sustainability Anthropology graduate level course from the Harvard University Extension School cannot “fix” or erase the 2 C grades you have on your undergraduate transcript freshman year in 2012, BUT it shows your commitment to the field and offers evidence that the older, newer, more professional and dedicated YOU can ace a graduate level course in your targeted field. (That’s a win for your Tufts University application to the Environmental Policy and Planning Master of Science)

Here are 5 examples of graduate level courses you could take and key info on how it works:

  • Back story: You’re targeting a Master’s in BioTech and you’ve worked in a lab for a while but you’ve been a bit out of the game in terms of academics. You work 60 hours a week so an online, non-credit but graded course is your best option.

Course to take: Take MIT’s EdX course called The Science and Business of Biotechnology. It starts 2/12/20, is 16 weeks long, requires 10-12 hours of work per week, and is only $50 total to earn a grade and a course certificate from the 3 top MIT faculty who teach it. Bonus: you get to add it to your resume/CV pre-application and the course description and this video make it seem like a truly beneficial and unique course.  Weird thing about this option: if you live in Iran, Cuba or the Crimea region of Ukraine, you can’t take it  –mysterious.

  • Back story: You’re graduating college this May, but you want your next step to be a graduate program in data analytics. You’ve switched majors 3 times (the norm!) in college and you’re not certain of the field, but you believe data analytics is the one. You’re looking at spring application deadlines (April 2020 –they do exist) that would let you start graduate school in August but your spring schedule at your college is locked, though you’d love to explore more.

Course to take: Register for the 4-week Graph Analytics for Big Data Coursera online course via UC San Diego. It’s a self-paced, graded (though non-credit) course with an added option to earn a course certificate to note on your resume/CV. The professor, Dr. Gupta, is a research scientist at the UC San Diego Supercomputer Center. They’re doing some neat things over there right now, like helping the world predict future carbon dioxide levels on our planet (hugely relevant only to those who breathe, smile).

  • Back story: You’re targeting a Master’s in Psychology and have hit a wall professionally where graduate school is the next needed step but you want to “try before you buy.”

Course to take: Apply (by 4/15/20) to Teacher’s College at Columbia University as a non-degree post-college student to then take graduate level courses there. Take the summer session A (May 21-July 1, 2020) Psychology of Thinking graduate course for 3 credits online OR the on-campus (in NYC) Summer A 2020 Psychology of Memory graduate level course for 3 credits.

  • Back story: You’ve worked in healthcare engineering for several years post-college and you’re moderately ready to tackle an MBA but you’re not 100% certain, especially as your undergraduate transcript features some grades you’re not proud of, though you co-launched a successful healthcare management app recently that you are proud of.

Course to take: Apply to NYU as a non-degree graduate student via NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering  (where you can take up to 9 credits) and take the summer 2020 online course called Operations Management May 26-July 12 for 3 graduate credits.

  • Back story: You’re planning to apply to top Economics programs. Your resume/CV needs a boost to show you’re still an academic and your undergrad GPA has some red/yellow flags on it you fear. Also, you majored in French Literature and have never taken an economics course, so you’re about to embark on a big field switch.

Course to take: Consider an online, hybrid or on-campus (if you’re local to Cambridge, MA) Harvard University Extension School course. If you moved fast and applied by 1/23/20, you could’ve started in their spring 2020 term (1/27/20). Take Economic Justice for 4 graduate credits online and on-demand. (“On-demand” is great as you can do the course requirements on YOUR time, no required log-in times.) Another 4-credit graduate course to consider there this spring (there are summer options too!) is MacroEconomic Theory. It’s taught by Dr. Christopher Foote, Professor of the Practice of Economics at Harvard. (Might be good to have him in your corner; he’s also a senior economist and policy advisor in the research department at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston –bet he knows a thing or two about econ.)


The above are just examples so they’re not personalized selections for you. Let us do that FOR YOU though! We’d love to review your transcript and resume/CV with you, your graduate school aims, and the various components that could and would be woven in your stellar graduate school applications. Many of our past students have had great success getting a good amount of their previously completed graduate level credits to transfer into their eventual Master’s (and even doctoral) programs. That’s a win/win for everyone in terms of effort, time, and financial savings, all while showing your scholarly commitment to your targeted field and offering concrete evidence that you can and will obtain A grades in top graduate level courses.

Graduate Admissions letters of recommendation

Secure the Best Letters of Recommendation for Grad School

By: Dr. Kristen Willmott

As we dive into the new year, many graduate school applicants are putting the finishing touches on their Master’s, MBA, PhD and law school applications.  In recent years, more and more applicants we’ve worked with have noted that the faculty members and supervisors they’ve asked letters of recommendation for have said yes to the request, but asked for “a pre-written letter” that they’d sign the bottom of.

In some cases, it has been a faculty member who skims the printed letter in the department hallway, and just signs the bottom and says “You’re all set!” In other cases, it’s been a manager who states that the letter of recommendation would be ‘an honor’ to write, only to a few weeks later ask for a letter to be emailed to him that he will then paste onto company letterhead and sign and submit. Neither situation is ideal for a busy graduate school applicant. The goal with the required 2-3 letters of recommendation in any terrific application is to not even see it (not to mention write it) AND have a letter of recommendation submitted that highlights key skills, leadership traits, projects and research opportunities led, and unique qualifications held, ideally in the words of the writer, not the one the letter is about. That said, it’s not something we really urge pushing back on if you ARE told you’ll need to write your own.


So –how do you ensure your request for a letter of recommendation for grad school is not only successful but amounts to a personalized letter that is a true standout from the pack?

You prepare a Recommendation Letter Request Packet.


Your packet can be sent over email or via hard copy in a one-on-one meeting, but ensuring your packet includes some key materials can make the difference between a letter with strong impact in admissions vs. a rushed, run of the mill letter, or even a prompt rejection of your request. Plan to include:

  1. A summary of why you are asking this person for a letter. Highlight their qualifications, your connection, and relay how and why you value their academic/professional expertise. (Can be done in a face to face or phone conversation OR over email, as the case may be.)
  2. A mini summary of why you are applying to graduate school. Why is now the time? Why THAT degree/school list specifically? How do you feel it will boost your professional career? (Can be done in a face to face or phone conversation OR over email, OR even with a finalized version of your Statement of Purpose, which should cover these items anyway.)
  3. Your updated CV or resume. Ensure it relays an accurate, current job description, and is proofed carefully.
  4. A one-page list of bullet points on what you hope will be expanded upon in the letter. This accomplishes two things. 1–It (hopefully) dissuades the writer from kicking the task back to you and asking you to write the letter, and 2–It helps ensure your letter will be more personalized, will relay details on your success in a class, on a massive work project, in a leadership situation, on a presentation to the board, etc.
  5. A file that describes each graduate program to which you are applying AND specific recommendation forms or questionnaires/link (if they are provided by the program) for the recommender to complete (note that the letters need to be specific to each graduate program, if possible). Include the date the app is due, the date you need the letter by, the date you intend to submit, and ideally the date you’ll find out if you’re in.
  6. Optional extra materials: A recent “A” paper from a relevant course if the recommender is your professor or advisor or a summary of a recent work project/publication and feedback you obtained.
  7. Give “an easy out.” Once you provide the above and make it clear that your intention is to make this process as painless as possible for your busy writer, then it’s time to hand over the reins and offer an easy way for the person to flat out say no. It’s to your benefit to give “an easy out” where the person can decline your request for any or no reason. If a writer is on the fence, or feels strapped for time and might not meet the deadlines you have, or feels he or she does not know you or your work well enough, it’s not going to amount to the stellar letter of recommendation you’ll need to be an asset to your application. WAY better to know that at the time of the “ask” as opposed to six weeks down the road or, even worse, at the time of rejection when your application was marked incomplete.

With the above 7 items in your Recommendation Letter Request Packet, you are MUCH more likely to secure a letter in which your professor or supervisor notes you are the best student he has worked with in decades, that he enthusiastically supports your M.S. application to MIT, that you will be a true asset to the degree program in X, Y and Z concrete ways, etc. Need help prepping your Recommendation Letter Request Packet? We offer that!


And lastly, close the circle: Follow up with an old-school handwritten and mailed or hand-delivered thank you note to all of your recommenders! Writing a letter of recommendation is a lot of work and it’s a personal favor to you, so send a thank you note. Also, when you hear back from graduate programs, send an email to your recommenders to let them know where you will be attending (and when/if you’re moving), when you start, and thank them for their much-appreciated help in your gaining acceptance to the program. They will appreciate knowing the end result of their letters and hearing about your success in graduate admissions, and in your program once you start.