Graduate Admissions Top Tips

Stanford and Success in Grad Admissions

As Master’s and doctoral applicants put the finishing touches on their applications and essays in the coming weeks, it’s a good time to assess how future applicants can boost their odds of admission to some of the top graduate programs in the country.

With our graduate school admissions consulting clients we often discuss the importance of working to present evidence of your research foundation in your grad school applications. While some may think this applies to those in STEM fields only, that is just not the case any more. We urge graduate school applicants (especially those presently in college) to connect with faculty and professionals conducting research in fields they are interested in, attend field conferences and academic symposiums  –then add new contacts to their network, and add the conferences to their resumes and CVs.

Some top universities, most notably Stanford University, are taking steps to make the process of finding research fellowships, internships and research projects (including those off campus and overseas) easier for students.

This month Stanford launched the brand new online platform SOLO (Stanford Off Campus Learning Opportunities) where Stanford undergrads and grad students have the ability to search a massive database of unique and often funded research opportunities.

For example, a Stanford undergraduate considering a PhD in archaeology might search the site and then find:

  • The 2018 Archaeological Field School in Sicily, Italy: As part of the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project, students have the opportunity to develop and pursue a research area in consultation with Stanford faculty, graduate students, and professional archaeologists from around the world for six weeks in summer 2018.
  • It’s open to Stanford undergrads from all majors and is 100% funded including travel!

In the past this is something that college students might have stumbled across in conversations with their advisor, but now with an online platform to explore whenever they like, it’s a great opportunity to boost one’s research foundation often at little to no cost and with the effort of just the application.

BUT, what if you’re not at Stanford already? How can you find research positions and funded project opportunities?

Stanford grad student

Join the professional association that most aligns with your field, become a member, attend their conferences and research their websites. For example, let’s say your passion is Biology and you’re a current college student or a working professional in the field:

What if you’re not 100% certain of your targeted field for grad school and you just want to get a feel for a university, its faculty, and their curricular offerings? You might be a current high school student, college student or working professional. No problem! Let’s say your passion is Gender Studies.

  • Consider this Stanford online noncredit Coursera course; it’s called International Women’s Health and Human Rights and you can start in the course late if needed.
  • This course is unique in that you can take it for free OR you can earn a certificate for the course; even if you want to take the course and earn the certificate but the cost is too much, financial aid is offered.

Stanford grad admissions

With terrific emerging platforms like Stanford’s SOLO, online journals to read and publish in, free podcasts by some of the most renowned scholars in the world to listen to, funded international research opportunities, and new open courseware options from hundreds of top universities coming online daily, there’s no reason NOT to forge great connections with faculty and dig your way into research opportunities that help your resume or CV stand out. Rest assured that is what your peer applicants are already doing –join in!

Graduate Admissions

Summer: Time to Consider Grad School

–Post by Dr. Kristen Willmott

We love this time of year because our past students are on to their next exciting adventures! There were some pretty amazing commencement speakers who have offered valuable, insightful advice to the college classes of 2017 in the past two weeks. Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke about the importance of finding your voice and the value in education at Wheelock College, just across town from our offices in Concord, MA. Mark Zuckerberg spoke at nearby Harvard University on how ”purpose creates true happiness.” CNN news anchor Brooke Baldwin spoke at UNC Chapel Hill on the importance of speaking out against injustice.


If we weren’t so busy working with our rising seniors in high school we’d snap up seats at college graduations throughout the country to cheer on our past students at their college graduations and listen to their amazing commencement speakers. The good news is that we get to connect with many college graduates in our work as we prep them for graduate admissions. Many college graduates and rising seniors are considering their next steps, just as working professionals are assessing if a graduate degree may take them to the next level in their careers.

As a former Admissions and Financial Aid Officer for an Ivy League graduate school, and one who left a full-time job to obtain a PhD, I have seen firsthand the benefits of a graduate degree.

That said, it’s important to consider your targeted field, attempt to gain some graduate level coursework if possible, consider the time and money sacrifices that would occur with a graduate school pathway, and explore targeted programs well before applying.


  1. Pursue free online courses. Are you considering a Master’s in Sustainability Studies but not 100% certain? Take a few months to complete a free online noncredit MIT OpenCourseWare course from the MIT Sloan School of Management to be sure: Leading Profound Innovation for a More Sustainable World. This can become a resume entry for you as well as help you pinpoint if studying this topic for 1-2 years is truly what you want to do.
  2. Take it one step further and obtain credit in a fall course online through the Harvard Extension School. Did you know they offer Active Learning Weekends where you can obtain 2 credits in 3 days on campus? Let’s say you’re considering a Master’s degree program from American University in Ethics, Peace and Global Affairs. Before you jump into the grad school admissions process and commit (upon acceptance) to a year-long program at American, consider taking a two credit course from the Harvard Extension School to earn credit in this field first. You could, for example, take the class Emergency Ethics: Confronting a Global Crisis as part of a Harvard Extension School Active Learning weekend (it was Oct. 28-30 in 2016 and fall 2017 dates are TBD) and earn credits as well as confirm your desire for a degree in this field.
  3. Consider a research conference. Could you attend and learn about the work of current students in your targeted grad school program? For example, William and Mary has an annual Grad Research Symposium.
  4. Join a professional association in your field to explore the degrees that leaders in the association have and to gain further exposure to your field. EX: membership in the Association of Art Museum Curators. As their website notes, benefits of membership include:
  • Networking opportunities with curators in varying fields, career levels, and organization size
  • Eligibility to attend Annual Conference, the largest known gathering of curators and a unique opportunity for networking and professional development
  • Educational webinars for professional development and additional programs
  • Program participation eligibility, including Mentorship Program, and grants, and awards for travel, research and development
  • Ability view and post classifieds for curatorial positions on AAMC’s website
  • Annual subscription to our e-newsletter
  • Comprehensive and detailed searchable list of member curators
  • Interactive member only section of that includes a private membership discussion board, resource documents, and archived programs, including all webinars and conference sessions
  • Ability to list exhibitions available for travel
  • Access to the digital version of the Professional Practices for Art Museum Curators and AAMC Compensation Review
  • Opportunity to be part of a unified voice of curators responding to major issues affecting the profession

grad school goal


The goal is to determine your reasons for pursuing graduate school BEFORE the admissions process starts THEN work to boost your admissions odds and confirm your decision with some classes and exposure to your targeted field.

Graduate Admissions

Summer: Time to Consider Grad School

–post by Dr. Kristen Willmott

As college graduation season comes to a close, many graduates and rising seniors are considering their next steps, just as working professionals are assessing if a graduate degree may take them to the next level in their careers.

As Inside Higher Ed recently noted, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employers will add just under 2.4 million jobs requiring a graduate or advanced degree between 2012 and 2022. In 2016, the demand for a graduate degree in the workplace is here to stay.

As a former Admissions and Financial Aid Officer for an Ivy League graduate school, and one who left a full-time job to obtain a PhD, I have seen firsthand the benefits of a graduate degree.

There are many articles, studies, and blogs devoted to reasons not to pursue graduate school and just as many for graduate school. In December 2015, Business Insider published an article highlighting ‘14 Reasons Not to Go To Grad School.’ All 14 reasons essentially boil down to two central points:  it’s hard work and it’s costly.


If you need an article to tell you that a 1-2 year Master’s degree or a 5-7 year PhD is going to be hard work and costly, then you weren’t going to be admitted into a top graduate school program anyway.

The time and money input is real, but it doesn’t have to be scary-real. This is especially true if your graduate school pathway is well planned out, your application is worthy of funding, especially the ever-important merit aid that students DO obtain, and your career goals align with what graduates actually are likely to obtain post-program.

Graduate school DOES require immense commitment to your studies over many years (depending upon the program), a considerable change in your distribution of time (little time for social engagement outside of your department, plus top schools often intentionally design the first part of their programs to be tough), and money, as even fully-funded graduate students have research, books, conferences, and travel expenses.

Job searching, career climbing, and job-switching are also hard work and costly. Depending on your targeted career, graduate school can offer a leg up, and it doesn’t have to be a choice that negatively impacts your life.

 Summer Grad Student

Top Reasons to Go to Grad School:

1.) You can make tuition back and then some. As the Georgetown report ‘The College Payoff’ found, and similar studies have confirmed, holding a graduate degree pays off. Those with a Master’s degree earn $400,000 more that those with a Bachelor’s. Those with a Master’s or higher typically make 30% more that those without.

2.) You can get paid to study. Stipends, research assistantships, teaching fellowships, outside fellowships, and merit aid are all possible.  I have worked with students who have received merit aid in Master’s, PhD, law school, and MBA programs. Merit aid is not dependent on your financials. It’s designed to sway you to attend a program and the best way to obtain it is with a stellar statement of purpose and recommendation letters (and obviously in-range, meaning above-average, test scores/GPA).

  • Many do not know it’s possible to apply for outside fellowships before applying to graduate school. This is a boost for your application and your budget.
  • Also, understand that it is never a good idea to borrow your way (completely) through graduate school. When all of your acceptance letters are in, if you have zero funding, you may want to rethink your graduate school plans. You cannot, will not profit from a graduate school stipend; it’s an assist, not a salary. The salary is what you make when the stipends end.

3.) You can expand your job options. A graduate degree is something you will have on your resume or CV forever.

  • You might not have the “Mrs.” before your name indefinitely, but if you earn a PhD, the “Dr.” is there to stay. That fact is appealing to students, but for PhD applicants especially, it is important to understand that as Dr. Karen Kelsky has articulated time and time again, the tenure-track academic job market is collapsing. Her February 8, 2016 Facebook post in response to a recent job market summary on History PhDs sums this up well with her comment: “History: Stop. Admitting. Ph.D. Students.” If you’re a history scholar seeking a U.S. tenure-track faculty position post-degree, consider the work you could do outside of the tenure track climb, perhaps curating a museum, becoming a researcher, etc.
  • If you are a graduate school applicant willing to explore the immense benefits of your degree and how your transferrable skills (see #4 below) can propel you to a rewarding career, then your pursuit of graduate school may well be a great decision. Graduate degree holders are sought after on the job market and an increasing amount of job postings now have the words “Master’s degree holders especially encouraged to apply.” The value in a graduate degree is now equivalent to the value of what a college degree used to be.

4.) You can obtain more transferrable skills than you would at just one job. Beyond enhancing your resume with your academic, research, and professional experience in your program, graduate school offers unique access to a wide array of transferrable skills that span across many fields.

A few examples of :



  • Project management
  • Budgeting
  • Public speaking
  • Grantwriting
  • Fundraising
  • Research
  • Analytical thinking
  • Coding
  • Report writing
  • Networking
  • Multicultural sensitivity
  • Event planning
  • Leadership
  • Conflict negotiation, and more.

Your degree goes on your CV or resume –but so do these, and there is immense value in that.

With a stand-out application including above-average undergraduate GPA and test scores plus a statement of purpose that gets shoved to the top of the metaphorical pile in graduate admissions, you can obtain a top Master’s or doctoral degree. The trick is to understand that you’re on the clock in more ways than one: your graduate degree should be obtained at a top program in your targeted field and completed swiftly in terms of time, money, family sacrifice, and years away from your profession. The good news?  It can be done.

Graduate Admissions Standardized Testing

Grad School Test Prep

By: Steve Dulan, GRE, GMAT and LSAT Tutor for Top Tier Admissions

In a perfect world, prep for any of the graduate entrance exams (GRE, GMAT, LSAT) would begin 3-6 months before the exam and would be treated like a 2-credit college course — with one to two instructor contact hours per week and 4-6 hours per week of practice work using a combination of commercial materials and actual, official released exams.

All of the exams test a combination of knowledge and skills to some degree. While many candidates are quite efficient at doing condensed learning of knowledge (a/k/a: “cramming.”), human beings require repetition in order to perfect skills. The one major skill that is relevant to all exams is Reading Comprehension. The type of reading that is required for standardized testing is very different from the type of reading that is rewarded in most college courses. So, many students require several weeks to make the transition required to maximize test scores.

Each exam has its own specific content areas. For example, GRE and GMAT both require math, while the LSAT doesn’t. However, the LSAT has a section called “Analytical Reasoning” (often referred to as: “Logic Games.”) that requires thought process and problem-solving skills that are very similar to math.

At Top Tier Admissions, we start each student with a diagnostic test that is used to pinpoint areas of strength and weakness by knowledge content area and skill-set. We then create a personalized plan designed to yield the best score increase in the time available. In some cases, when students must take the exam within a fairly short time frame, we actually suggest “sacrificing” certain question types that don’t occur often in order to focus on more-common types. At each step, we reevaluate priorities as candidates improve in specific content areas and skill-sets.

Many candidates are very self-aware and know exactly what they need to improve. Others need more guidance and direction in discovering what they need to work on. Most meetings, after the first, begin with a review of practice work and then move on to a discussion of a new area, including recommended strategies for learning and for test day, and end with a min/max assignment that allows for a bit of flexibility depending on the candidate’s ability to get work done between meetings.

Every candidate has his or her own strengths and weaknesses. I’ve prepared thousands of students for these exams over more than 25 years. Some key takeaways for students who are prepping for graduate school tests include:

  • Pace yourself with prep
  • Gain confidence with repetition as you learn the format of the exam and become comfortable with the structure of the test
  • Anticipate problem areas by taking as many practice exams as possible
  • For the GRE verbal section especially, remember that vocab is king
  • Practicing isn’t enough; analyze the questions and correct answers as you prep
  • Refine your critical thinking skills

High test scores are critical for admission to top graduate programs. Create a plan and conquer that piece of the application.

Stay tuned for tips on other areas of graduate school admissions.  And, as always, let us know what’s on your mind.

Graduate Admissions Top Tips

Craft a Grad School Admissions Master Plan

A post by Dr. Kristen Willmott

GradSchoolBubble PilePaper

The graduate schools admissions cycle is in full swing! We hope you’ve had a chance to read about our October Graduate School Boot Camp! If you’re applying to a Masters, MBA, or doctoral program this fall, the deadlines are looming! Complete your essays in one weekend with Application Boot Camp! Many round 1 and 2 deadlines are in early fall!

In May, I talked about the need for a grad school testing and admissions master plan  for students applying to masters, MBA, or doctoral programs in the coming year. Guidance on this master plan and timeline is included in our graduate school admissions consulting packages, but if you’re seeking insider tips on how you can craft, refine, sort, manage, and assess a master plan –I have some tips for you as you move to create YOUR master plan. Bear in mind – I don’t mean a general master plan in your head! I mean a massive file that is sorted, inclusive, detailed, and manageable for you in the coming year+. It will take a lot of time to create, but having this information in one spot will save you TONS of time and heartache across the graduate school admissions process from start to acceptance.

So, what information should go into this file? Here’s my secret MASTER PLAN file layout for graduate school applicants –you need an entry for each program you’re targeting:

  1. Top 3 reasons you’re targeting the program
  2. Top 3 reasons the program is a perfect fit for you
  3. Ranking of programs in order of your preference to attend
  4. Ranking of programs in order of your acceptance odds (based on the school’s admit stats from the previous year)
  5. Your campus visit notes including notes on program offerings, faculty, students, campus, location, research, other opportunities, career tracks of recent graduates, etc.
  6. Admissions stats from previous admitted classes including testing and GPA averages
  7. Transcripts requested and sent
  8. Test scores requested and sent
  9. Letters of recommendation –who, when asked, how, date requested, date needed, preferred “fed topics” to be discussed, etc.
  10. Essay topics, word limits, content focus, layout, submission process required by the admissions website, etc.
  11. Resume or curriculum vitae, often different versions depending on program and school
  12. Writing samples
  13. Interview notes
  14. Campus contacts and alumni connections, including names, dates, and contact info
  15. Communications tracker with anyone who has an affiliation with the school
  16. Deadlines, ideal time to submit, actual dates of submission confirmations received, etc.

I know —it’s a long list! You’ll need a software program or platform that you’re comfortable with, that you can (and will frequently) update, and that is capable of storing and saving all of the above information in a way that lets you review, retrieve, and reflect on it quickly and accurately.

Most of the students I work with use Microsoft Excel. This program is great because you can create MANY worksheet tabs, one for each school if desired, and have a TON of key information in one file. My students use their Excel files on multiple devices using the Excel app (computer, iPad, iPhone, etc.) and we can easily send the file back and forth when I have updates –and when they have updates. Most everyone has Microsoft Office on their computers, so Excel is great choice for a MASTER PLAN file.

But, let’s say you like Excel, though you don’t love it; another option is the Nozbe app. Nozbe is a time management and productivity tool that runs on offline desktop, web, iPhone, iPad, and Android platforms. The app lets it users manage their time and keep their projects in sync. As their website confirms, users can: Create as many projects for your tasks as you’d like. Share them with people on your team. Design your productivity system to fit your personal and specific needs, etc.

I like this recent Yahoo review on Nozbe from last month. It’s worth a read.

So, how’s your grad school testing and admissions MASTER PLAN coming along? Tell me what software/apps/platforms you use to track your grad school application components and deadlines!

Saying about goals