a, Student Life

Navigating the next steps: graduate school applications

Undergraduate degrees today are gradually becoming the high school degrees of yesterday. According to Shawn O’Connor, founder of Stratus Prep New York’s test preparation and admissions consulting firm, graduate degree programs are increasingly receiving more and more applications.

O’Connor regularly travels with universities’ admissions groups across North America. On Nov. 11, the Political Science Students Association (PSSA) brought in O’Connor, who shared advice from an insider’s perspective on applying to graduate schools, law schools, and business schools. Topics included financial aid, personal statements, and standardized testing.

He explained the long-term importance of putting together a strong application in order to get into the best schools.

“Graduate school is a brand which you will purchase, [one] that you will be associated with for the rest of your life,” O’Connor said. “If you go to business school at McGill or [the University of Toronto], which are the top two [business schools] in Canada, your median starting salary will be 85,000-86,000 American dollars. If you go to business school in the United States, your starting salary will be between on average 115,000—145,000 dollars. These are the best schools in the world; you will be getting a global degree.”

According to O’Connor, graduate schools have two aims: they want their acceptance rate to be low, and their yield rate to be high. Yield rate is the number of people who accept their offer of admission; it’s considered a matter of brand strength. To increase their yield rate, universities offer scholarships to the most compelling applicants.

O’Connor said that universities sort applications into three categories based on GPA and standardized test scores: “auto admit,” where exceptional marks guarantee admission, but essays and recommendation letters are important for scholarship prospects; a “debate” category where GPA, LSAT, essay, and recommendation letters are equally important for admission; and “auto rejects,” where the applications will never be looked at by a human, but will be sorted by software.

Getting into the “auto admit” category takes foresight and effort, which students don’t necessarily realize.

“It’s not last minute; [applications] actually take a lot of preparation, so this was good slap in the face to wake you up,” event attendee Guellermo Renna, U3 Arts, said.


O’Connor’s tips for success

Standardized tests

You should begin planning for standardized testing in advance. For business and graduate school, you’ll need a four month window to study because the standardized tests are easier. For law school, you need a six-month time frame. Never take the February LSAT exam; since it is not publicly released, it includes more difficult questions. Instead, take the June exam, and keep the October one for backup.

Applying for financial aid

Canadian students often assume they cannot afford schools in the United States. Schools like Georgetown and Columbia are good options; they give around 50 merit-based scholarships. Furthermore, by applying to multiple schools—for example, 15-16 schools in the U.S. and six to seven schools in Canada—if you receive a scholarship at a lower-ranked school, you may ask a higher-ranked school to which you were accepted without scholarship for merit-based aid. A school may oblige in order to prevent you from turning down their offer to keep their yield rate high.

Personal statements

The personal statement is imperative, and any “optional” or “diversity” essay is not really optional. A personal statement should be about why you want to go into law, business, or graduate school, and why that particular school. The optional statement is for the applicant to get personal, and write a memorable story. You should not write about your study abroad experience—that’s the number one thing that people write about in the U.S. Be distinctive. Law schools want to know what type of law the applicant wants to practice; they want the applicant to have a purpose, and not just go to law school for “self-discovery.”

Recommendation letters

Business schools prefer insight from someone who has worked with the applicant, whereas law schools desire people with high credentials to share insight on the applicant’s achievements. For other graduate schools, the letters must come from someone working in the specific discipline for which the applicant is applying. The more customized the letters of recommendations are to the applicant, the better.  You should prepare materials for professors to aid their recommendations, for example, letters for law school and PowerPoint slides for business school.

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