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How to Prepare a Strong Graduate School Application in 3 + 1 Steps



LUC Class of 2020 & current Master of Public Policy Student at the University of Oxford, UK


Executive summary

You can get into highly selective graduate schools if you:

  1. do not self-reject,

  2. research your programmes extensively,

  3. become a great candidate, and

  4. write a strong application.


Step 0: Do not self-reject.

Attending a leading university too often seems too good to be true. This mindset may stop you from trying to reach your dream. Moreover, self-rejecting may stop great universities from gaining brilliant students. A lose-lose situation, right?


If you ever feel daunted by a big dream, reflect on all that you achieved that you dreamed of a year ago. We too often forget that many of our accomplishments used to be scary dreams before we achieved them.


Step 1: Do your research early.

First, brainstorm relevant questions to ask about programs of interest, admissions processes, and career prospects. For policy masters, this may include:

- What skill set and knowledge will a given program equip you with?

- How diverse are past cohorts in terms of nationalities, professional backgrounds, age, etc.?

- Do the professors influence public policies?

- What are the academic and professional prerequisites for enrolling?

- Where do alumni go on to work after graduation?


You can answer these questions by:

- Studying the course website meticulously;

- Going to admissions webinars;

- Attending online events (e.g., research presentations) by the department; and

- Reaching out to current and past students. More people are willing to answer cold emails than you might think!


Step 2: Become the candidate they want to admit.

Here, the sub-steps depend on the university’s admissions preferences. Based on informal conversations with admissions staff, they often search for:

- International exposure (e.g., studying abroad);

- Some relevant professional experience;

- Academic excellence;

- Curiosity;

- Perseverance; and

- A willingness to contribute to your community.


If you find that you lack any of these or other relevant traits, know that it is not too late to start developing them. Joining university clubs, volunteering, and working in subject-relevant positions before applying to graduate schools are all ways for you to do this.


Note that some universities specify minimum academic standards. However, you can sometimes work around these by gaining more professional experience or doing another master's degree first. Check the terms and conditions on admissions websites!


Step 3: Write a strong application.

Give yourself ample time. For illustration: it took me 20+ full working days to apply for four rather similar master’s programmes.


Start by reaching out to referees at least a month in advance. Tell them about the programme(s) you are applying to, any relevant deadlines, and what you think should be prioritised in the letters. Also, provide them with your application materials (or at least your up-to-date CV if you are short on time).


If the admissions office does not give you specific requirements, a possible structure for your personal statement is by covering these four paragraphs:

- Introduction - a hook that makes them want to read on. Personal anecdotes and shocking statistics work well in my experience.

- Why do you want to study there? - What are the gaps in your knowledge that concrete parts (e.g., specific courses) or features (e.g., diversity of the cohort) of the programme will fill?

- What evidence do you have that you will do well academically? What are the relevant bits of your academic and professional career that prepared you to excel in a demanding graduate program? (Hint: a LUC diploma is an ace up your sleeve!)

- What are ways in which you would contribute to the university community? Highlighting what relevant insights you will share in class and what activities you previously organised and you could organise again for the departmental community can go a long way.


Your CV should also align with their expectations. For example, Oxford assembled this helpful guide.


If you need to submit written work, you may want to visualise it well. Clear data visualisations and visually appealing report templates can be attractive to admissions teams.


Finally, best of luck!


Any questions, critiques, or feedback? Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn or reach out to balint.pataki@bsg.ox.ac.uk


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