The 3 Most Frequently Asked Questions for Graduate School Admissions

A former Director of Graduate Admissions at Stanford University outlines the three questions she gets asked the most, and how she'd answer them to guide your application process.

By Debby Couture

September 6, 2022

As a former Director of Graduate Admissions at Stanford University with more than 18 years of experience getting students into the grad programs of their dreams, I have been asked my fair share of admissions questions. Here are my answers to the top three most frequently asked questions, to guide your applications.

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Three Graduate Program FAQs + Answers

What if I know what I like and am passionate about, but don’t know how that transfers into graduate school?

This is an excellent time for you to talk to people in your network, especially if they share similar backgrounds/aspirations. Discuss your interests and how they can be applied to graduate school and your future career. Since most graduate programs are interdisciplinary, begin to look at your interests individually and then at how they might relate to one another. 

For example, say you’re interested in education and technology. Look at programs that have a school of education with flexible course requirements or lots of specialization options. Make sure to explore beyond the title of a program. Look at the areas of concentration, curriculum, and other fields of study that coincide with the program.

How can I most effectively “be myself” when writing a personal statement while still appealing to the admissions committee? Should I try to write what I think the admissions committee is looking for?

The short answer is no. The longer answer is that the statement of purpose is one of the most important components of your application packet. For this reason, you not only want to outline your reasons for wanting a graduate degree and qualifications, but you also want to tell your story authentically. The essay is your opportunity to stand out among the many other highly qualified applicants—to show the committee that you have a passion for your intended field of study and will be an excellent student.

Stellar grades and test scores are important as they will make the committee look seriously at your file. After that, though, a compelling statement of purpose is often the difference between getting in and not. Graduate admission decisions are not about finding the “best” applicants by some objective standard; they are about finding the applicants who are likely to contribute the most to their department. When you write your statement of purpose, your goal is to show uniqueness and authenticity. Focus on that over writing what you think the AdCom “wants to hear.”

Is it ok if the extracurricular activity I focus on has a different goal/philanthropy than my career goal? For example, I wouldn't know how to answer if I were asked in an interview, "How will this activity contribute to this specific program?"

Not all extracurricular activities must be 100% aligned with your career goals. One gains many transferable skills through various experiences, such as time management skills, organization, and working with different groups of people. Look at the skills you're developing in this work and how they relate to your intended field. Showing admission committee members how you've grown in an area and why it means a lot to you to be involved in the work can give readers a glimpse into the kind of person you are. These experiences can also help you stand out in the admissions process. To summarise, the title or area of an extracurricular is less important than the skills you’re learning through it.

If you have additional questions relating to the graduate school admissions process, book some time with me on Leland. We’ll review your candidacy and brainstorm ways to strengthen your application. Head to my profile to get started.