How to Improve Your Chances of Getting Into Grad School

Most Master and PhD programs are competitive and difficult to get into. Here’s how to improve your chances of getting accepted into the graduate school of your choice. These tips for applying for graduate level studies are from my own experience – they’ll help you complete your application and get accepted into the grad program you want.

how to improve your chances of getting into graduate school


When I first wrote this post, I was working on my MSW (Master’of Social Work) degree at UBC (the University of British Columbia) in Vancouver. That was in 2012; I’m updating these tips on how to improve your chances of getting into grad school to reflect what I know now! I graduated with an MSW and a boatload of experience (two nine-month social work practicums and a zillion papers and research projects). My undergraduate degrees are in Psychology and Education, from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada – and I think having two undergrad degrees helped me get accepted. So did my age – I’m 42 and thus have lots of life experience (and a teeny tiny bit of wisdom to show for it!). If you’re uncertain about going to graduate school, read Should You Go to Grad School for a Master of Social Work (MSW)?

“Applying to graduate school can be quite the challenge for any student, but it can seem particularly intimidating if you are one of the many students that do not have spectacular grades,” writes Dave Mumby in Graduate School: Winning Strategies for Getting in With or Without Excellent Grades. “Although grades are an important component of your application, grades alone will certainly not get you a free pass into the graduate school or program of your choice. There are many other important factors that no one tells you about, ones that can make or break an application. If you take the time to learn about and understand why you are being evaluated in a variety of ways in the first place, you can then use this to your advantage.”

My grades weren’t great – I think I had a A- average my last two years of university. My first two years, I barely passed my undergraduate courses! And the competition to get into the MSW program at the University of British Columbia (UBC) is stiff; I was told that over 40 students apply every year, and there are only 15 spots available. I think your undergraduate course grades are less important when you’re a mature student.

If you have any questions about how to get into graduate school, please ask below!

5 Tips for Getting Into Grad School – Master or PhD Programs

Every graduate school application process is slightly different, but these tips are applicable to most universities. The best way to learn how to get into the grad school you want is to talk to their admissions advisor. Learn directly from him or her how to improve your chances of being accepted. The admissions office is there to help you succeed and show you the way!


1. Start the graduate school application process a full year in advance

If you want to go to grad school next September, you should start researching the application process and program about a year earlier. This gives you time to make up for missing coursework or credits, get relevant work experience, and contact your references.

I decided to apply to grad school in early December. My application was due on January 2. You’d think that would be enough time – but I barely got everything done in time! If you want to study at the graduate level, you should apply at least two or three months in advance. Rushing through the process will increase your chances of mistakes due to haste or carelessness.

I had to give my referees (the MSW program at UBC requires three academic or professional references or “referees”) a few gentle shoves to get their forms in on time. This is not ideal! The last thing you want to do is push the people who have the power to get you into graduate school. That’s why you need to start applying for graduate school a couple months before the actual application deadline – to give yourself and others time.

If you’re worried about paying for graduate school, read 10 Highest Paying Jobs for College Students.

2. Connect with the admissions clerk

Marjorie Paulkner was the Admissions Advisor for the social work grad program at UBC when I applied; she was invaluable in helping me get my application in. When I emailed her to say that I don’t have the two required undergraduate social work courses, she told me how to get them (Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops offers online university courses. They don’t offer much support from the teacher or “tutor”, but if you jump through the hoops, you’ll get your credits).

Marjorie also helped me make sure I had the proper research and statistics undergrad courses from the U of A, and that all my transcripts arrived on time. Honestly, I couldn’t have made it through the application process without her. When I go to UBC for my grad student orientation at the end of August, she’ll be one of my first stops :-) .

3. Be prepared to write a thesis proposal

I was surprised that I had to write a thesis proposal for my grad school application – I thought that was what they would be teaching me! But, they provided examples of thesis proposals, and I suspect they grant some leeway for applicants.

The admissions board is looking for evidence that you know what a thesis is, you know how to do research, and you have some level of writing ability. Read my Sample Thesis Proposal – Master of Social Work (MSW) to see what I submitted with my grad school application package. One of my best tips for applying to grad school is to learn how other people did it. But of course you won’t copy other students’ work. Not only is that immoral and wrong, it also sets you up to get caught.

4. Connect with someone who went to the grad school you’re applying to

While writing my thesis proposal (I wrote it over a two-week period), I called my friend’s sister. She took the Master of Social Work program about 10 years ago, so I figured she’d have some solid tips for applying to grad school for me. And, I had to interview a social worker for one of my online undergrad social work courses – which I got 94% on. See the value of connecting with experienced people? Practically priceless.

Updated to add: 

How to Improve Your Chances of Getting Into Grad School – Master or PhD Programs

How to Improve Your Chances of Getting Into Grad School – Master or PhD Programs

I’ve been asked how to get into the MSW program at UBC. It’s difficult for me to give advice on getting accepted there, because I was a grad student five long years ago! Things have changed over the past few years. So while I can share what worked for me… I don’t know if the acceptance criteria and admission requirements are the same today. 

That said, feel free to ask me specific questions below – but don’t expect nuggets of gold to fall from my lips. It’s better to talk to somebody who is actually attending the MSW for PhD program you want to get into. Talk to somebody who is there, who can give you the inside scoop today.

5. Be prepared for a form acceptance letter

I thought my acceptance letter would be more personal, but it was sorta cold and formal. So, I was both excited and deflated to find out I was accepted into graduate school.

Here it is:

“Dear Laurie,

I have good news for you. We have completed our assessment of the applicants this year, and I am happy to advise that your file will be sent to the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FOGS) with a recommendation that they admit you to our programme. They may take two weeks to contact you – initially by email with a letter in the post following. There is nothing to do in the interim, except of course for those of you with outstanding pre-requisite courses to continue and send me two final transcripts when you have completed the courses. Those of you with outstanding final English tests, or letters of reference, please know that as soon as I receive these documents I will send your file to FOGS. Please keep me up-to-date with progress.”

That’s how I got into the MSW program at UBC in Vancouver, BC. Tell me your story – where do you want to go to school, and what are you doing to improve your chances of getting accepted?

If you’re worried about your ability to do grad-level work, read How to Get Good Grades in Graduate School.

Help Getting Into Grad School

tips for getting into grad schoolIf you’re not sure if you want to get into grad school, read Is Graduate School Really for You? The Whos, Whats, Hows, and Whys of Pursuing a Master’s or Ph.D. by Amanda I. Seligman. She helps potential students navigate graduate study―not just how to get in but how to succeed once you are there and what to expect when you leave.

Seligman weighs the pros and cons of attending graduate school and achieving a sustainable work-life balance. She also explains the application process, the culture of graduate school, and employment prospects for academics. You’ll learn about the qualifications and admission guidelines for various programs, how to apply for financial aid and graduate stipends, how to meet expectations and residency requirements, how to navigate grad-level coursework, theses, and dissertations.

If you’re applying for a scholarship, here’s a Sample Scholarship Essay.

How to Improve Your Chances of Getting Into Grad School – Master or PhD ProgramsIn Graduate Admissions Essays Write Your Way into the Graduate School of Your Choice, Donald Asher offers a fully updated fourth edition of the go-to guide for writing winning essays for any type of graduate program or scholarship – including PhD, master’s, MBA, MD, JD, postdocs, DDS, DVM, Rhodes, Marshall, and Fulbright Scholarships.

This book is based on thousands of interviews with successful grad students and graduate admissions officers. Graduate Admissions Essays deconstructs and demystifies the ever-challenging and seemingly more impersonal application process for getting into graduate and scholarship programs. The book presents 50 sample essays in a comprehensive range of subjects, detailed strategies that have proven successful for some of the most notoriously competitive graduate programs in the country, as well as sample letters of recommendation, essays for residencies and fellowships, and postgrad applications.

Okay, friends, I have shared lots of tips on how to improve your chances of getting into the MSW or PhD program of your choice! Your thoughts on getting into graduate school are welcome below. I can’t give advice, but I may have a question or two about something you say, to help you dig deeper into your own internal well of wisdom…



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11 thoughts on “How to Improve Your Chances of Getting Into Grad School”

  1. I love your transparency! I have been stressing about grad school lately. My first 2 years were not good. Which concerns me a lot and i cant get over it! I read that your last 2 years were A- (of course in 2012), could that mean grad schools mean what they say and focus on the last two years?
    Thank you for your blog post!

  2. Hi Saby,

    Congratulations on moving to Vancouver! I hope you like it here, and that you finds a graduate school program in psychology that suits your career goals and personality.

    You have come so far, and you have done so much! Take time to savor your successes and achievements. Pat yourself on the back.

    Don’t focus on the grad school statistics. Yes, there are hundreds of applicants to all sorts of graduate school programs in all different fields. And yes, only a portion of those applicants get into the program they want. That’s just reality. But that’s not the reality you need to focus on.

    Instead, concentrate on doing what you can do to get into the grad school of your choice. Take control of the things you can control! What is in your control? That’s for you to figure out – that’s part of your job, that’s part of the application process. You need to figure out how to be the best possible applicants, and then you need to do everything you can do to improve your chances of getting into school. It really is a simple as that.

    So, when you called the admissions departments and talk to an advisor on how to get into the Masters psychology program, what did they say? When you looked at the requirements to get into grad school, where are you strong – and what do you lack? That’s where you need to put your time and energy.

    As far as volunteering goes – yes you need to get involved with your community. Don’t try to find a volunteer job that will “get you into grad school.” Instead find something that you want to do, that you’re passionate about, in an area that you want to eventually work in one day. Do you want to be a psychologist? Then find volunteer roles that help you learn psychology or counseling or research. Do you want to do research with mood, emotions, and rats? Find a volunteer job that you want to do, that genuinely motivates you.

    I think that the admissions board of graduate schools look for well rounded people who are balanced in all aspects of life. My MSW program even required applicants to have worked in a paying job in the social work field for a few thousand hours – I can’t remember how many it was. It’s not just about grades or volunteer work… It’s about your life experience, culture, even how much you’ve traveled! I think I got accepted into the MSW program partly because I lived in Africa for 3 years.

    I hope this helps….how are you feeling now? Where will you volunteer, and what else can you do to improve your chances of getting into graduate school in psychology?

    Take a deep breath, and know that your life is unfolding exactly the way it’s meant to. Keep working hard, and keep celebrating your successes!


  3. hi. My name is Sabina. I live in Vancouver for 5 years already. I have a diploma in Psychology from Moldova. I am trying to get ready to apply for MA degree in psychology. Last year, there were 225 applications and only 15 people got in. I was thinking what kind of volunteering I can do or what else I can do to maximise my chances of entry besides my grades? I felt so demotivated today just by looking at the statistics. It seems to me that a lot of people are trying and are not getting in. PLEASE HELP ME

  4. Hi Laurie,

    Thank you for your reply. I am from Thompson Manitoba. I live in the North, and completed my social work degree in the North with University of Manitoba. Our class size was very small…about 10 students. I am okay with having a larger group though! I am glad your group gets along….I think it’s important to have that. I will essentially be in Vancouver with no friends….so I am hoping if I do get into the program; it will be easy to make friends with fellow classmates.

    That’s unfortunate about not having your placement yet. I was fortunate enough to have 2 amazing placements in my BSW program….so if I have to do an entry level placement…hopefully I could manage…but that being said I would like something challenging and rewarding! I am glad you are enjoying grad school overall.

    I really hope I get in….the waiting game is not fun! But if I do get I am looking forward to studying and living in Vancouver. Thanks for your help :-)

  5. Hi Tina,

    Congratulations on applying to the Advanced MSW program — if you get in, we’ll be in some of the same classes next year! :-)

    February 24 was when I got an email from the social work department at UBC, saying I was admitted. It may be different from year to year. Plus, I’m in the Foundation program, which is 2 years (it’s for students who don’t have a Bachelor’s of Social Work degree, but do have another type of degree). So the Advanced students may get notice earlier than the Foundation — I don’t know for sure.

    What province are you from? I went to the U of A in Edmonton, and high school in Saskatchewan.

    I love the group of students in my program! In fact, I had a Christmas party at my place, a couple weeks ago. They’re smart, compassionate, experienced, and interesting. It’s a huge class — we’re 28 students strong, which I think is way too big. Last year, they were 8 students. But, that said, I really appreciate every student and am very happy for this experience.

    I’m a bit more independent, as I’m 42. Most of the students are in their 30’s, and meet for beers at a pub near campus. They definitely hang out, but I tend to spend more time on my blogs, walking my dog, with my husband, etc.

    Overall, I love grad school. It’s way easier to get A’s than I expected, and I have a lot of respect for my fellow students’ life and work experience. I like grad school way better than undergraduate studies because the students are more mature and interesting.

    That said, however, if you get in, don’t expect it to be ALL positive! There are always pitfalls, no matter how good something is. The MSW program at UBC is good, but I wouldn’t say it’s the best social work program.

    For instance, I don’t have a practicum placement yet, while everyone else started theirs in October. I don’t care — I’m glad not to have the extra stress! And some of the other placements aren’t that good. That is, some of the students are doing entry level stuff, like stocking food bank shelves and helping clients fill out applications. Other students, however, are getting solid social work training.

    So….while overall I am very, very happy to be in the MSW program at UBC, there are always things that could be better. I also kind of think the classes are too easy.

    I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any other questions!

    All good things,

  6. Hi Laurie,

    I love your blog…I wish I would have found it a month earlier. I already submitted my applications to the advanced MSW program at UBC. I was wondering, when did they contact you? I know on the website for the advanced MSW program they said they would make first selections in December…so just wondering when you actually found out you were accepted into the program.

    Also, I am from a different province, and my I did my social work degree in with a small group of students. How are you finding your group? Do the students tend to work together and hang out, or is it more independent? How are you liking your experience overall at UBC? If I do get in, it would be a big change for me….regardless I just hope it’s all positive!
    Thank you


  7. Hi Maria,

    That’s great that you’re thinking ahead! Some graduate schools are really difficult to get into, so it’s important to get prepared early. And, admissions can change from year to year.

    Last year the MSW program at UBC only accepted 8 students, and this year there are 28 in our class. It’s crazy. I don’t like having a huge class like this, but it is what it is. And my fellow students are fantastic, so I’m kinda glad the class is so big. It just makes class discussions different.

    Anyway….I don’t think an extra year as an undergrad will hurt your chances for acceptance into grad school. In fact, it may be helpful! When I was an undergrad, I took a graduate course. If you can fit that in to your extra year, it would probably help your application to grad school.

    If I were you I’d find time to volunteer in the health field somehow, in something related to health admin. Many grad school admissions committees look beyond your GPA to your volunteer and work experience.

    And, have you looked at the grad school application for health admin at UBC? That’ll help you make smart decisions now.

    Here’s the thesis proposal I submitted for admission to the Social Work program at UBC:

    I hope this helps a little! I’m also sharing tips for getting good grades in grad school, which apply to undergrad studies as well. Let me know if you want the link to that article…I think I’ve only written one that specifically pertains to grad school so far.

    All good things,

  8. Hi Laurie,

    My name’s Maria Pinaro and I’m so grateful to have found your blog. It’s so informative and helpful! I’m currently a 2nd year undergrad in health management, and I know I have 2 years before I head down your path, but its better to start! I eventually want to do my masters in health admin, and I’ve heard that UBC has an excellent program. I do want to admit that during my first year my GPA was not so good, but I’ve started to work harder and I believe and can achieve an A average by the end my degree. I also want to note that I switched my program from biology to health management so I won’t be finishing my program in 4 years. I’ll be taking an extra year to catch up on credits from the switch. Because of that, I’m wondering if my chances of getting in will be lower since I’m taking an extra year to finish my undergrad. Also is it possible to see your thesis propsal you’ve submitted for admissions. Any input will be greatly appreciated.

    Maria Pinaro

  9. If you’re going to grad school and have to complete a practicum, make sure your university can place you. I’m running into problems finding an appropriate placement — something I never thought would happen!

  10. Hi Meg,

    Congratulations on applying to grad school – very exciting! I considered the MSW program at U Vic, but since I live in Vancouver…UBC is an easier commute :-)

    U Vic has a distance program, which one of the caseworkers at Big Sisters is doing. She likes it, but would prefer in-person classes. I’d definitely prefer in-person classes, because I love to hear what people think about the coursework. I took two distance social work courses through Thompson Rivers University, and really didn’t like not being able to communicate directly with my teachers and fellow students.

    Anyway….I’ve been out of school for about 12 years, and my supervisor at Big Brothers wrote my reference for me. I also asked the principal of the school that I taught at – seven years ago – write a reference for me. They both did, and I got into grad school. Yippee!

    So yes, I think you can submit a supervisor’s letter of recommendation if you don’t have a professor who can write one for you. I’m 100% sure that many students who are applying to graduate school are adults who have been out of university or college for years, and who have lost touch with their profs.

    Yes, applying to grad school was frustrating and confusing for me, too! Especially since I had to pay over $1,000 for my two social work courses (my degrees are in Psychology and Education, and I had no social work coursework) through Thompson Rivers University. That sucked. And, it was especially scary because I had to take those courses in order to APPLY to the MSW program at UBC! It could’ve been a total waste of time, money, and energy.

    About your question — I started writing a few tips for overcoming the frustration of applying to grad school, to help readers stay motivated to attend college. It became far too long to be in this comments section, so I turned it into an article:

    5 Ways to Stay Motivated to Go to College – From Bored to Inspired

    I hope it helps! It’s not just for college students – it’s for people applying to graduate school, too. Your question inspired me to write for all types of students.

    Stay in touch – let me know if you get into the MSW program at U Vic. And if you ever move to Vancouver to get your MSW at UBC, maybe we can meet for coffee :-)

    All good things,

  11. Hi there,

    Your blog has been very informative! I am currently applying to the U Vic MSW program and am having trouble getting academic reports since I have been out of school for 8yrs. The academic advosir told me that in lieu of academic reports are professional references or “referees” if an applicant has been out of school for a long time. At this point I am questioning if a professional reference would be from a supervisor. I emailed the advisor and am still confused as to whether the “referee” must be from an academic background.

    This has been very frustrating and confusing and at times I have even decided to quit this application all together. Would you have any words of wisdom from your experience going through this process?