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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