Assembling a Competitive Application for Graduate Studies
by Niti Bhan
Pulling together an application for graduate study can be a nerve-wracking
experience, especially if you are applying to a number of schools
or are applying from outside the United States. Each school has
a checklist of requirements, and while there are key differences
from school to school, with a little bit of planning you can ensure
you have submitted a competitive application for your chosen program.
Here is an overview of the standard parts of an application with
tips to help you. We have added extra notes and sections for international
The Application Form
While not the most important part of the application for admissions
considerations, the application form is vital for proper identification
and tracking of the rest of your application. Here you supply contact
information, birth data, citizenship and visa status, as well as
a summary of your qualifications. Taking the time to ensure that
the application form is correctly and clearly completed smoothes
the administrative aspects of your candidacy and enrollment at the
Most schools require an application fee. Some specify amounts for
international and domestic students separately. Ensure that you
have filled out the correct amount and that the name of the school
has been written as per the application guidelines. No school will
process your application until the fee has been received. International
students paying by banker's check or demand draft should write their
name on the document. Never address the check to an individual;
when in doubt use the name of the university to which you are applying.
Undergraduate transcripts and Grades
Most graduate design programs specify a minimum GPA of 3.0 in undergraduate
coursework before considering your application. If you feel the
need to strengthen your candidacy to an extremely competitive program,
consider additional qualifications. This can include asking the
Admissions Coordinator whether the school would consider scores
from a standardized test such as the Graduate Record Examination
(GRE) to demonstrate your readiness for graduate study, or additional
recommendations from professors familiar with your ability to do
research, among other things.
Reviewers also scan your transcripts to evaluate the number of relevant
courses you have taken for a particular program or area of study.
If you feel your transcripts do not sufficiently reflect your area
of expertise, this is where planning your portfolio properly can
help you to demonstrate your skills.
If you are applying to multiple schools, it is often helpful to
note which departments require transcripts to be sent directly to
the program and which schools require the transcripts to be sent
to the Graduate College at the university. Listing all the different
addresses on one sheet will make transcript requests easier to fulfill
and ensure your documents reach the correct departments on time.
The portfolio is the most important part of your application for
graduate study in design. At the graduate level, a professional
portfolio is one that speaks for itself. For tips on creating a
strong design portfolio, visit http://www.core77.com/design.edu/portfolio_tips.asp
Digital or Hard Copy?
Each school has requirements for what should be included in your
portfolio submission. Some specify maximum and minimum sizes, some
specify the exact size and some leave it up to you. If you are considering
applying to a number of schools, take a look at all the specifications.
Often, it may be easier for you to take the most rigorous specification
as the criteria for creating your portfolio unless you wish to use
different formats for different schools.
Do keep in mind:
A CD that requires special software to run, or will work on only
one platform will not be evaluated as rigorously as one that is
user-friendly and easily accessible to all reviewers. Test it on
different machines to see if it runs. Have a friend check it out
for you to see if the navigation features are easily understood.
Keep it simple and, unless absolutely required, keep music to a
minimum. If in doubt, see if you can upload your work to a URL as
well. Write your name on the CD and the program to which you are
applying. A little bit of common sense and planning goes a long
way in making the admissions process easier.
Some programs recommend that a CD only be supplied as an addition
to the hard copy portfolio. Not only do CDs run into compatibility
problems, but a computer may not be available at a critical moment
in the review process.
If a school does not specify a size for your portfolio, do get creative
but keep in mind that the more parts a portfolio hassample
packaging, 3D models, slidesthe more difficult it gets to
keep it all together during the review process. Often the easiest
and most convenient method is to take photographs of all your 3D
samples and bind them together. Try not to get carried away with
size. Oversize portfolios, while dramatic and outstanding, can be
difficult to process and keep from damage.
The portfolio is a design opportunity in itself. Content that is
concise and well presented will always make a better impression
then covering your portfolio with fur. A colleague reported receiving
a bowling ball sawn in half with a CD imbedded in it. It made a
good door stop but didn't get the applicant into the program.
Ultimately, apply some basic common sense when creating your portfolio.
It will be handled many many times during the entire application
process, not just by faculty members and the Admissions Review Committee,
but also by admissions personnel, temporary staff members and the
US Postal Service. A simple sturdy binder or slide pockets will
survive and reflect your creativity far better than beautiful-yet-fragile
pieces that are partially damaged or lost during the process.
Essay/Personal Statement/Letter of Intent/Statement of Interest/Autobiographical
What is usually being requested is: 1) a statement of your interests
in design and how you came to have those interests, 2) what your
goals and ambitions in the field of design are, and 3) how the program
to which you are applying can help you to achieve those goals.
In describing your interests in an area of study and how you came
to have them, try to focus on particular educational and occupational
experiences you have had that could account for your interests,
rather than just personal experiences. Try to share experiences
that reflect on that part of your reasons for seeking graduate level
training. If you cannot find such reasons, perhaps now is a good
time to think about whether advanced design education is for you.
As for your goals and ambitions, you should try to be as specific
as possible. When candidates are asked: why do you want to go to
graduate school or what are you interested in doing in this program?
A common reply is "I just want to learnI'm open mindedI
want to study a bit of everythingand then I'll decide on my
career." This can be taken to mean that you don't know why
you want to go to graduate school, and that you have no idea what
you are interested in studying. You should try to be more specific,
while at the same time showing openness to learning new things.
It is wise to apply to schools that fit with your own interests.
Do your homework. Decide whether this is the kind of specialization
you want to do. Some schools are heavily research oriented, requiring
a master's thesis in order to graduate. Others focus on individual
creative expression and the arts. Still others are business oriented
with a focus on design research and methodology. It is at this point
that you should have a clear idea of the reasons
why you are choosing graduate study in design. In this case,
the goodness of fit between your interests and the schools you apply
to is crucial.
Many schools look at their graduate programs as a collaborative
experience. The students come in with a wide variety of expertise.
It is important for the school to know what it is that the applicant
will have to offer their peers and the program itself.
Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation are extremely important. They can help
you and they can hurt you. The most helpful letters come from teachers
who have had considerable contact with you, especially in non-classroom
settings such as Design Studio or Design workshop.
If you have been out of school for some time and worked professionally,
letters from employers attesting to your professional design skills
are some of the best letters you can send. This demonstrates your
ability to solve complex problems in real world settings for actual
clients. It is better to send letters from employers, clients and
coworkers who have observed your creative problem solving skills,
team work and communication skills, than professors who may not
remember you from more than six years ago. Also, don't include letters
from public officials or professionals with whom your contacts have
not been of a professional sort.
Some schools provide a pre-printed recommendation form to be filled
in. It is good idea to supply an additional letter that gives the
writer a chance to reveal more about the applicant. It's a pretty
good bet that they will check off only excellent and outstanding
on the form.
Presenting Your Materials Appropriately
All of your communications should be typed. Don't send anything
hand written. You should be certain that your letters are grammatically
correct and that they contain no misspelled words and no colloquialisms.
Have someone else read your letters to proof them. Most correspondence
is by email these days. Do use proper English as far as possible;
while we understand that English is not the first language for many
international applicants, neither is "netspeak."
Since mailing parts of your application to the United States can
be expensive and/or time consuming from many parts of the world,
you may consider placing your entire application in one large envelope
for each of the schools you wish to apply to. To ensure validity,
you can request your professors or employers to place their letters
of recommendation in a separate envelope, sealing it, and signing
across the back. The same can be done for your transcripts. A checklist
of all the items enclosed will assist Admissions staff with processing
your application quickly and accurately. If you pay the application
fees online by credit card, enclose a printout of the receipt email
or make a note of the date of the payment and enclose with the rest
of your application. This will cut down on valuable time spent contacting
each applicant to ensure his or her application materials are complete.
Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and other Admission
Most graduate admissions committees require the TOEFL for international
applicants, and a few require the GRE. Every school specifies the
TOEFL cut off scorecheck to see which has the highest and
obtain the best scores you possibly can.
Take the test early so that your scores are available by the admission
deadline. Incomplete applications are not usually considered, and
when they are, the fact that they are incomplete reflects poorly
on the candidate. If you can, take the tests in October. If you
take the December test you could be cutting it close. If you have
to take the December test, follow up with the graduate schools right
before their deadline and make they have received it. Many countries
offer the TOEFL or the GRE only in specific months. Planning can
thus be very important. Ensure that original scores from ETS are
sent directly to the program. You can also insert a photocopy of
your student score with your application to ease the application
What do you do if after all of this, no one admits you? If you are
committed to further training, it makes sense to try again. Examine
the reasons why you were not competitive. Was it a bad letter? Poor
grades? Lack of experience? Did you apply to too few programs? Try
to correct these problems. Many schools are willing to discuss with
unsuccessful candidates how they can strengthen their application
for another try.
Niti Bhan is a global nomad, neither fully immersed in the West
nor entirely at home in the East. With background spanning engineering,
business and design, Niti is most adept doing what no one does best.
Her present incarnation is as Director of Admissions at the Institute
of Design, IIT.