Graduate school application season has arrived! The thought of starting the application process may have you losing sleep and wondering, “What are my chances?” When I was going through the process last year—even with a 3.9 GPA, volunteer experience, and a pored-over essay—I knew acceptance was far from guaranteed, causing me anxiety.
So, what are the secret ingredients to a winning application? There’s no simple answer. But understanding how universities approach the review process may help you prepare your strongest application. I interviewed Dr. Carol Dudding, PhD, CCC-SLP, the director of James Madison University’s (JMU) online SLP master’s program, for advice:
Choosing Grad Programs
What should students consider when selecting grad programs to apply to?
Do your research to get an idea of what’s important to you and each program you’re interested in:
- School/program websites—look at the mission and vision statements, research opportunities, and professor profiles
- ASHA EdFind—find out about institution and program requirements
- Connect with current or past students to get their input
Don’t limit yourself on where or what type of programs you apply to. Consider newer programs and different geographic locations. After all, most programs are only two years in length.
Personal factors do matter and that’s a reality of this process. Most of us have financial considerations, like debt and student loans. Others have family or work obligations that impact the decision. I suggest you’re as open as you can be in your criteria for selecting possible schools.
Remember: Your goal is to be a certified and/or licensed professional. You don’t have to be accepted to your top-ranked school to become an excellent clinician.
How many programs should students apply to?
I don’t think anyone can answer that question. CSDCAS data tells us that students interested in audiology apply to 3.89 programs on average, and those interested in speech-language pathology apply to an average of 4.32 programs. Keep in mind, these numbers only represent applications submitted through CSDCAS and don’t include applications submitted elsewhere. At the end of the day, submit the number of applications that feels right for you.
How do online and residential program admissions differ?
At JMU, admissions criteria for on-campus and online master’s SLP programs are identical. The timeline and processes may differ, but that’s only because of the nature of the programs. Our application pool for both programs is remarkably similar in terms of number of applicants, overall GPA, and GRE scores. The characteristics and needs of the applicants are what differ. We try to address that through our website and during online information sessions.
Should students consider candidacy programs?
Students are sometimes hesitant to apply to new programs in candidacy (meaning, they’re not yet fully accredited). There’s no need to shy away from these programs. The fact that they’re in candidacy indicates they’ve met the initial requirements leading to accreditation.
Completing Grad Applications
Do some components of a master’s application (GPA, GRE scores, references, experience, and personal statement) carry more weight than others?
We get that question quite a bit! Research suggests that your major GPA and GRE scores are the strongest predictors of success in graduate school. The challenge is determining how much weight is given to each component of a typical graduate application. Members of admissions committees understand that numbers don’t tell the entire story. Nationally, we’re exploring a more “holistic” view of the admissions process.
What factors might students not give enough attention to?
Don’t underestimate the importance of the personal statement. My advice:
- Consider it your “interview” and use it to showcase what makes you a successful candidate.
- Consider your audience (the committee member reading your statement). Think about the qualities they consider important in a successful graduate student and incorporate related experience into your statement. For example, if you’ve been a camp counselor, discuss how you’ve gained leadership and teamwork skills through the position. Describe how those skills will benefit you in a graduate program.
- If you’re given a specific prompt, respond in a direct and clear manner and don’t just repeat what’s in your personal statement for another school.
- Take time to tailor your statement to each program you’re applying to. It’s pretty obvious to a reviewer when you reuse a statement and just “cut and paste” the university name.
What if applicants are worried their GPA or GRE scores are too low?
You have more control over this process then you think. Consider all the factors and experiences that make you, you. Highlight your strengths for the reviewers in your personal statement. This isn’t the time to be humble. Clearly state and support evidence of your strengths.
I also recommend attending as many open houses as possible. Introduce yourself afterwards and follow up with an email or written note.
How can students maximize the impact of their letters of recommendation?
JMU’s program doesn’t require letters of recommendation. But one thing all faculty struggle with is writing a letter for someone they don’t know well. I suggest providing a draft letter to the person writing your recommendation. No one knows your strengths better than you!
Do volunteering experiences have to be CSD-related?
I’m glad many applications include a section for volunteer experiences. Whether or not those experiences need to be CSD-related is an open question. Sometimes the application will ask for specific types of volunteer experiences and that’s helpful to know. Other times you’ll need to work those experiences in elsewhere in your application, like your personal statement and/or reference letter.
Overall, I suggest highlighting the experiences most relevant to your success in graduate school. When able, include how you benefited from those experiences.
After the Application Process
What should students do to bolster their application if they’re not accepted into a program the first time around?
In some cases, getting an SLP or audiology assistant’s job, participating in CSD research, volunteering, and/or advocating during a gap year may be beneficial.
They should also re-examine their overall process—from selecting schools, to preparing the application, and other actions to see which areas may be improved. Not all schools will tell you why you weren’t accepted but it doesn’t hurt to follow up with a professional email to inquire.
Dr. Dudding ended our interview with this, “Try not to stress. Enjoy the learning process and relationships formed along the way. To quote Shakespeare, ‘to thine own self be true.’”
In the end, what calmed my own fears was going the extra mile at every opportunity. Provide letters of recommendation even if they’re not required. Squeeze in more volunteer hours or extracurricular activities. Contact department faculty members with brief, insightful questions or statements like, “I enjoyed reading your research about using virtual and augmented reality to develop cutting-edge educational activities for professionals. I hope to work with you in the upcoming year!”
By doing so, you’ll stand out and shine!