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Graduate Matters

Putting together a strong application for graduate school

The process starts with an honest self-assessment.


When considering graduate school, one of the first steps to complete is an authentic and honest self-assessment. What is the value of a graduate degree to your intellectual pursuits, career interests and personal goals?

Some questions to facilitate the reflection process:

  • What courses or elements of your undergraduate/graduate program were you most excited about (e.g., lab work, presentations, data analysis, networking, etc.)?
  • What program(s), in the department of your major or outside of it, are you interested in? At which institutions are these programs found?
  • What are your professional goals during and after graduate studies? How might the program of interest meet these expectations?
  • How important do you rate a program’s ability to help you develop research, knowledge and professional skills?
  • What timeframe works best for you to attend graduate school (e.g., immediately after graduating, or after a break following graduation; part-time or full-time studies; work and attend graduate school simultaneously, etc.)?

Following the self-assessment exercise, the next step is to collect information about the program and institution you’re applying to. Some resources might include the program offering, departmental and institutional culture and research direction(s), facilities, student life and professional development opportunities. Document this information in a format that allows for easy comparison to determine a good fit for you. Here are some resources to help with the search:

  • Speak to a professor you know or are taking a class with. Articulate what you are looking for in graduate studies and seek out advice on program options available, reputation of programs and institutions, recommendations from their network.
  • Read about programs online and if there is a graduate studies fair in your city, talk to recruiters from various institutions.
  • Graduate programs usually have a professor who directs the program (a graduate program director). Ask for an appointment or communicate via email or phone with questions about the program, its strengths, and what they are looking for in students.
  • How would you thrive in the city and on the university campus? Learn about the culture of these spaces and where possible, visit in person to learn how the landscape makes you feel.
  • Review the admission requirements carefully and be clear on whether you have the prerequisites (e.g., research or professional experience, language, test scores, grades, etc.) or need time to develop any elements to apply.

The requirements set out by departments help the adjudicating committee determine your fit in the program. By starting with a self-assessment, followed by research, you will have a good, working knowledge about yourself to tailor and articulate to a program in forms such as a CV, statement of purpose, research proposal, and transcript. Leave time to develop each application requirement.

What else should you consider during this preparation? We asked two professors to share their perspectives on building a strong application and fit:

To Luanne Martineau (department of studio arts, Concordia University), samples of work need to be connected to contemporary theory. She elaborates that “the portfolio (of current art pieces) helps me evaluate both the state of the current practice as well as how the student might fit in the program. But strong references and good academic performance are equally important.”

Academic performance is an important criterion, but it is only one consideration. Philippe Huot, of the Montreal Neurological Institute, also considers prospective students’ research experience. “The dynamic between the personnel in my lab is one reason the team works well. To ensure prospective students fit in personally and professionally, I invite them to visit the lab and meet with fellow students and staff.”

We encourage you to explore, ask questions and think about fit. The answers to the above questions could help you decide which program and stream, professional or thesis programs, could best meet your goals.

Further reading

  • Read more about the nuts and bolts of applying to graduate school and putting together the application package, such as finding a graduate supervisor, asking for a letter of reference, or writing a statement of purpose.
  • The Canadian Association for Graduate Studies conducted a longitudinal survey to assess the graduate student experience and satisfaction. Take a look at the report to see what motivated other scholars to pursue a graduate degree.
Niem Huynh & Matthew Stiegemeyer
Niem Huynh is an internship match-maker for graduate students and life coach for people seeking clarity. Matthew Stiegemeyer is currently deputy registrar at Western University overseeing undergraduate recruitment and admissions.
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  1. UniAdmin / January 3, 2018 at 16:31

    This is an excellent article that will be helpful for many potential graduate applicants in Canada, and frankly, around the world. I will be sharing this with the students in my program.

    The one portion that I would disagree with is contacting the department chair or program director to ask general questions. Most programs and departments in Canada have coordinators, or other administrative staff, that would typically handle questions from potential applicants. I have yet to come across a program or department that would have department chairs or directors respond directly to potential applicants, unless this was someone from their own undergraduate program. This is largely due to the volume of questions that graduate program contacts receive regularly, and the nature of typical questions. These can most likely be answered by staff whose main role is to ensure recruitment of high caliber students to research programs.

    In my opinion, applicants should contact coordinators or other staff representatives via email. It is extremely likely that most emails would be forwarded to them for response in the first place, as they are best suited to answer most applicant questions.

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