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Let's Take Inventory! Identifying Your Assets

Camping is one of the great joys of life. It’s one of the few times where you can totally unplug, recharge and truly self-reflect in peace. However, in order to have a great camping experience, it’s important to take a detailed inventory of your supplies before you go into isolation. Anything you don’t already have, you’ll acquire before you head on your journey (if you’re smart).

The same can be said for the admissions journey. Before you go on your journey, you need to take inventory of what you have to make sure your admissions process is truly seamless. Let’s look at some of the key areas you should review. These are the areas that schools will be looking at as they evaluate your application.

Intellectual Horsepower

When you talk to schools, across graduate degrees, one of the common core assessments is intellectual horsepower. This is essentially a measure of how quickly you can grasp concepts and put them into practice.

Standardized Tests

Fair or not, one of the key metrics schools use to measure this is standardized tests. Schools will look at your standardized test scores (GRE, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, etc.) as a strong indicator of your potential for success in an academic environment. Graduate schools have decades of data on the correlation between standardized test scores and academic success. If the test is required, don’t fight it (it’s not going away anytime soon). Instead, attack the test aggressively and put yourself in contention for admissions success. 

Undergraduate Education

This is another area that admissions committees use to get a sense for intellectual horsepower. Graduate schools will look closely at your academic transcript as it is a multi-year demonstration of your ability to succeed in an academic environment. In addition, they will look at your undergraduate major and your institution's brand to determine the level of difficulty.

For most of you, there isn’t much you can do to make an impact on your transcript at this point, but it’s important to review it nonetheless in order to understand your exact academic performance. For those of you who have been working outside an academic setting for a few years, there’s a chance you may be suffering from ATR: Academic Transcript Revisionism. In other words, you think your grades are better than they actually were. If you show symptoms of ATR, don’t feel bad; it’s one of the most prevalent issues in the world of graduate school admissions. And counteracting it is simple.

Get a copy of your college transcript. Once you get that, do an assessment of your major grades versus your overall grades to see how well (or poorly) you really performed. If you didn’t do as well as you would’ve liked in college, we have several resources to help you mitigate your academic weaknesses.

Subject Matter Expertise

Specialized graduate schools (e.g., MS, PhD, MD) will focus quite a bit on your subject matter expertise. Schools will want to understand your baseline knowledge in the relevant subject area in order to gauge your interest in the subject matter as well as your potential for academic and professional success. There are several areas that schools consider when determining your subject matter expertise, and you can begin taking inventory of them now:

Work Experience: What kind of work experience do you have and how relevant is it to your graduate area of focus? In some cases, it’s not a prerequisite to admission, but if you have relevant work experience, it can certainly help your case. If you are lacking in this area and it’s required for a specialized graduate school, proactively seek out job roles that involve this type of experience. If your company can’t offer this experience, you may even want to seek out another company that can.

Research: Degrees that are heavily focused on research (e.g., PhD) would like to see candidates who already have some sort of research experience. If you’re still in college, you should have ample opportunities to assist a professor with research. If you’ve already graduated, you may be able to find volunteer opportunities or perhaps go back to your alma mater to proactively seek research experience. Keep in mind, research is not important for all degree types, so... do your research.

Academic Focus: Your academic major and/or minor could also be an area where you can demonstrate your grasp of your desired graduate school major. If you don’t have a major and/or minor in a related area of study, check your transcript to see if you have any relevant coursework. Every little bit helps!

Test Scores: We addressed the importance of test scores in demonstrating intellectual horsepower. Test scores can also demonstrate subject matter expertise, especially for the more technical tests or sections of general tests (e.g., MCAT, GRE Subject, or Analytical section of GMAT). Don’t just focus on overall test scores, look at the section scores that are likely to have the most relevance to your subject matter. Keep in mind, for degrees less dependent on your educational background (e.g., MBA, JD), subject matter expertise is less important, but applicants for these programs due tend to share a common set of backgrounds.


Before you act on the assets you've identified, be sure and mitigate your potential weaknesses. Watch the video to learn how.

Watch the Video

Leadership and Interpersonal Skills

Ahhhh, the soft skills. So warm and fuzzy, yet so important in society and in admissions. But if you’re a borderline genius in your area of expertise, interpersonal skills don’t matter, right? Actually, they do. Schools are looking for candidates that will be experts in their subject area, but will also be great leaders within their industry. As such, they are looking for those intangibles that can separate you from the pack.

If you’re applying to top schools, these soft skills will be of even greater importance, because intellectual horsepower, work experience, and subject matter expertise are given. Top schools want all of that and more. So how do you demonstrate these intangible and elusive qualities? Well, leadership is demonstrated through action. Schools will look at your college background to see what types of leadership roles you were involved in during college.

Were you the captain of a sports team or President of your sorority, or did you just go to class and hang out afterwards? If you have work experience, they will take a look at your promotional history and the type of involvement you have at your job. Finally, they will take a look at your impact outside of school and work. What kind of volunteer activities have you been involved with? Do they demonstrate unselfish leadership within the community?

If you don’t have any of that, it’s not necessarily a problem. You can start now! Focus on the things you’re passionate about and lend a helping hand in your local school, community, or workplace. Now is the time to build your leadership assets.

Language Proficiency

For candidates applying to schools where the local language is not your first language, you will likely need to establish some level of language proficiency. You can do this through language proficiency test scores (e.g. TOEFL/IELTS) or by demonstrating a certain level of language proficiency in college.

Ultimately, you need to take inventory of your language skills and take the time you need to make sure you are ready to speak in this new language. Although it’s terrible to have your graduate school application denied because you haven’t been able to demonstrate language proficiency, it’s even worse to get into your target school and have a horrible experience because you can’t communicate.


Finding the right recommenders is an underappreciated part of taking your application inventory. Your recommenders can provide third-party support for all of the topics mentioned above. Make a list of potential recommenders and imagine any potential problems that might arise in securing their letters of recommendation. Common situations include:

  • You’re not sure how your boss will react, or you don’t want to tell them
  • You’ve lost touch with a former supervisor or professor
  • You never developed a meaningful relationship with this recommender in the first place
  • You left your last job on bad terms
  • You performed poorly in the course(s) taught by this recommender

If you have any of these issues, you may have a recommender problem. Luckily, you can proactively manage this problem by networking with new potential recommenders. But you have to start right now!

Your Plan of Action

Regardless of desired school, degree, or program type, all applicants must examine their strengths and weaknesses in order to produce a compelling and successful application. Begin this process now by ordering your transcript, taking an inventory of your assets, and creating a concerted plan of action to improve those assets and address potential weaknesses.

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