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Getting into Cornell

I didn’t know I was going to end up in graduate school. Since my first year of university, I wanted to accumulate as many practical skill sets as possible to position myself competitively for the job market after graduation.

However, by preparing myself for the job market, I inevitably unconsciously prepared myself over time for the Masters in Applied Economics and Management (AEM) program at Cornell. I have always valued practical applications of classroom theories in the real world and Cornell’s AEM program turned out to be a perfect fit for my interests.

As such, the experience helped convince me that the graduate school preparation process is essentially a four year long process. Everything you did throughout your undergraduate career counts; your grades, your research experience, your internships, your relationships with your Professors and your extracurricular activities. The trick is to constantly be a go getter throughout university. That way, during the graduate school application you won’t be found wanting.

Based on my experience, here are some top success factors that will help position aspiring graduate students competitively during the application process.

1. Have a good story: Graduate schools value candidates who have a strong sense of what their professional/academic goals are and how the graduate program will help them better make their goals a reality. As a student, before you start the application process, it will be helpful for you to itemize what your goals are, how your undergraduate professional, academic and extra -curricular credentials have provided you with a foundation for reaching your goals and how the graduate program will help position you more competitively to accomplish them. Doing this will make you sound more focused and goal oriented as you write your application essays.  It will also help you stand out from your peers as a potentially valuable alumnus that the program would be happy to associate with.

2. Ensure that you have solid letters of recommendation: The letters of recommendation submitted by your Professors can go a long way into distinguishing you as a top applicant if you put enough effort and thought into communicating your goals, interests and aspirations with your Professors. During the application process, Professors often appreciated it when I took time to communicate my goals as a student with them as well as the key areas that the Graduate selection committees look out for in successful applicants. This helped them sharpen my recommendation letters, making them stronger, more relevant and more memorable.



As such, try to sit down with your Professors and give them ample notice about your Graduate school plans. In addition, choose your recommending Professors wisely. The best Professors are often those who you have worked extensively with you as a student, who strongly believe in your capabilities as a student and whose fields of study are directly related to your proposed area of specialization in graduate school.

3. Research the graduate school department extensively: This cannot be overemphasized. As an applicant, be sure to research your schools and department of interest extensively. Graduate selection committees at schools such as Cornell are particularly more inclined to pick a student who references the research papers and perhaps, even books authored by Professors in the department. If there is a Professor who you particularly like his or her area of scholarship in the graduate school you want to attend, it would help to read one or two of his or her research papers, reference them in your personal statement and perhaps even suggest a new insight or perspective concerning the research area. Going the extra mile in this way is impressive because it shows that you are really interested in the field beyond a superficial level. It also shows that the department is a strong fit for your interests and background.

4. Get relevant research experience as an undergraduate student: Graduate schools often value students who have had prior independent research experience while in University. Prior research experience convinces the Graduate selection committee that you are intellectually curious and that you are a competent, independent thinker. This will go a long way into distinguishing you from your peers. It will also give the committee more confidence about awarding you research or teaching assistantships, positions that can substantially help you reduce the cost of attendance in graduate school.

5. Be active on campus as an undergraduate student: Graduate selection committees like to see evidence of leadership and initiative. This gives them proof that you have strong leadership and team work skills. As an undergraduate student, endeavor to be engaged in your campus community. If your school does not have a student group that you think it should have, consider starting one. If you find campus organizations that you are interested in, join them and consider taking leadership positions in them to hone your leadership skills. All these will help make you a more well-rounded individual and applicant.

6. Get relevant internships as an undergraduate student: Having relevant internship experiences at top firms in your area of interest will help distinguish you from your peers. The ability to secure top internship positions prior to graduate school and excel at them helps convince the Graduate selection committee that you have the drive and persistence needed for success at a top graduate program. As such, as you prepare for the graduate school application process as a university student, endeavor to apply to competitive internship positions where you can learn practical and valuable skill sets that can enrich your learning experience as a graduate student.



Like I mentioned earlier, preparing effectively for your graduate program is a continuous process you should take seriously throughout your undergraduate education. In addition to getting good grades and test scores, the pointers above should help give you a competitive edge during the application process. It helped me get into Cornell. I hope it helps you get into the graduate program of your dreams! Good luck!

Nmachi Jidenma is currently a Graduate student in the Department of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell. Prior to Graduate school she did agribusiness research focusing on African countries for a D.C. based NGO, TechnoServe and performed independent research as an undergraduate student on African Capital Markets. She also interned at JPMorgan’s New York office and at Accenture’s office in Nigeria. While an undergraduate student, she won the Horn-Theophilus Award for outstanding extracurricular service.  She is currently the Founder/Publisher of CP-Africa.com, a Pan-African website that features progressive African ideas, positive trends and inspiring entrepreneurs.

Nathan Jeffery
Notification Bell