The Inside Scoop on Grad School Applications A veteran application reviewer offers exclusive insights on strengthening your case. Student's Say
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Student's Say  |   November 01, 2018
The Inside Scoop on Grad School Applications
Author Notes
  • Brenda C. Seal, PhD, CCC-SLP, is professor and director of the speech-language pathology program at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and professor emerita in communication sciences and disorders at James Madison University. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 6, Hearing and Hearing Disorders: Research and Diagnostics; 7, Aural Rehabilitation and Its Instrumentation; 9, Hearing and Hearing Disorders in Childhood; and 10, Issues in Higher Education. brenda.seal@gallaudet.edu
    Brenda C. Seal, PhD, CCC-SLP, is professor and director of the speech-language pathology program at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and professor emerita in communication sciences and disorders at James Madison University. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 6, Hearing and Hearing Disorders: Research and Diagnostics; 7, Aural Rehabilitation and Its Instrumentation; 9, Hearing and Hearing Disorders in Childhood; and 10, Issues in Higher Education. brenda.seal@gallaudet.edu×
Article Information
School-Based Settings / Student's Say
Student's Say   |   November 01, 2018
The Inside Scoop on Grad School Applications
The ASHA Leader, November 2018, Vol. 23, 34-36. doi:10.1044/leader.SSAY.23112018.34
The ASHA Leader, November 2018, Vol. 23, 34-36. doi:10.1044/leader.SSAY.23112018.34
EMAIL: Dear FIRST NAME, I’m a senior majoring in CSD at COLLEGE, and my dream since freshman year is to get into your SLP grad program. I’d love to set up a meeting one Friday evening or Saturday in October to talk about my application and how I can improve my chances of getting in. Signed, FIRST NAME
It’s October—midterm time. Communication sciences and disorders (CSD) professors are in the midst of reassuring first-year graduate students questioning the increased demands of class and clinic assignments, and scheduling meetings to discuss recent test grades or potential thesis topics with others.
In the midst of this frenzy, some graduate program directors receive some version of the above email four or five times a week. The emails are often followed by a phone message that emphasizes the urgency of booking a flight to make a desired weekend meeting.
We don’t tend to meet with prospective graduate students about their applications and how to improve their chances of acceptance. Instead….
EMAIL RESPONSE: Thank you for your interest in our graduate program, FIRST NAME. I look forward to seeing your application and hope it offers all the variables we look for in those students who are accepted. I’ll also invite you to attend our Graduate Fair/Open House on DATE (see information below). I look forward to talking with you then. Signed, FIRST INITIAL LAST NAME
In 35-plus years of reviewing thousands of speech-language pathology graduate school applications, we’re still searching for the best possible students to make up the best possible class of future speech-language pathologists. So what are graduate-degree programs looking for? What variables do I—and many of my colleagues—use as we determine who to accept, waitlist or reject?

Wonderful GPAs, high GRE scores and great letters of reference will almost certainly guarantee a waitlisted spot. Attitudes of “just tell me what I need to know and what I need to do” can just about guarantee a rejected spot by many reviewers.

Variable 1—Grades
The best predictor of grades in grad school is undergraduate grades. We reviewers give grade-point averages (GPAs) an important look when we sort applicants by cumulative and major GPAs on a spreadsheet. GPAs calculated from only the CSD classes can be really difficult to rank, though, when looking at three candidates with similar qualifications and only a hundredth of a point difference in their grades (3.71, 3.69 and 3.70, for example).
Cumulative GPAs (3.25, 3.50 and 3.69 for these same three candidates) may help the sorting, but it’s often the transcript that offers more detailed information: What was the candidate’s grade in anatomy? Phonetics? Acoustics? Was there a thesis? A minor?
And why so many changes in undergraduate majors? The National Center for Educational Statistics reported in 2017 that 35 percent of science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) majors, and 26 percent of students in health care fields change majors within three years of graduating. Low freshman grades often account for the discrepancy between major and cumulative GPA, and signal a change in the candidate’s area of study.
We are receiving increasingly more applications from non-CSD students, whose applications require additional scrutiny of prerequisite course grades, undergrad major GPA and graduation year (for example, an applicant graduated with a 3.1, majored in biology, and has been working in a medical lab for three years while taking her prerequisites online). Nontraditional applicants deserve a closer look. Often disillusioned by a career (or career start), they are highly dedicated to hard work to compensate for their lack of an undergrad CSD degree.
So yes, we start with grades. But experience reminds us of solid-B students who outperformed A+ students in interpersonal skills, which are so important to clinic and classroom success. Grades simply aren’t enough; we have to look at other variables.
Variable 2—Standardized test scores
GRE scores also help sort top applicants from those at the bottom. Ideally, accepted applicants present GRE scores in the 70th and higher percentile range, and rejected applicants score in the 30th percentile and below across all three categories.
But although some students score solidly in the middle ranges, others present disparate GRE scores across the three sections—14th percentile quantitative, 52nd percentile verbal, and 85th percentile writing, for example. Experience reminds us of the student who struggled to score standardized tests accurately in her on- and off-campus practicums (she needed someone to double-check her math), yet ranked highly with a difficult supervisor because she entered the best-ever SOAP (subjective, objective, assessment, plan) notes.
Again, we have to look to other variables in assigning points to the application spreadsheet.

Students who impress reviewers with a love of challenge and change, who appear excited about the possibilities of new discoveries and diverse learning opportunities, and who offer a value in “adaptability” tend to move rapidly to the top of those who are accepted.

Variable 3—Communication
More and more posted SLP openings in rehab centers, hospitals, early intervention and schools mention “essential functions” for their new hires. Given that the goal of accepting students into grad school is to graduate these students some five semesters later with promise of a clinical fellowship, graduate program reviewers are looking more intently for evidence of essential functions in their applicants’ profiles. Communication is prominent in the list of basic skills.
We often look for clues to good communication skills in letters of reference: If I see any positive mention of communication (“She was always the first to raise her hand in my class, answering and asking questions that benefitted other students”), it leaves a favorable impression as I’m reading the hundreds of letters that help sort applicants.
In returning to the opening email, what was your impression of the applicant’s communication?
Variable 4—Diversity
The CSD professions are constantly changing, and we are hungry for graduate students who speak more than one language and understand cultural backgrounds of clients from growing minorities. Diversity means more than including students from culturally and linguistically different backgrounds, however. We also look for students who can “adapt” to cultural and linguistic differences (see the discussion of “adaptability” in an ASHA Special Interest Groups Perspectives article by Soren Lowell and colleagues.
Applicants who impress reviewers—either in their written communication or in their phone calls and visits (and at Gallaudet, we value sign communication as an important measure of cultural-linguistic diversity)—with a genuine excitement about this rapidly changing profession and their adaptability during change, tend to rise to the top of the accepted list.
Wonderful GPAs, high GRE scores and great letters of reference will almost certainly guarantee a waitlisted spot. Attitudes of “just tell me what I need to know and what I need to do” can just about guarantee a rejected spot by many reviewers.
Students who impress reviewers with a love of challenge and change, who appear excited about the possibilities of new discoveries and diverse learning opportunities, and who offer a value in “adaptability” tend to move rapidly to the top of those who are accepted.
Best wishes to all students applying this winter, and to the many reviewers who search for the best combination of all possible variables.
Sources
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association., (2016). Scope of Practice in Speech-Language Pathology [Scope of Practice]. Available from www.asha.org/policy.
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association., (2016). Scope of Practice in Speech-Language Pathology [Scope of Practice]. Available from www.asha.org/policy.×
Lowell, S. Y., Vigil, D. C., Abdelaziz, M., Edmonds, K., Goel-Sakhalkar, P., Guiberson, M., … Scott, D. (2018). Pathways to cultural competence: Diversity backgrounds and their influence on career path and clinical care. Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups, 3 (SIG 14), 30–39. DOI:10.1044/persp3.SIG14.30. [Article]
Lowell, S. Y., Vigil, D. C., Abdelaziz, M., Edmonds, K., Goel-Sakhalkar, P., Guiberson, M., … Scott, D. (2018). Pathways to cultural competence: Diversity backgrounds and their influence on career path and clinical care. Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups, 3 (SIG 14), 30–39. DOI:10.1044/persp3.SIG14.30. [Article] ×
National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), (2017). Percentage of 2011–12 First Time Post secondary Students Who Had Ever Declared a Major in an Associate’s or Bachelor’s Degree Program Within 3 Years of Enrollment, by Type of Degree Program and Control of First Institution: 2014. Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Available at:https://nces.ed.gov/datalab/tableslibrary/viewtable.aspx?tableid=11764.
National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), (2017). Percentage of 2011–12 First Time Post secondary Students Who Had Ever Declared a Major in an Associate’s or Bachelor’s Degree Program Within 3 Years of Enrollment, by Type of Degree Program and Control of First Institution: 2014. Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Available at:https://nces.ed.gov/datalab/tableslibrary/viewtable.aspx?tableid=11764.×
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November 2018
Volume 23, Issue 11