How to Craft a Competitive Resume for Your Graduate School Application

Lori Shreve Blake from the USC Career Center shares her top tips for writing a graduate school resume and everything that applicants should include.

While applying to graduate school may sound like a demanding process, the steps and application requirements are fairly similar to prepping for your undergraduate degree, including collecting letters of recommendation, writing a personal statement and securing any necessary transcripts.

However, there are key differences between the applications, especially depending on what kind of master’s degree, graduate certificate or doctoral program you’re considering.

One asset most prospective students are asked for is a graduate school resume. Sure, it sounds familiar — essentially anyone who has applied to a job has had to write a resume — but what exactly should it include? And how do you make sure it conveys you’re a great candidate for the program?

We spoke with Lori Shreve Blake, senior director of career engagement at the USC Career Center, to determine how a graduate school resume differs from an employment resume, as well as crucial tips for how to write a stellar one.

What Is a Graduate School Resume?

First things, first: A graduate school resume is a document that gives the school’s admissions committee the information it needs to determine what you bring to the table as a candidate. It’s in this resume where you can really expand on your skills and qualifications that may not have come up in other parts of your application.

While it is quite similar in many ways to a work resume, the grad school resume places a great emphasis on education and academic achievements, as well as work experiences that relate to the program you’d like to join.

“Similar to a job resume, where we say tailor your resume according to the job, it would be tailor your resume according to the grad program and what their requirements are for admissions,” Blake told USC Online.

What Should Your Graduate School Resume Include?

Much like a work resume, a graduate school resume should start off with a clear header that includes the basic information about yourself, such as your name and your contact information, and contains your address, phone number and email address.

From there, you should highlight your past education experience and any academic highlights.

“Graduate school candidates should highlight academic achievements including membership in an honors society, dean’s list,  academic research and projects, this shows the person’s commitment to the graduate program that they’re pursuing,” Blake explained.

Candidates may also include study abroad program, a list of relevant classes you’ve taken, your thesis title, certifications you’ve obtained and any other relevant educational experience.

Next, you should dive into your work experience. Highlight the jobs you’ve held — especially ones that demonstrate why you’d be a fit for the graduate program — as well as any pertinent volunteer positions and internships.

“I think showing the work experience and how it relates to the graduate degree is really a key point, especially if you’re going to grad school … for a job,” Blake said. “Depending on what type of grad program you’re going for, they’re going to want to see certain types of experiences, so make sure you have [ones] that are unique and specific to that particular grad program. For example, if I want to get a master’s in social work, I’m going to show that I worked in the community and … similar experiences, even though I’m not a social worker yet.”

Blake added that your job history might be a requirement for some graduate programs, such as an MBA: “They may require three to five years of business work experience before you’re even qualified to be considered for an MBA at a premier institution,” she said.

Tips for How to Write a Graduate School Resume

Ask yourself whom you’re writing for. If you’re feeling stuck in the initial stages of crafting the perfect resume, consider your target, Blake advised.

“We need to think, when we’re writing, who are we writing for? What are they going to want to see? Put yourself in their place. If I’m hiring for a job, why? What am I looking for? If I’m admitting someone for a PhD in neuroscience, what kind of experiences am I looking for? How are you showing that you are an academic even before we make you one and actually admit you to the program? You have to show that you’re doing the job or at least trying to go down that path before you even get admitted,” she expanded.

Be detailed and specific about your accomplishments. While listing off your various past achievements, you want to make sure you’re being as clear as possible about what you’ve accomplished in the past. This helps you tell a better story about your experience and really gives the admissions committee insight into your successes.

“My advice to grad school applicants is to quantify. Tell a story in those bullets. Don’t just tell me, ‘I researched sleep to determine synapses.’ That’s not enough. You researched the brain to determine synapses, resulting in a publication in the American Medical Journal. That’s what we want to see — quantifying numbers, if you’ve worked with any big names … Or say, if it’s for an MBA, it’s going to be more, what did you do in business when you were working? What did you do that really made an impact at your workplace?” Blake said.

Keep it concise. The point of the graduate school resume is to truly expand on your accomplishments so the school knows why they should be rushing to admit you. Of course, that doesn’t mean sending in pages and pages about every course you’ve taken or internship you’ve held. Per Blake, the golden rule is a one-page resume if you have zero to nine years of experience, and a two-page resume if you have 10 years of experience.

Is the skill or experience relevant to the program at hand? If not, you can leave it out. Information from your high school days probably isn’t relevant, either, if you’re an older candidate returning to your studies.

Be smart about your social media. These days, it seems everyone has a robust online presence — and you can be sure it’ll come up when someone Googles your name. The reality is, your online presence will be examined when you apply for a graduate school program, so make sure any public profiles are professional.

Social media can also be a major asset — Blake recommends updating your LinkedIn profile and using it as a professional website for yourself. Link the URL in your resume, so they have easy access to a digital version of your achievements.

Maintain a professional aura. Above all, make sure you keep it professional with your graduate school resume. There is no need to include photos of yourself, for example, or too much personal information. While you want the admissions committee to get an idea of your values, you’re leaning on your accomplishments here, not personality or personal experiences.

“When you’re trying to get into a graduate school, it’s still a business transaction, right? You’re selling yourself. So, you’re just not going to have a lot of personal information there,” Blake emphasized.

Should You Use a Template to Write Your Graduate School Resume?

While it may be tempting to take advantage of a graduate school resume template or lift from examples, Blake said to steer clear of using a pre-set template.

“What I absolutely hate — and I think people can see this a mile away — is using a resume template. Don’t use a resume template,” Blake insisted. “The formatting is often off, and it’s not really what people like to see.  I would definitely say don’t use a resume template, use a blank Word document, and kind of work through your resume that way.”

Crafting an original resume will help you stand out from the crowd. After all, each graduate school resume is unique: It needs to fit both the program you’re applying to and your own past.

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all for a job resume, and there’s not a one-size-fits-all for a graduate school resume,” Blake concluded.

For more information, visit the Office of Graduate Admission at USC and explore USC Online’s graduate school timeline.