The Masters is not a walk in the park. To be successful in a programme, you need to possess a range of skills and personal strengths that will allow you to live up to the academic challenge.

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One of the main tasks of admissions officers assessing your application, therefore, is to make sure you have the potential to complete the programme. Despite the abundance of inspiring stories about famous people who dropped out but found success later on, pulling out halfway through a programme is not usually beneficial for you or the school. In order to avoid such a scenario, admissions officers look carefully into your track record, recommendation letters, and exam scores.  

Show me your track record

Academic transcripts offer admissions officers detailed information on the content and quality of your performance, courses taken each year, and grades received. While some intangible aspects such as persistence and determination are also important (and hopefully will shine through in your letters of recommendation) your grades may play a large part in your chances of admission. In a piece for U.S. News, Don Martin, a higher education admissions expert, wrote: “As you consider your graduate and professional school options, you must accept the fact that grades and test scores matter.

Many graduate schools have a score cutoff, which prevents students with grades below a certain level applying. Applicants to the Masters in Management at HEC Paris (France), for instance, are required to hold a Bachelor’s degree of at least three years in which they obtained 180 European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) credits in any field of studies (Engineering, Social Sciences, Sciences, Arts, etc.). The Masters in International Finance at the same school welcomes applications from aspirants who have a strong quantitative background and a 2:1 honours degree or above.

Some programmes, such as the Masters in Finance at Imperial College London (UK), are even more ambitious and point out that they prefer applicants with First Class Honours degrees. Admittedly, all these requirements can be confusing, especially if you come from a country where the academic grading system is different. Imperial has solved this problem by launching a website where international applicants can see the score requirements according to the grading structures in their own countries. For instance, German applicants to the Masters in Finance programme will find out that they need a Bachelor’s degree with a minimum overall grade of 2, but preference is given to those with 1.5 or better. At the same time, applicants from Lebanon need a degree with a minimum overall grade of between 3.0/4 and 3.15/4, depending on the university’s ranking. All this goes to show that grade requirements may appear cryptic if you are not familiar with the grading structure. That’s why you need to carefully check if your grades, once converted to the respective system, meet the requirements of your target programme.

Looking beyond your self-advocacy

Academic transcripts reveal only a part of the whole picture. To get an idea of who you are beyond your grades or entrance exam scores, admissions officers look at your letters of recommendation. A well-written letter has the potential to highlight the qualities of an applicant beyond their own self-representation, thus giving them an edge in a highly competitive applicant pool. In addition to granting a glimpse of your personality, character, and motivation for your chosen field, these letters help admissions officers validate the information in your application.

Read: The Graduate School Application Process in 5 Steps

Depending on your chosen programme and its goals, a request for a recommendation can be sent to your current or previous work colleagues, including supervisors, or university faculty members.

Before they approach faculty or employers for letters of recommendation, Harvard University applicants are asked to reflect on how these letters can strengthen their application and then to consider the qualities that the programme is looking for in an applicant. Aspirants also need to think carefully about how different letters can shine a light on different aspects of their personality. Harvard advises: “If you need to provide several letters of recommendation, consider how each letter can fill different needs and request letters from individuals who know you in different contexts and can comment on different strengths.

Recommenders are typically asked to give their personal impressions of your intellectual ability, professional skills, and character, and the quality of your previous work and potential for success academically, professionally, or both. They can also be asked to comment on your depth of involvement, emotional stability, and response to criticism. At the end of the day, remember that a letter can make a difference as to whether or not you are accepted. And you can only hope that your recommender will write something along the lines of "Grab him if you can", as Gilbert Ryle, professor of Philosophy at Oxford (UK), did for one of his students in the 1960s.

Scholastic aptitude

Aptitude tests are another aspect of your application that admissions officers consider when assessing your potential to successfully complete a course. Below you can find short overviews of the most commonly required tests.


Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores are accepted by MBA, specialised Masters, and other graduate business programmes. Since 2016, the GRE has also been accepted by law schools as an alternative to or instead of the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). The GRE is computer-adaptive and has three sections: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing. The overall testing time is about three hours and 45 minutes. The GRE is a computer-based test, with paper-based tests offered where computer testing is unavailable. Scores are valid for five years. In addition to the GRE General Test there are several tests relevant to a specific subject.

Read: What Is a GRE Subject Test?


The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is a computer-adaptive test that has four sections: Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA), Integrated Reasoning, Quantitative, and Verbal. The test takes just under three and a half hours to complete, including two optional breaks. GMAT scores are valid for five years. The test is widely accepted for MBA application, but also for a number of specialised Masters programmes such as MSc in Finance.


Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores are accepted by law schools in the United States, Canada, and an increasing number of other countries. The LSAT consists of five 35-minute sections of multiple-choice questions. The exam has one Reading Comprehension, one Analytical Reasoning, and two Logical Reasoning sections. Scores are valid for five years. Long known as an exclusively paper-based test, the LSAT is transitioning to a digital format and will be fully digital in North America starting in September 2019.

Internal and regional tests

Some schools such as Nyenrode Business Universiteit (Netherlands) and IE Business School (Spain) deploy internal tests to assess the abilities of applicants. In addition, there are tests such as TAGE-MAGE available only in certain countries. TAGE-MAGE is used for business school admission and is offered in dozens of institutions in French-speaking countries.

Statement of Purpose

Admissions teams not only review your academic record, but also aim to understand your ambitions. A motivation letter or statement of purpose reveals your academic and professional goals and how you think the programme will help you achieve them. Prospective graduate school students are expected to describe their potential for success and contribution to the programme. 

Universities want to be sure that you have what it takes to reach the end of the Masters road. Make sure you convince them that you are ready for this journey.

This article is original content produced by Advent Group and included in the 2019-2020 annual Access MBA, EMBA, and Masters Guide under the title “Do You Have What It Takes?”. The latest online version of the Guide is available here.