Photo by Kelly Sikkema

To all of my friends and future friends who have decided to pursue a graduate degree I say “CONGRATULATIONS!” Going back to school is not easy, but with a clear vision and financial discipline, earning a graduate degree can be a life changing experience, both professionally and personally.

If you are a first-generation college grad, like me, you probably did not have many examples to of how to apply to college, much less on how to apply to graduate school to get that graduate degree. If this describes you, then let’s take a deep dive in to the top five things standing between you and getting a graduate degree. This isn’t an exhaustive list but they are the common challenges I see in first generation graduate school applicants and my take on how to overcome those challenges.

#1 The Ability to Sell Yourself

Coming from humble beginnings teaches you how to be humble. For grad school admissions, you have to be polished, ready to compete and begin to humbly brag about your accomplishments. So how do you develop this skill in a short time to be successful in a graduate school program? You practice!

Practice saying out loud why you want a Master’s degree; practice saying out loud why your #1 school is your #1 school. Do they have a curriculum that screams your name? Does it have a student culture that just fits perfectly with your personality? If so, practice saying why you feel passionately about that school and practice saying why you are a good fit to be there, too. Talk about the contributions you can make to the program. Share your leadership stories, whether it’s from past work experiences, with your fraternity/sorority or with your volunteer work. Sell the school on why you will be a great choice to join their incoming class.

#2 Overcoming The “Not Good Enough” Mentality

There are three simple rules in life:

• If you do not go after what you want, you will never have it
• If you do not ask, the answer will always be no
• If you do not step forward, you will always be in the same place

In the past 10 years I have spoken with, interviewed and coached over 1,000 first generation graduate school applicants. The self-imposed mental block of why many believed they were not ready to compete at the highest academic levels was disheartening. The majority of the graduate school candidates who choose to apply to a small number of schools usually say it’s for family reasons. I am not referring to those applicants who are married and must limit their choice of schools because their spouse has a great job and it just does not make financial sense to move. I am, however, referring to those that do not want to leave the safety of the nest (parents, siblings, etc) because they do not believe they can compete due to circumstances beyond their control. Regardless if you graduated from a state school, got kicked out of school, or went to the military first or whatever the reason may be that you feel you cannot compete, this is an internal demon that only you can conquer. The person you are today is not the same person you were then. You have overcome challenges whereas some current grad school candidates that are applying to your dream school would have faltered in the face of fear or doubt. This is grit. You are ready.

#3 The Ability to Write Down Your Career Goals

For many first-generation grad school applicants, there seems to be a degree of writer’s block that occurs when it’s time to put together an essay. I have seen frustration set in so early in the writing process that some people choose to stop the application process completely. Not being able to move beyond the first paragraph in their personal statement is a huge issue. The easiest way to approach your graduate school application essays is by telling a memorable story. As a first-generation grad applicant, you have many stories that you can share about your family and how you grew up. These stories are the makeup of why you will be a competitive force in your field of choice. The only part that will require time is crafting your story in an essay format. The worst thing you can do is get stuck and stop. Keep writing and something great will eventually come out.

#4: Getting the Right Letter of Recommendation

The biggest hump to get over is asking your manager for a letter of recommendation. You can’t feel guilty that you may be disappointing your boss. Unless you are working in a family business, your boss probably already knows that you won’t keep you forever.

Even when we do build up the courage to ask for a letter of recommendation, we hardly ever get involved with the drafting of the letter. Provide your recommender with the questions that the schools are asking. Give your recommender time to think about how they will answer the question. Invite them to lunch/coffee or a walk so you can both brainstorm on which examples to give to ensure the letter of recommendation will be solid. Make sure your recommender has a clear understanding of where you see your career progressing. Give your recommender the deadlines when each letter of recommendation is due. By minimizing their questions, you will reduce your stress level too.

#5 Relying on Your Personal Circle to Proofread Essays

Having a close network of friends who you can share life experiences with is essential to your personal development and happiness. However, asking your peer group to provide a critical review of your essays is not the best way to improve your personal statement. Graduate school applications ask varying questions in order to get the most insight from their candidates. For example, Stanford asks, “What Matters Most to You, and Why?” Duke asks, “Share with us your list of ‘25 Random Things’ about YOU” and Cornell asks, “You are the author for the book of Your Life Story. Please create the table of contents for your book.” Unless your friends have demonstrated a proven track record to successfully coach individuals on how to address these unique, but real examples for essay questions, you are doing yourself a disservice by asking your pal to proofread. Reach out to current students, recent alumni, or hire an admissions consultant to help you.

The challenges for a first-generation grad school applicant are unique. You are expected to perform at equal or higher levels than your peers who may have had years of mental preparation. The task is not insurmountable. Many have successfully accomplished their goals, but success is seldom achieved alone. Ask for help. Lean on those who are willing to give you their time to provide you with the necessary assistance. Create an action plan and earn your graduate degree!

About The Author

Jesse A. Mejia is the Founder & CEO of MBA Catalyst, an MBA admissions consulting firm. Jesse has been quoted by the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and has been a featured guest on National Public Radio. He is a member of the National Speakers Association and is a sought after speaker on the topic of personal economic empowerment. Jesse is the author of Dual Track: Graduating from College with Options and ¡Rise Up, Mi Gente! A Roadmap for Latinos to Achieve Success in Corporate America. To learn more about Jesse, visit

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