In applying to graduate program, what are some ways to prove knowledge gained from self-study?

I've been told of the following:

  • Independently conduct research / create projects that require the knowledge

  • Partake in research that requires the knowledge

  • Contribute to a project that requires the knowledge

But the former seems like an expensive hurdle in many experiment-heavy fields, and the latter two seem like a catch 22. You must collaborate with people to prove your knowledge, but you must prove your knowledge to be considered for collaboration.

Are there other ways to do so?

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    Adding your field probably helps getting helpful answers (you mention experiment-heavy, but that could still be many fields). Commented Aug 2, 2014 at 15:41
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    @gnometorule Thanks for the advice. I tried to keep it general to benefit other people in similar positions who might be studying other topics on their own. In my case - mathematics - isn't as experiment-heavy, but someone else's case might be.
    – Kenkis
    Commented Aug 2, 2014 at 15:48
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    (1) if it involves any coding (or can be made to - eg, implement GCD and such in a decent language), create a github showing some of your work; (2) answering questions on MSE at least shows some passion and knowledge in fields you're interested in once you have some rep. Both not traditional/perfect, but to jump start collaborations in math is probably hard. Commented Aug 2, 2014 at 15:54

4 Answers 4


One may prove their knowledge by these aspects.

  • They may have a certificate of the courses they have passed.
  • They may have a publication or patent registration in the field of their personal studies.
  • They may have worked in the field of their knowledge and their projects and portfolio is a proof of their knowledge.

A website designer may not have any certification of their design knowledge, but the websites they have designed are the proof of their knowledge.

  1. You may have done voluntary/paid teaching at your undergraduate university or in an educational institute, so you have the certification of your teaching activity and that may be counted as a proof of your teaching and your knowledge. (Also teaching/research assistantships to a course which you have never passed but you did assistantship in that area.)

  2. You may have some publications in the area of your knowledge, for instance, a published paper or book; or a contribution to a publication which is so related to your knowledge.

  3. You may have done some jobs related to your knowledge. An engineering design, done some code-developing, etc.

  4. You may have a recommendation letter from a professor in which has written that you have sit in their class for that course, but you have never registered for the course; so it proves that you have the knowledge of the course.

However, as far as you are registering for a graduate program, you must fulfill their requirements not what is generally/logically reasonable or what seems to be acceptable. So it is better to provide all your proofs in your CV or their application process website and let them ask you for more official documents. Also, you can email them and ask for your special issue.

P.S. It seems that your question indicates self-study knowledge, but some people may have done some non-degree programs and certificates of those courses may also prove their knowledge in the course.


How about giving a talk on what you have learned -- e.g. at the scientific student society (or perhaps there is a separate student seminar)?

If for some reasons this is not feasible, consider finding other students interested in the subject and form a (informal) study group to study this subject deeper. If you form such a group, you can also consider asking the professor who is an expert in the subject to (informally) guide/supervise this group in some way.

  • Thanks for answering. I think trying to convince a group of your worth as a speaker would end up as the same catch-22.
    – Kenkis
    Commented Aug 2, 2014 at 16:03
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    @Kenkis: Why the downvote? I absolutely do not see catch-22 here as the group in question (the audience for your talk) is, in general, not the one you would like to work with on your research subject. Moreover, having to explain what you have learned to a non-expert audience usually has an extra benefit of helping you to improve your own understanding of what you have learned. Commented Aug 2, 2014 at 16:10
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    @justlearning I did not downvote. That's a good point, but you still have to convince those you're presenting to that your presentation is worthwhile. Without any credentials or experience, I'd have to wonder why anyone would listen to a word from the presenter, let alone allow the presentation in the first place.
    – Kenkis
    Commented Aug 2, 2014 at 16:17
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    I think this is a great option. It doesn't even have to be a very formal talk at all. Ask a professor who likes you if you can give a 15 minute guest lecture. Ask the local chapter of (insert student society here) if they'd be willing to host a discussion section on (insert topic of interest).
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 2, 2014 at 16:22
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    @kenkis Most places I am familiar with they will jump for joy if you ask to give a talk in a student seminar. Usually those can be really hard to find speakers for. Commented Aug 2, 2014 at 17:05

One way of proving your knowledge is getting a letter of recommendation from a professor, or someone who can vouch for it.

One of my favorite professors told me, "If you ever come by some knowledge where the source isn't obvious I'll vouch for your knowledge of it if you can demonstrate it to me."


If you have your own professional site (science blog, tasteful web comic, whatever) you can produce some original content that builds on the knowledge gained during your independent study.

If you can manage to propose some minor extensions or future applications of that knowledge, even better, as it shows that you not only learned something but you have thought of where it can be applied in future research.

Then just tactfully reference this content in your application.

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