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Do’s and Don’ts When Applying to Grad School

Applying to graduate school can seem like a daunting task, especially when you are trying to get it all done while taking courses and trying to enjoy your senior year. As my application season came and went, I learned a few things along the way that I hope can be helpful to others going through the same process.

Organization

Do

Make a spreadsheet. Mine was the most helpful resource I had throughout the process. There is so much information to keep track of, and it can get confusing when different programs have slightly different prerequisites or deadlines. Having everything listed in one place is a great way to stay organized and prevent getting overwhelmed. For reference, my headings were: university name, online/in person, city, program length, application deadline, GRE (not)required, supplemental essay question, # of recommendations, resume (not)required, tuition, and the link to the program’s homepage.

Don't

Let the amount of information overwhelm you. Most of the programs will end up having overlapping information, and seeing it all in one place should excite you for the future!

Location

Do

Consider if you will be happy in a big city or small town.

Reflect on how important the weather is to you. If four years of Maine snow was enough for you, maybe you want to attend grad school in the sun.

Don't

Apply to programs solely based on ranking. One school may be beneficial for most people, but not have that one specific factor that is important to you.

Choose a school based on where your friends will be living. If it works out that you end up living near friends that is great, but that should not be the deciding factor. Living in a new place without familiar faces is intimidating, but you will meet new people and there are so many ways to keep in touch with old friends.

Letters of Recommendation

Do

Secure your letters of recommendation as early as possible! Not only is it polite to give the writers ample time to compose a letter, it’s also nice to be able to check that task off your checklist.

Choose carefully who you want to write your letters. Most programs require either one or two of your recommendations be from professors. These letters are a way for admissions committees to hear others’ perspectives on you from firsthand experience, so choosing who you want to write your letters is a big decision. 

Think about what professors you have had the strongest relationships with and who can talk positively about your academic abilities. The more personal you think the letter can be, the better. I also believe it is beneficial to have a recommendation from someone in your desired field. If you have had an internship in the field, your advisor can be a great person to ask to write a letter of recommendation because they can attest to your ability to perform well in the field. 

Don't

Choose the professor that may seem the most prestigious or has taught the most challenging course you have taken. It’s all about your individual experience with the professor.

Essays

Do

Start early. Just like for the application process we went through in high school, it’s best to stay on top of everything your program’s need. 

Use anecdotes and lots of examples. It’s so much easier to read a compelling story than just a list of achievements. 

Ask people to read over your essays. Whether it’s an academic advisor or just your roommate, it’s always good to get an extra set of eyes on your writing.

Don't

Be generic. Again, try to brainstorm a unique perspective on your experiences and share it through a storytelling lens. The admissions committees read a lot of essays, so you want to stand out.

GRE

Do

Take advantage of the free resources ETS provides on their website. There are multiple practice exams that do not have fees, and they really prepare you for the real thing.

Watch YouTube videos on topic reviews. Manhattan Prep GRE has amazing videos that are, of course, free on YouTube. I hadn’t looked at a math question since senior year of high school, so these videos really saved me when it came to studying for the quantitative section of the GRE.

Don't

Be unprepared. The GRE is designed to trick you, so learning the format of the test and how the questions are meant to be answered is important if you’re striving for a good score. There are so many available resources, and even just running through some practice questions online can be a big help.

Stress too much!! Graduate programs look at so much more than standardized test scores, and I have heard again and again at information sessions that GRE scores are a really small factor of your application. As long as you have a solid resume, good recommendations, and a strong essay, don’t sweat a low GRE score.

Overall, you should be proud of the fact that you are applying to graduate school. The future can seem so uncertain at this stage of life, but by accepting this process you are one step closer to reaching your goals and making the future a reality.

Sarah is a current senior at Colby from Westchester, New York. She is a psychology major and art minor.
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