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Applying to Grad School? 5 Tips For Making That Leap

 

This past Fall and Winter I took that big leap and decided to apply for graduate school. It was a difficult and stressful process, and one that I feel like society does not give us much prep for. So many people apply for college, but only a small minority do graduate work; therefore, it can be difficult to know what steps you need to take. For background, I was applying to English programs, mostly PhD with a few Masters thrown in for good measure. I’ve laid out 5 tips that I would’ve loved to have while I was applying in the hopes that some of these may help others in their process!

    

  1. Figure out what programs work for you- This will require some time and research. First, you need to decide what subject. Do you want to stick with your Bachelor’s subject or change it up and pursue something new? Then you need to decide what degree you’re going for. Masters? Doctorate? Combined Masters and Doctorate? These are all viable options and will vary based on school and your level of qualification. I started by searching for the best English graduate programs and then going to each school’s website and learning more from the source. There’s only so much US News can tell you; you want to look at the finer details, like: what is the funding like, are there professors in your research specialty, what kind of job placement opportunities are there, etc. These are all specific questions that vary by program and will require more research.

  2. Talk to current grad students or recent post grads- Before I even started the process, I made meetings with a bunch of grad students: professors I’ve had, TAs, even some current grad students in Emory’s English department. These are the people who can give you more insight into what the process is like today. While your tenured professors are great for recommendations and general mentorship, for some of them it’s been 20 years since they applied to graduate school. Speaking with current or recent grad students can tell you more about the struggles and successes. Also, ask them to be super candid! You don’t want this advice to be sugar coated when you’re making a huge life decision. Ask them deep questions like, can you actually live on the funding? What is it like being a POC in a predominantly white program? Have you ever wanted to quit? These are all important questions that deserve real answers.

  3. Reach out to your recommenders early- Almost any grad program you apply to will require 2-3 recommendation letters. These letters are ideally coming from someone who knows your academic abilities and who you have a good relationship with. Now this doesn’t mean you have to be best friends or their star pupil, but it should be someone you’ve spoken with individually and who you trust to put in the effort of actually submitting your letters on time. As a rule, you should give your recommenders at least a month’s notice before your first deadline. However, I would suggest reaching out to them even sooner. As soon as you know who you want to ask, just let them know of your plans to apply and that you were hoping they would write you a letter. This can be scary, but your professors are used to it! They do this all the time, it’s part of the job. Now they might still say no, but if you ask early enough it gives you time to find someone else. 

  4. Study for and take the GRE- This one can begin as early as right now or happen right before you apply. Like any standardized test, the GRE can be scary and overwhelming. If you think you can just wing it and not prepare, I would advise against that! I’m someone who never studied for the ACT or SAT, but I studied pretty hard for the GRE. Even as an English major, the vocab section was hard. And don’t even get me started on the math… This test is made to be difficult, so you should take the preparation seriously. Also, it costs $200 to take! So if you can help it, you don’t want to take it more than once. You can find tons of prep materials and practice questions online for free (I personally found the Kaplan practice test to be accurate in predicting my scores). Or you can use books and flashcards to give you that extra boost. I got my prep books from the library!!! This allowed me to save money and try a few different methods and see which one worked best for me. 

  5. Organize yourself- This one seems self-explanatory but it is so important. I applied to 8 different programs, all with their own requirements, their own portals, and their own deadlines. I kept a notebook with each program laid out, but if you are more of a digital person, make a spreadsheet. Just have something that allows you to keep track of where you are in the process and keep yourself accountable. This will also allow you to keep your recommenders accountable. No matter how organized you are, your recommenders can miss a deadline or just forget to submit. So by staying organized you can make sure that you are sending reminders to them and making sure everything is submitted on time!

 

I know these tips were long, but I hope they’ve offered some help in this difficult process! And if you’re overwhelmed, remember that there are tons of people willing to support you through this process: your professors, the career center, friends who have done it before you. Grad school applications can be daunting, but not impossible!

Delaney is an English major who can be bribed with good books and good tea. When she's not studying, you can find her cuddling with her dogs and listening to Hozier. She describes herself as a mixture of Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation and Erin from The Office, and is a lover of all things Fall.
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