Since you started college—and probably even before that—it’s very likely that teachers, family members and classmates have been asking you what you want to do with your life. If you’re a senior, the deadline for formulating your official answer looms ominously near. If you’re a junior, the pressure to start preparing your post-graduation plans is probably starting to build. While there are various opportunities open to you after graduation, it can be difficult to decide which is right for you. While many students secure job offers in the fall, there are also plenty who choose to continue their education. This means a bigger, scarier version of the college application process. Between the standardized tests and essays, it can all be incredibly overwhelming.
I’ve put together a list of tips that are helping me get through the stress of applying to grad school. This information will be most helpful to students applying to Masters and PhD programs—applying to med school is a whole different beast that usually starts during junior year.
- Make sure you actually want to go to grad school
So many students, especially in STEM disciplines, feel like their only options post-grad are grad school and med school. This is definitely not the case! Make sure that grad school is something you really want to do because it’s a huge investment of time and money. You might need to spend time thinking through why you feel like you should apply to graduate programs, especially in light of whatever you ultimately see yourself doing. For example, if you hate doing research, getting a PhD is probably not for you. Talking to family, friends or academic advisors may also help you to make this decision.
- Make sure that you want to go right now
Many students take a gap year before going on to more school. This is a very viable option, and students take gap years for a lot of different reasons. In some cases, people are not ready to go straight into graduate coursework—either they feel like they need a break, or want to hone some of their field-specific skills. Often, students take a gap year when they don’t know exactly what they want to do yet. Some have a specific goal for their gap year, such as doing service work, or working in your field to gain experience, develop your skills and make some money. Ultimately, a gap year should be productive and it can even make your grad school application stronger.
- Ask for help
When I began my application process, I felt completely lost. I didn’t know what kinds of programs I should be looking for or how to figure out if I was a good candidate for any programs I came across. I couldn’t decide if it was worth it for me to take the GRE or not. I didn’t know how to write a personal statement that blended my story with my research experience. I was starting to panic. I reached out to my research mentor as well as some of my professors, and suddenly I felt like I had an entire army helping me apply to grad school. Each one of them brought different expertise to the process and helped me immensely. Plus, they are all writing me letters of recommendation, so your potential recommenders may be good people to start with when reaching out for support in the application process.
- Identify the type of degree you’re looking for
Are you looking for a Master’s degree or a Doctorate? Or will you apply to some of both? Often these programs have different deadlines. Read a little about the difference here. Many Master’s programs are rolling admission and getting your application in early could be hugely beneficial.
- Identify the area of study you are looking for
If you don’t already have a program in mind, think about your interests and your career goals. Browse through some graduate school websites and look at the disciplines they offer. This is another topic that would benefit from a conversation with your academic advisor or research mentor.
- Create a list of schools you will apply to
Decide where to apply. You can search through schools based on location, program, financial support and the research they are doing at that institution. Professors you know are a great resource for suggesting programs, especially faculty in the area in which you’re pursuing your graduate degree.
- Make a list of documents you will need to submit to each school and their deadlines
Most schools require three letters of recommendation, a CV or resume, transcripts (generally unofficial for this stage) and a personal statement. Most Master’s programs and some PhD programs will require the GRE, but this requirement is often program specific and will be stated on the program website. Be sure to ask your professors for letters of recommendation early on and check to see if they need anything from you to make writing your letter easier, such as a summary of your research, a short statement of why you want to go to grad school or your CV. This presentation was helpful when I was drafting my CV, though you don’t have to take every word literally. I would reach out to a faculty advisor or mentor to help you edit this as well as your personal statement.
- Submit and relax
You did all the hard work, congratulate yourself! Enjoy your time off before interview season begins.