Applying to graduate school is weird. The minute you start school as an undergrad and you think you’ve finally gotten a hang of this college thing, you find yourself going through the application process all over again. And, as a senior trying to finish your last year on a high note while balancing jobs, clubs, and other responsibilities, the last thing you really want to do is add another task to your plate. However, depending on your career and academic goals, this step toward grad school is often necessary. As with all life experiences, when doing something as big as applying to grad school, you learn a few things along the way. And, at risk of being redundant, most of these lessons have to do with time management and procrastination (AKA, avoiding the fact that you actually have to somewhat figure out what you’re going to do with your life).
Even though I’m a senior and should probably know better by now, (do we really ever learn?) procrastination was a major roadblock for me, which made the process more stressful than it probably should have been. If you are someone who is thinking about going to grad school and applying in the near future, here are some things to keep in mind while filling out the applications.
1. Ask for letters of recommendation early.
I offer this piece of advice for two reasons. One, it’s just polite. When asking for a recommendation letter, remember that you are asking your professors to take time out of their busy schedules to do you a favor. Also remember that it is very unlikely that you are the only student who has asked that professor for a letter. Once you figure out who you want to ask, go to them in September (early October at the latest) and make your request. That way, they should have plenty of notice and be able to budget enough time for all the letters they are writing, plus their normal teaching responsibilities. If/when they say yes (I’ve never heard of someone refusing to write a recommendation letter, but always ask first just to be sure), send them an email listing the schools and programs you’re applying to, along with a copy of your resume so they can make the letter a bit more personal.
Second, it also takes some weight off of your shoulders. Once your professors have been given a heads up that they will be getting a letter request from X number of schools, and once you have put their contact information in the application, it is kind of out of your hands at that point. While that might sound scary, it was actually kind of a relief for me. When I got home for winter break, the only requirement I had completed on my applications was that all of the recommendation letters had been submitted. While this is a testament to my laziness (more on that later), it was also nice to know that it was one less thing I had to worry about.
2. Start the application ASAP!
Once you determine where you are applying, make an account and start the application as soon as possible. Even if you don’t start filling it out right away, at least start it to the point where you can look through it and see what all the requirements are. While your graduate program’s website will tell you the requirements in general terms, the application itself might give you some more specific information.
3. Finish them over winter break.
This was just really stupid on my part. I had every intention of finishing all of my applications over break, I really did. But I only ended up submitting one out of three over break. More specifically, I submitted this application on the last day of break, and only because it was due the day we came back. Yes, I know, I’m horrible. My only excuse is that last semester was really stressful and the last thing I wanted to do when I got home was do more work. While this sounds like at least a half reasonable excuse, I was kicking myself when the semester started. The first two weeks, which should have been spent growing acclimated to my new classes, were overshadowed with this cloud of uncompleted grad school applications that should have been submitted weeks earlier. Even though no one ever really wants to do any work over break, take this time to get your applications done and out of the way. You will thank yourself for it later.
4. Start the essay early. And if a professor offers to read it for you, take them up on it.
This is the other part of the process that I really screwed up. Instead of starting my essay in September/October, I didn’t start writing it until the first week of January. Starting the essay earlier will give you more time to sort out your thoughts and write a few drafts. This will also give you ample time to get a second opinion from a professor. Asking someone to read your draft is definitely a good idea, but sometimes professors will offer without you having to ask once they find out you are applying to grad school. This is what one of my professors did, and I wish I took her up on her offer. Even though I’m pretty confident in my writing skills and my ability to do good work under pressure, a second opinion would have been really helpful.
5. Take the GRE, or other required tests, before the rest of the application process begins (preferably during the summer, if possible).
Again, I know no one wants to do stuff during break but, whether we like it or not, breaks are less busy than during the semester, thus making them an ideal time to get things done. Especially in the case of graduate exams, summer break gives you a few months to study before taking the test. Be sure to keep in mind that, while studying for a test during the summer is no fun, it would be even less fun to prepare for these exams during the semester when you have four or five other classes worth of work to do. Completing these exams over the summer will ensure that you have one less thing to worry about once the semester starts.
6. Take some time to have a conversation with a trusted professor.
As I’ve said before, applying to grad school is a big deal. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably second guessing yourself every day. What if grad school isn’t for me? What if none of my schools accept me? Why am I putting myself through this? These are all natural questions to be asking; everyone has their doubts, especially about themselves. One important thing to remember through this whole process is that your professors have all experienced what you are going through. They’ve all gone to grad school, and many have also gone for a doctorate degree. They’ve been through this before, so they know how you’re feeling. But, if it’s someone writing you a recommendation letter who you’ve worked with before, they also know you and that you are capable of succeeding in your grad school track. When you’re having doubts and/or need some experienced advice, go have a chat with a professor who knows you and you trust. I’ve had at least three conversations with one of my professors about grad school, and I’ll probably go to her office looking for reassurance and advice at least two or three more times before May 13th. Whether it’s directly related to course work or not, your professors are here to help you. If you go to them asking for guidance, I guarantee that they will help in any way they can.
Now that you have some more advice under your belt, go forth and slay those applications!