How to Apply to Graduate School: Don’t Panic!

3Feb2013aI wanted to launch a little series on this blog about applying to graduate school since I recently survived my first (and perhaps my last!) application season. I don’t start my Master’s program until August so I’m not really an expert on graduate programs; however, I did spend most of last autumn and winter scrambling to learn as much about applying to graduate school as I could. I didn’t feel ready to apply to Ph.D. programs (save for one, just for the hell of it, and wound up being wait-listed) because the job market for English Ph.D.s right now is absolutely dismal. Besides, I’m twenty years old, and seven to ten years is a massive commitment. I love school, and although presently my dream is to one day complete a Ph.D., that may not be the case when I’m twenty-two and accepting a Masters degree (assuming I finish my program, of course!).

Part of the reason I think it’s so important for me to write about this, even though this sort of information is easily accessible all over the internet, is that I really want to do a thorough job of giving tips and relating my personal experiences in a way that doesn’t foster crippling anxiety. I’ll be honest—graduate school applications gave me so much anxiety, I was unable to get more than four hours of sleep a night for a few weeks. I used to call my mom, in tears, because if I didn’t get into grad school my life would be over (obviously this was hyperbolic of me; but it still stands that my mom’s loveseat back in our population: 10k hometown is not an option for me). I look back on my behavior and think it silly, while at the same time recognizing that there are a lot of other people out there who are likely going to be just as neurotic several months from now.

My first official “tip” about applying to grad school, while not exactly productive, will make this process so much less painful: calm down. Being a nervous wreck will not make your application better, it will not make you test better, and your grades will likely suffer as you spend more time agonizing over your applications than focusing on your existing work. I’m not really an advocate of the power of positive thinking, but having confidence in yourself—a little bit is totally fine, I promise—will keep your life from dissolving into a four-month long, e-mail refreshing hell.

If graduate school means a lot to you and if you go about your application wisely, you shouldn’t have too much difficulty being accepted into at least one program. However, one thing that is important to note is that you might not be accepted into a school on your own terms—for instance, you may not receive funding or you might spend time on a wait list. This is still okay, and it doesn’t mean you’re unqualified or dumb. Most programs have an abundance of fantastic applications and due to budget restrictions, they’re not always able to admit or fund all of the students that the admissions committee likes. Some students have great applications but their research interests don’t perfectly match that of the program. This is okay too. Realizing that your life and your self-worth is not dependent on a few pieces of paper in an envelope is important to the process of letting yourself relax.

The following are a few nuggets of wisdom I wish I had when I was first researching this process:

  • Schedule everything. This will dramatically decrease your stress level, especially if you start early (like now!). Give yourself generous deadlines so that you can still focus on your other obligations, but definitely devote a few hours a week to some part of your application (such as your research/portfolio, your intellectual statement, or standardized-test studying). Also schedule certain documents a few weeks in advance of your application deadlines (of which you will probably have several; however, you might find it useful to stick to just one early one for all of your programs if you have the money). For instance, if you have deadlines of January 1st, 2014, be sure that you’ve ordered your most recent transcripts to be sent to your programs at the close of the semester. My undergraduate institution features a function on its “Transcript Order” page that allows early ordering, so that as soon as grades are locked in after finals, the school can send off your transcripts.
  • Stay off of gradcafe forums. I found this website early on in the planning stages of my applications and while it has provided some useful tips for me, 90% of the site’s “Application” and “Waiting It Out” boards are just cesspools of anxiety. Reading these boards will cause you to suffer a nervous breakdown. Unless you’re scoping out other boards full of fewer freaked-out people, stay off this site. I mean it, too—once you get into the habit of checking it, these forums become akin to a drug. And, like most drugs, gradcafe “Application” forums will make you want to crawl up inside of an air duct and die.
  • Stay away from negative grad school stuff! As an English major, I’m aware of the fact that my skills are mostly “useless” to the labor market. Reading blogs about people who have degrees in English and can’t get a job is probably the most depressing and masochistic thing I can do to myself. There are a lot of people out there who are bitter about graduate school and I can understand their desire to enlighten the world about how their experience led them to believe that grad school is a money-sucking, useless waste of time. However, while this kind of discourse is something I can gruffly tolerate during my early undergraduate education (and even now), such bitterness didn’t make me feel very calm and confident about my applications. It’s important to think long and hard about whether or not graduate school is for you and to objectively consider the facts and figures about what you’re getting into; however, I would suggest consulting an expert in your field or even “realistic” blogs that, while they might contain the ugly truth about graduate school, don’t title posts with “HOW GRAD SCHOOL RUINED MY FREAKING LIFE!!!!!!!!!!”.
  • Keep your plans to yourself if you can. Apart from mentors and faculty members, you might not want to start littering Facebook with your plans for graduate school. This kind of blatant openness can result in you feeling like you’re under social pressure to get into a fabulous program and receive good funding. Others might also see an opportunity to criticize your choice (see the above bullet). If you have friends or family members who have attended graduate school, message them privately about any questions you might have so that your business doesn’t become a stressful “we’re rooting for you!” free-for-all.
  • During times of high stress—like when you finally start submitting completed applications—do relaxing things. This might be a bit of a “duh” comment, but I’ve found that settling into a ritual of calming activities helps me to get my mind off of my application. During this past winter, for instance, I developed a pretty weird obsession with crossword puzzles. I took a lot of baths and let myself splurge on Lush bath bombs. I watched Mushi-Shi, the most soothing anime ever. Sometimes I would get so anxious I would forget to eat, so I made a habit out of getting dinner with my friends a few times a week. Nurturing yourself and paying attention to your mental and physical needs is really important during stressful times like this.

I hope that this little guide can be of use to some people (I’m not really sure if this will be a weekly thing or a “whenever I feel like it” thing). My next post will probably be a lot shorter but will contain some more active suggestions for preparing to apply to programs. I should also mention that although I’m an English major who has applied only to English programs, I’m trying to make this series broad enough so as to be useful to most majors and fields of study.



One thought on “How to Apply to Graduate School: Don’t Panic!

  1. Pingback: How to Get Into Graduate School: Find a Mentor | Discharmed

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