How to Apply to Graduate School: Choosing Schools

3Feb2013aAlthough I thought that choosing which graduate schools to apply to would be easy, I ended up making a lost of last-minute decisions. In fact, the school I’ll be attending in the fall happened to be one that I applied to on a whim after a professor recommended the program. I would actually advise against doing this, because the deadlines will stress you out and you might wind up applying to far more or fewer schools than you had anticipated.

If you’re reading this entry (or having been following this series at all), you probably have a good idea of what school you would like to attend. Maybe you’ve taped the picture of your dream school to your fridge. Maybe you have the U.S. News graduate school rankings bookmarked. But although you might have your heart set on some programs, I’d like to offer a little bit of advice in regards to which schools are really worth spending the time and money applying to.

Narrowing down your list of schools early on will help you in a few ways. First of all, you’ll give yourself ample time to do background research about the school. You’ll also be able to schedule your applications and test dates with more ease, since deadlines vary based on the school (in general, I’ve noticed that higher-ranked programs have earlier deadlines, so bear that in mind if you want your applications to go out this upcoming winter).

The following are some useful factors to keep in mind when determining which schools you’ll want to apply to during application season:

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How to Apply to Graduate School: Find a Mentor

3Feb2013aToday’s post will be a short one, though I do have probably another seven or eight installments planned for this series. Today’s tip is probably the most useful (or was in my case) and I think that if you have a lot of anxiety about graduate school, like I described in a previous post, then taking this step might help to assuage your nerves.

I have a friend who is terrified of her professors. She’ll send them the occasional e-mail with a question, but in general she prefers not to talk in class or visit office hours. As a shy person myself, I can totally understand her position. However, some of the scariest professors I’ve ever had have also been some of the nicest when I caught them alone in their offices.

If you’re finishing up your junior year of college, you probably know of a few professors you like. When I was first toying with the idea of graduate school, I visited not only the department’s graduate studies director, but also my undergraduate advisor. I dropped by some of my favorite professors’ offices and asked them about their experiences with graduate school.

Finding a mentor (or several) is a great idea because it allows you to not only broach the task of acquiring recommendations, but you’re also able to get professional advice about where to apply. I (unknowingly) applied to one of my favorite professors’ alma mater, and when I told him about my acceptance he was totally ecstatic, saying that he could probably pull some strings and help me secure funding and even find a job and housing in the area (I wound up choosing a different school, but still, he was totally awesome).

If you decide to use a research or writing sample from a certain class, you could even approach the professor of that class and ask for very specific feedback on your assignment because you’re planning to use it in an application. Ask your mentor about how to write a statement of purpose. Ask about applying for scholarships.

I totally understand that it’s scary to approach busy professors. But ultimately, most want to help you and will give you their honest opinions and advice. In fact, there are professors in my old department who don’t even like me, but I still have awesome professional friendships with others by not getting discouraged. I would recommend that even the absolute shyest people try to ask for a little guidance from a professor (or even a graduate student or TA if that’s less intimidating) before beginning the application process. It’ll help to clear your head and you might walk out of their office with a few decisions made that you had been grappling with before.


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.

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