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.