Thursday, January 23, 2014

Applying to Grad School: Part I

Let's begin with a conditional statement: If you decide to apply to graduate school, then you are a masochist.
Just kidding... kind of... sort of... not really.

Applying to graduate school is not fun. It's actually a very painful, very long, very stressful process. However, if you are applying to graduate school for the right reasons, then you will be able to suck it up and endure the stress and anxiety for a few months.

After four months of prepping for and completing the graduate school application process, I'm having a hard time snapping out of the graduate school application grind. Since the final application deadline, I've had time to reflect on the whole process. When I started looking for advice about applying to graduate school, I didn't find any sites or posts that were particularly enlightening. Hopefully this helps some people who are looking for advice, re-assurance, and just general support.

  • If you are thinking about applying to graduate school while you are in college (even if you plan on taking a few years off in between college and graduate school), make sure that you participate in clubs, do volunteer work, build up relationships with your professors, etc. The graduate school application process will go a lot more smoothly if you have built up accomplishments, relationships, and activities to put on paper.
    • That being said, be sincere about the things that you do. Don't pull a Paris from Gilmore Girls and just do things to put them on paper. People can sense a fake from miles away. Do those activities to better yourself--it'll get you farther than a stone cold soul. 

  • Begin preparing and studying for the GRE.
    • My biggest advice for anyone taking the GRE is learn to play the game. I highly recommend ETS Official Study Guide for the GRE. This is a no-brainer: the book was written by the company that writes the test. It teaches you not only the material you need to succeed but also how to make educated guesses when you're a bit lost. 
    • You can find all of the possible essay topics on the ETS website! I found this out just a day or two before I took the test. While there are many, many topics (too many to really draft and formally prepare for), but you can at least read over them and familiarize yourself with the possibilities.
    • Build your vocabulary. If you are planning to pursue a graduate degree in the humanities, schools will focus primarily on your Verbal and Writing scores. The Verbal section is primarily reading comprehension and vocabulary. VOCABULARY, VOCABULARY, VOCABULARY. If you ace the vocabulary-based questions, then you will have much more time to focus on the reading comprehension, which includes very long, dull, insanely boring, and sometimes overly complicated passages.
    • Save time to review your essays and answers. I tried to beat the clock by two minutes in order to be able to calmly (ish) look over my answers.
  • Take the GRE as early as possible in the year. Most schools require you to take the test before November. For your own sanity, take it earlier.
  • This goes without saying, but begin preparing for the GRE at least a month in advance. You don't want to end up cramming for it. It's not a fun experience (not that I'd know... ahem, ahem...).

  • Begin researching schools.
    • Touch base with some of your undergraduate professors to see where they'd recommend, where they have connections, and if they are familiar with any professors in your field.
    • Look into where your undergraduate professors completed their graduate degree for an initial pool of schools. Perhaps look into where the authors of your textbooks went or currently teach--most of them probably are professors somewhere.
    • Google, Google, Google.
    • Princeton Review is a great source for narrowing down schools once you have an initial list. Be sure to look at the Quality of Life rating, some campus photos, and other general information about the school. 
  • Create a final list of schools. 
    • Check with your undergraduate professors and/or advisor to see how many schools they'd recommend you apply to for your particular field. As an art history major, I'd only planned on applying to 4-5 schools. My undergraduate professors nixed that idea and told me to apply to 9-12 schools. 
      • Note: Depending on your field, the more schools you can apply to, the better. It doesn't always matter how good you look on paper, how smart you are, how rockin' your GRE scores were... bagging one of the few openings in humanities-based fields can sometimes come down to things completely out of your control. Apply to a number of schools so you can up the chances of getting accepted, despite circumstances unrelated to your application.
  • Write an initial draft of your CV and personal statement. 
    • Your letter writers will probably ask you for these. 
  • Contact your potential letter writers as early as possible.
    • If possible, ask them in person. If not possible, send a very polite E-mail reminding them who you are, what class you took with them, and any memorable work you may have done.
    • Contact them in late September through early-to-mid October. They are very busy--telling them way ahead of time will ensure that they have time to write you a letter.
    • Once they agree to write you a letter, send all the applicable information, including schools (with a very clear list of deadlines), your application materials, copies of your transcripts. Offer to provide these materials in hard copy should your letter writers prefer physical copies over digital ones.
  • Find a potential writing sample. 
    • Most schools give you a minimum and maximum page limit for your sample. Many schools have differing minimums and maximums.
    • Contact the appropriate person at each school to see if those page limits include bibliography, images, etc. Some do, others don't. 
    • Be prepared to re-write your writing sample.
    • Ensure that your writing sample is your BEST work. Assume that you are up against the best, so you must be the best in order to compete.
  • Be organized! It makes everything so much easier!

Stay tuned for Part II, when I will discuss the formal application process.

Wee hoo! You can do it!

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