Let the Applications Roll: 5 Tips for Applying to Grad School

Let the Applications Roll: 5 Tips for Applying to Grad School

The moment has arrived. After months of near neuroses, you’ve narrowed down your options and you’re ready to submit your completed graduate school application(s). To anyone who has not reached this point, the idea of actually being finished with your GRE and having gathered everything to submit an application may seem too good to be true. It also might seem downright unrealistic. Our undergrad applications were essentially a joke, seeing as how Jesus Christ Himself gifted us with websites like Common App that made submitting applications into the distant memory it is today. However, forget everything you know about applying to college. Take those sweet, sweet memories of meeting with your high school guidance counselor out of that back slot in your brain and erase the files. You’re on your own now, friend.

Let me just say that there are going to be a lot of people trying to tell you about grad school (LOL because I guess I’m one of them too). Professors are going to pull you into their office and say, “Let me tell ya, back in 1985 it was different. The GRE’s were a breeze! We didn’t even have to worry about more than one rec letter!” Yes, 1985 was different. Most of the people reading this article had not yet been born. As I’m sure you know, the world has gotten to be a pretty competitive place. There’s a good chance your professors don’t know jack squat about graduate applications unless they’ve applied within the past few years or are deeply involved with your college’s graduate school. The steps have changed and graduate schools require a lot from their applicants. From a near-perfect score on the GRE to half a dozen recommendation letters, you’ll see admission requirements that will scare you. 

Wondering who might have tips for this hellacious process? Look no further than Kelsey Worsham, author of this article and recent successful graduate school applicant.

1. Start making connections early on.

-- This tip is really for readers who haven’t yet begun applications. You may not know you’re going to apply to grad school until senior year. However, if you’re one of the lucky few who have a hunch about your post-grad plans earlier on, then start making connections ASAP. Find at least six teachers/mentors/employees that you would want to speak on your behalf. Six may seem like an excessive number, but you’ll one day thank yourself for having a breadth of options. Also, your recommenders will be glad you did this because it means that a group of three won’t be stuck writing all your letters. (Shout out to the two professors and my internship coordinator who wrote all my rec letters, and sorry again.)

You want a mix of people on your cheerleading squad. Have a youth group leader? Great, they can write a letter. Was there a family you nannied for on a consistent basis? I’m sure they would love to contribute. It is crucial to have most of your recommenders come from the academic field, but it’s nice to get a mixture in there.

In the process of securing academic recommenders, you might find yourself deliberately brownnosing a professor you had three years ago. They may not remember you. Encounters like this will be weird, but just go with it. Let the professor know that their class was meaningful to you and perhaps remind them of papers/speeches you did for them.

Look at the alma maters of your professors. Did any of them go to schools that you’re applying to? If so, email those teachers right now. Hey, they had to get recommendation letters at some point too. They’ve been through this process and chances are they’ll be more than happy to help you. I had an amazing professor who attended FSU and this connection enabled me to travel to her alma mater and spend a day with the English department faculty. A little networking goes a long way.

2. You probably won’t get your dream GRE score on the first try.

Sorry. The test was designed to be hard, so if you go into this exam with little-to-no previous preparation then you won’t do well. If at first you don’t succeed, go have a few margaritas and then plan a new form of attack. Get serious about studying and remember that vocabulary flashcards are your friends.

Consider a program like Kaplan. Seriously, this could be the difference between getting an assistantship/full ride and paying for grad school, which is a huge amount of money. Like, $50,000 and up. These programs are expensive but worth it because they were founded by some sort of super smart coalition team that decided to learn everything there is to know about the GRE (or LSAT, whatever you’re taking). Spending money on a GRE prep course could save you money in the long run. Higher GRE score = better chance of financial assistance from the financial office!

If you’re applying to a liberal arts program, they will look at your math score and vice versa. Not only are you applying to a school’s specific department, but you are applying to the graduate school. They have standards that you must meet. Applicants could be worshipped by a program but not have a GRE score that meets the actual school’s criteria. And they won’t get in. To all those English majors out there, I feel you.  Remembering how to do math is hard but not getting into grad school because you didn’t study enough is even harder.

3. Apply, apply, apply.

I very nearly applied to only one grad school program. Why? Because I thought I knew exactly what I wanted. I ended up rejecting an offer from aforementioned program and was thanking my lucky stars that I sent out eight applications, only because a friend had suggested it. As she told me, you want to make sure you have as many options as possible.

Applications are expensive. Like, really expensive.  Expect to shell out $50-$100 per app. While you shouldn’t limit yourself, just keep this in mind. If your parents (random family members/the lady down the street/what have you) are feeling generous, don’t feel bad asking if they can contribute to the grad school application fund.

I can’t stress this enough - apply to more than one school. What is the heading on this particular section? Apply, apply, apply. What should you do?  Apply, apply, apply. If you have to go out and sell blood to make money for paying for applications, then I will personally accompany you to the platelet donation center. APPLY, APPLY, APPLY! If you did something like major in creative writing (hello, article author/myself!), then chances are you have to go to grad school to get the type of job you want. Why limit yourself when graduate school is going to put you on the path to your dream job?

4. Send a thank you card/email.

Once you get a response from a school, I recommend sending back a thank you note or email. Especially if you have a personal connection to the program, be it a professor you know or a friend that attends the school, this will only look good for you.  

If you do get turned down by a school send a polite response thanking them for looking at your application. This may seem like common knowledge but sadly it isn’t. There’s a good chance that the program spent a long time discussing your application! You’ll really stand out to the school (in a good way!) if you simply try to go the extra mile.

5. You are going to be so stressed out and so scared, but it is going to be so worth it.

A lot of programs require applications to be turned in around December or January. After that, you won’t hear back from these schools until March or April. Assuming you take the GRE the August before applications are due, you have about seven months to stress out, cry and wonder what McDonald’s you’ll work at when you don’t get into grad school. Accept this and find friends that will listen to you go crazy at 3 AM. Chances are you’ll get into a school, so expect the anxiety and ride it through.

Getting that first acceptance letter will fill you with the kind of emotions I imagine the first woman to orgasm during childbirth had (yes, this is a thing.  Yes, the human body is weird.) You will feel relief, confusion and the sudden recognition that you are a bad ass lady who can do anything. So go on, enjoy that acceptance letter and scream from the top of a mountain — the work was worth it. Then immediately thank your friends and family who watched you go crazy while you waited for five months to hear back from schools!

[Photo by Juliette Kibodeaux.]

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