A former coworker of mine is getting geared up to apply to graduate school. He asked me if I had any advice and, well . . . let’s just say that my replying e-mail was quite long. I thought that I would post what I sent to him because I do believe that it is good advice and, having been in graduate school for almost three semesters, I feel like I can look back with 20/20 vision on the application process. Everyone is different, of course, but all of the following advice is based on my real-life experience when I applied to graduate school in 2011. I hope that these guidelines help anybody out there who is applying to graduate school! Good luck!
1. Decide what you want to do. Find a program that trains you to do it. I know that a lot of teachers tell you to find professors that you’re interested in working with and not to worry about the name and prestige of the university. Eh . . . maybe not. Think about it. Say you’re going to go to an interview for a job. Which would you rather say? “I worked with Dr. Smith, who is awesome in his field and, although he’s moved from the university I went to since I graduated, I still was trained under him.” Or “I went to Stanford and the institution has trained me well to do this, this, and this. Stanford has also helped me grow as an individual and as an intellectual, and I’m sure that my training will help me succeed at this company.” Some schools, whether fairly or unfairly, have the prestige that many employers are looking for. No, you might not have been trained by Dr. Smith. But, since you got into a school with an awesome reputation, employers (again, whether fairly or unfairly) often judge you as being smart and easily trainable.
2. You’ve got the schools that have a degree in the field that you want. Now, consider the areas of each of the schools. Where you do you want to be location-wise? If you’re not a fan of flat places, any school in Kansas may not be your cup of tea. Remember, you’re going to be here for a while and you don’t want to be someplace where you’re miserable. This is one reason why I choose not to apply to anywhere in big cities. I had the scores, work experience, volunteer experience, recommendations, etc. that would have been competitive at places like Chicago and NYU. But, I can’t live in concrete jungles like Chicago and New York City. That’s just not my makeup.
3. This one you kind of do at the same time that you do #2. Can you pay for the school’s tuition? I thought about applying to Berkley. Then I looked at Berkley’s tuition costs and I factored in how much extra I’d have to pay for moving to the Berkley area. Yeah. My local university looked fan-freaking-tastic after that little calculation.
4. You’ve finally chosen the schools that you want to apply to. Nice. Time to get down to the application stuff. Look at each of the schools’ websites to find out what they want. They actually do differ. For instance, Yale makes you take the GRE subject test in English if you’re going for an English degree (even if that degree has a writing and not literature emphasis). My university does not have this requirement.
5. Test time! Get a study book (I used both Kaplan’s and Princeton’s books) and actually study. Schedule more than one test. Understand that, at least when I took it, you can’t take the tests less than 6 weeks apart. Factor this in when it comes to the application deadline.
6. Go check out the test center before your test. They’re sometimes in off-the-wall places that are incredibly hard to find. You don’t need the extra stress of getting lost on the day that you take the test, and they’re absolutely horrible when it comes to following their rules (a.k.a. if you’re late, you’re probably not going to be able to take the test).
7. Understand and accept that something will probably go wrong the day of the test. That’s just the way it works. Someone will be coughing loudly and obnoxiously. Someone else will be sniffing constantly and be destroying your concentration on that derivative problem. The computer will mess up in some way. It’s just going to happen. But, that’s okay. That’s why you’ve scheduled two tests.
8. Personal statement. Look at each school’s website to tailor your personal statement to that school. Don’t try to do one letter for all of your schools. They will be able to tell the difference. They have special powers like that.
9. The teacher recommendations! This one you will probably do during the same time period as when you complete #5-8. Remember which professors (tenured professors are the most desirable, but not necessary) you got along with, did really well (I mean flat-out aced) in their classes, and who will definitely remember you. These are the professors you’re going to ask for letters of recommendation. But, before you ask, you need to read #9.
9. Teacher packets! You never, ever, ever want to go up to a professor, ask him, and then expect him to generate stuff about you just from his memory. Teachers go through hundreds of kids; they’re not going to remember everything about you. Instead, the moment that the professor says yes, pull out a packet for him from your backpack (make sure to hide the packet until the professor says yes or else the teacher may feel pressured). The packet should include the following items: your professional resume (it should include all of your achievements from your college years until now, unless you did something super awesome in high school like you won Citizen of the Year), an assignment from that teacher’s class that you did really well on and that has his comments written on it, your personal statement, any necessary application forms from your desired schools, and a note explaining what you want the professor to do (is he supposed to write separate letters of recommendation for each university; why do you want to go to each of the schools; give him details). I’d rather overwhelm my professor with the amount of materials in the packet than underwhelm him.
10. About one month before the application deadline, send gentle and polite e-mail reminders to your professors that the deadline for letters of recommendation is coming up. Thank them for their time and help. DO NOT send a mass e-mail. Make sure that each e-mail is addressed to an individual professor and is only sent to that professor. You want to make them feel special, not like they’re just part of the masses, because they are special. After all, you did choose them. Many professors are going to wait until the last minute to write these and send them in. However, this reminder is still a necessary step because it keeps you in the backs of their heads. You’re in their heads, man!
11. About one week before the application deadline, send another gentle and polite e-mail reminder to your professors. Like before, thank them for their time and help and address each e-mail to each professor individually. Usually, the instructor will let you know when he’s sent the letter without any prompting from you, but this reminder is still vital if the teacher has not already sent the letter.
12. Make sure to send in all of your materials 1-3 weeks before the actual deadline. Something will probably come up. Something will probably go wrong. Make sure that you have the wiggle time to deal with whatever comes up.
13. Call the secretary of each school about 2-3 days after you’ve turned everything in (this is another reason for the aforementioned wiggle time). Be super nice (but not insincerely so) as the secretary can either make you or break you. Ask if all of your materials are in and processed. This includes the teachers’ letters of recommendation. I once had a professor turn everything in only to find out that it had gotten lost somewhere. She had to reprint everything and turn it in again.
14. Relax. You’re done. If you get into a school, congratulations and you should treat yourself. If you don’t get in, don’t worry about it. You didn’t really like them anyway.