Applying to Graduate School

By Charise Johnson – MS in Environmental Science, American University

I see you’re applying to graduate school.  You are clearly a dedicated, ambitious individual.  But before you start envisioning your postgraduate future, let’s survey the map of graduate school success.  Like my father always told me, “Prior planning prevents poor performance”.

Most prospective graduate student advice columns begin with a preliminary list of good and bad reasons to attend graduate school. If you’re anything like me, you create your own path and march to the beat of your own drum. Instead of letting someone else dictate what you should or should not do, you put on your walking boots and stubbornly trudge through the uncertainty.  It is thus that I arrive at the most sage advice I can offer you, prospective student.  Whatever admirable reason you have for applying to graduate school, I hope it is based on an undying passion for the subject and not anything superficial. Because you’re going to need that intrinsic motivation to keep going as you reach for your nth cup of coffee to make it through the day.

Many of the things I am going to say will be old hat to you, since you’ve pored through every prospective student manual and blog available on the internet.  But if you hadn’t been forced to memorize that song about the 50 states and capitals when you were a child, there is a strong possibility you would still not know Bismarck is the capital of North Dakota.

Tip 1:  Get involved in research during your time as an undergrad, even if it isn’t in your field of interest.  The experience with the vigors of research will be good for you. Not to mention, you can lock in a good letter of recommendation, which can only increase your chances of being accepted into a graduate program. If you’ve already graduated, it isn’t too late.  You can apply for seasonal research programs, volunteer, or get a job in your field of interest.  Making connections is key.

Tip 2:  Whether you like it or not, the GRE’s matter.  Study for it and take it a few months before application deadlines, in case you need to retake it.

Tip 3:  Do your research on graduate programs to find out which one is best for you.

  • Make sure the curriculum allows you to take classes essential to your goals.
  • Find a professor who could serve as your advisor, become familiar with his/her work, and contact them early in the process.  Don’t wait a month before deadlines. Remember that others are vying for a spot in the program as well.  Craft a cover letter and CV that explain your research interests and relevant experience succinctly. Professors are busy people.  You’ve got to grab their attention within the first few sentences.  If you don’t get a response, which is highly probable, follow up after a week.
  • Talk to current graduate students at your school/program of interest.  They have been in your position more recently and can provide you with invaluable advice. They are also more likely to be closer to your age, which might make them less intimidating than the professors.
  • Check into the financial aid packages offered for the program.  The broke graduate student tales you’ve heard-they aren’t a myth.  Many schools offer different forms of aid through assistantships or scholarships.  Browse through government and private resources as well. Student loans are an option, but they come with a caveat:  you actually have to pay them back.

Tip 4:  Be realistic about your expectations and what you are capable of achieving.  For example, if you want to go into a marine biology program simply because you want to swim and frolic with sea turtles or dolphins, it would be wise to reassess your decision.  Academics and professionals rarely get to bask on the beach with sea lions, and their work is often quite intensive, requiring many sacrifices.

Tip 5:  Be confident.  Just apply, even if you don’t think you are qualified.  You never know, you might have impressed the selection committee with your excellent recommendations and statement of purpose, or your potential advising professor might see you as a great asset to the team.

Tip 6:  Finally, my greatest pearl of wisdom.  Manage your time efficiently. I cannot emphasize this enough.  Proper time management will carry you through both the application process and your Master’s or PhD program relatively unscathed, but it requires a tremendous amount of self-motivation. Graduate school is a full-time job (often with extended work hours), and you are your own supervisor.

So far, I have likely only succeeded in framing graduate school as a terrible, dark dungeon of academia.  This is generally a worst-case scenario.  Things will get stressful, but with proper time management and focus, you might be able to dodge the last minute all-nighters before a deadline.  Always remember what brought you there in the first place.  Hold on to that light, and it will lead you to your end goal.  Welcome to graduate school.  You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.