grad school application

Journey to Grad School: The Application Process

By Laura Sliker

Let’s start with the easy part: sending scores. One good thing to develop as you get ready to take the GRE is a short list of programs you want to apply for, because ETS lets you send  your scores to four schools for free. However, you can only do this on test day immediately following your testing session. For some, picking four will probably be much harder than it was for me. In my field, the number of programs is so low that four schools is about 1/3 of the total possible I could attend. Whether making your list takes hours or minutes, sending the scores themselves is a quick step towards completing your grad school applications. Your next steps depend on when you take the GRE, and when you graduate. Everyone’s situation is different, but here’s what I did through my grad school application process.

Take Advantage of Free Time

Don’t sit around, write! Three out of four of my top grad school choices weren’t even accepting applications yet when I finished taking the GRE. Yep, you read that right, I’ve only gotten to apply to one graduate school so far. Many grad schools won’t allow new students to begin their coursework in the spring semester, which means August and December graduates have to play the waiting game. If you’re like me, you care about this process way too much to do nothing while you wait for your application to open (August 1st needs to come so much faster!). 

One of the things I’ve done to manage my free time and motivate myself instead of stressing all summer is work on my personal statement. Sometimes programs have specific things they want you to include in these essays, but in general the purpose is to learn more about you, how you think, what drives you, and why you want to be in the program.

I’m lucky because none of my programs have specific requirements that would warrant writing several different personal statements, so this summer I’m crafting my master statement that will go to all my programs (with some slight tweaks, of course). That way, I can take my time to think about what’s important for my programs to know instead of rushing to complete my statement once applications open.

Find Your Recommenders

Summer is another opportunity to give thought to an important question: who do you trust to write your letters of recommendation? For me, this has been the hardest part because there are no guidelines or expectations for what these letters should contain. The only two things I know are that I need three letters of recommendation, and they need to be from professors, if possible. However, by senior year, that includes a lot of people. I’ve had upwards of 50 professors in the last four years, and trying to assess the advantages and disadvantages of about 15 of them has proven to be shockingly hard. However, I do still have a few tips for choosing the right one.

1. Focus on Your Major, But Do Not Restrict Yourself to It

You should  have at least one recommendation letter from a professor in your major.  However, they do not all have to be. It is important that your letters showcase your ability to be versatile.  Only you know the quality of your bonds with someone, and the opinion they have of you. If you have a choice between a professor in your major who only likes you and a professor from another discipline who is deeply invested in your career, always choose the one who cares more.

2. Consider Writing Skill

One of the toughest calls I made in selecting my three recommenders was excluding a professor from my minor. He was the first person to really care about me in college, like a mentor, and he’s just about the coolest guy on the planet. However,  none of that has bearing on the fact that his writing is better suited to telling stories than writing recommendations. Remember that no matter how much someone cares for you, if they cannot construct a well-written recommendation, it can be more of a detriment than a help.

3. Look for Connections

For me, the first professor I asked to write me a letter of recommendation was a given. She is in charge of my program and has been my professor for most of my major classes, including my most challenging ones. She’s also more or less who I want to be when I become a professional. However, even if she had only taught one of my courses, I would still have asked her because her doctoral degree is from the same university at which I want to pursue my master’s. Connections always matter and names are not quickly forgotten. If you know a professor who went to your dream school, use their past experience to the advantage of your future.

Aside from the recommendations and personal statement, filling out the application itself was basically the same as applying for undergrad (but with more transcripts to attach…deadly amounts). However, it’s important that you check each program individually. Not all have the same kind of basic application mine did. For example, some require additional knowledge assessments, portfolios, or even more than three recommendation letters. I’m applying to one interdisciplinary program that requires me to draft a sample of my own graduate curriculum to show that I understand how the program works! In short, if you don’t check the websites out before starting to work on your application, you could create even more work for yourself. So be careful out there, and have as much fun as you can with applying to your dream schools!

Considering applying to graduate school? Check out our free guide to grad school.