There are so many reasons to enroll in graduate school: personal fulfillment, professional development, and, of course, a bigger paycheck. So if you haven’t taken the plunge yet, why not? Is it because the arduous application process gives you major anxiety?
I’m not going to lie to you: applying to graduate school isn’t a walk in the park. Unlike your high schools years, when you had a whole team of guidance counselors and family members helping you with your college applications, you’re kind of on your own when it comes to grad school apps. You have to research program deadlines and requirements, gather all of the application materials, and even put together a killer writing sample.
That said, applying to graduate school doesn’t have to be the nightmarish debacle you’re imagining it to be. Have you ever heard the phrase: “You can’t eat an elephant all in one bite?” The same is true for your graduate school applications. Break the process down into smaller pieces and tackle them one at a time. If you prepare yourself and know exactly what you need to do for each piece, it can flow pretty smoothly. Here are the main application “to-dos” you’ll need to tackle, along with a few tips for handling each one – without having an anxiety attack.
Steps to a Stress-Free Graduate Application
Step #1: Know Your Entrance Exams
If it’s been awhile since you’ve taken a standardized test, of course you’re going to feel pretty anxious about filling in those answer bubbles. The key is to familiarize yourself with the test format long before you actually take it so you know exactly what to expect – especially since graduate entrance exams are different than the SAT/ACT.
First, figure out which exam you need to take. For law school, it’s the LSAT. For business school, it’s the GMAT. And for all the other, non-professional graduate degree programs out there, it’s the GRE. Each test has its own set of rules, regulations, and requirements, so do your research and find out what your specific exam is going to expect of you. Start studying months before your test date and take practice exams. This is especially key for computerized tests like the GRE, because if you’re used to taking exams with a pencil and paper, the new format can throw you for a loop. (PS If you’re taking the GRE, we’ve got a few tips and tricks that should make test day a little easier.)
Step #2: Prep the Required Materials
Just as different graduate programs require different entrance exams (see above), different programs will require different application materials. In general, though, you’ll be asked to submit your undergraduate transcripts, test scores, letters of recommendation, personal essay or statement, writing sample, or some combination of all of the above.
I know – all that paperwork is enough to give any sane person a headache. The good news is that today, most schools have online request/submission forms for transcripts and recommendation letters, which makes your job a lot easier. Generally, you just submit a request for the information you need, and your undergraduate program will send everything to the graduate admissions office without you even having to touch it. In other words, all that stressing you did about calculating your college GPA was for nothing.
But what about those writing samples and personal statements? This is where it gets a little tricky. If you’re a recent college graduate, you may have a solid writing sample you can submit. If some time has passed since you last hit the books, you may need to resurrect one of your old papers and re-edit. Either way, pull out a sample that’s a strong example of your work, and that demonstrates your expertise in the subject you plan on pursuing in graduate school.
Regarding the personal statement, some schools leave the direction open-ended, while others (usually professional schools) may give you a specific topic or question you need to address. Either way, your approach should be the same: tell the story you would want to read, using lots of detail, and avoid clichéd statements about how you plan to use your graduate degree to bring peace to Earth and goodwill towards men. Don’t forget to have it proofread by someone with fresh eyes and if you know someone in your future field who would be willing to review your draft before you submit it, even better.
Step #3: Request Recommendation Letters Early
I don’t know why, but for me, asking for recommendation letters was the hardest part of the graduate school application process. I’m not sure if I was worried that my professors wouldn’t remember me, or if maybe they just wouldn’t have anything good to say, but it was definitely something I didn’t want to deal with.
Even if you’re scared to ask for recommendation letters, don’t put it off. Your professors, mentors, and supervisors need time to formulate a good response, not to mention submit it through whatever channels your future graduate program is requesting. If you procrastinate, they may not have time to meet the deadline. Email them well in advance, remind them of your relationship (i.e. which class of theirs you took), and offer to provide any supporting materials they might need (i.e. old papers, projects, etc.) Also, be sure to ask for recommendations relevant to your future field. If you’re applying for a humanities PhD program, you’ll want letters from former professors, whereas aspiring business school students may be better off with professional endorsements.
Most importantly, after your contacts submit their letters on your behalf, don’t forget to follow up and thank them for their efforts – especially when you get accepted!
Were you nervous about applying to graduate school? How did you overcome your anxiety? Let us know in the comments below!