I know what you’re thinking. It’s still August, why are you talking about applying to grad school, the deadlines are months away.
Well maybe I’m just an overachiever, but I’ve always found that getting a head-start on bureaucratic type processes, like grad school applications, is always a good idea. These things take longer than you think. And a strong application is one that has been well researched and well thought out, in addition to being well written.
So, without further ado, the AA’s guide to the grad school application process…To be taken with a grain of salt, of course.
The first thing you need to do is to do your research. And to do it well. When I first started the grad school application process back in ’16, I must have spent hours Googling different schools, looking at how they compared to each other in regard to my program. Some of the basic things to look for include program duration, cost, funding opportunities, if there is a thesis component etc. I made a little spreadsheet by hand comparing my top favorite universities so I could see how they compared at a glance – not saying you have to do this by any means. I know I’m my own, special, level of organized. Excel also works great..
The next step is to see if there are potential faculty members that could supervise your research, either as chair or committee members. If you like a program, then take a look at the faculty there. Make sure that there are faculty members that can help you with your research. Alternatively, if there is someone in your field that you really want to work with you might start by searching for the university where they are employed. Don’t limit yourself by only looking at the faculty members in your department only, there could be several faculty members in related departments that would provide valuable insight on your research. For example, I often would look to the geography or classics departments.
Ideally, you will have 3-4 programs that fit your research interests and that have faculty members that could serve as your potential advisers. The next step is to start getting in contact with the university. The best person to initially contact is the graduate adviser. Typically, they know the program better than anyone else and can tell you relatively quickly if it is a good match for you, additionally, recruitment is often a big part of thier job, so they will be happy to talk to potential new students. In the email, introduce yourself, tell them that you find the program very interesting and are interested in applying. You might want to elaborate on your own research interests in a paragraph or so. Ask if there are any resources that you can look at and if the program is accepting students etc. Usually, the graduate adviser will direct you to a faculty member who is taking students and/or has similar research interests. With some luck, it is one of the people that you had researched.
Then you can contact the faculty members you are interested in working with. This first email is essentially the first impression, so it is important that it comes across professional. Keep it short and respectful, and as always, free of typos and grammar errors. Again, introduce yourself, tell them briefly about you and your research interests and mention that you find their research interesting and pertinent to yours. Ask them if they are accepting students and if they have any advice about your application.
In my experience, the people I reached out to were usually very upfront with me. And let me tell you, I was rejected many, many times. I often got the “your research is interesting, but not really my niche, but you should contact X” response. Rejection is not a bad thing, if someone is not sold on your research, it is better to know that right away. If you get the “sorry not my niche”, or “I have too many students” response, thank them for their time and wish them the best. If you get the very much sought after “that sounds very interesting, tell me more”, and “I am taking students” email, thank them for their time and let them know how much it would mean to have the opportunity to work with them. Now just because someone says they are accepting students doesn’t mean you are in, but it’s a start.
Email etiquette is extremely important at this phase since this is the primary mode of communication with your potential adviser. So, always be polite and prompt. Don’t take three days to respond to an email, and don’t email at 2 am in the morning. Rookie mistakes.
Once you have narrowed down your top universities with faculty members that are taking students and are interested in your research, you can start working on the application itself. This is where the real work starts. I recommend keeping it to about 3 applications maximum for two reasons – one the applications cost money and they can be expensive, about $100 each. Two, the less applications the more you can focus your time and resources to making strong applications. If you are an international student, I recommend you start early since it will take you time to get your documents ready. The deadline for most programs is often December -March. I would write these deadlines down and know them by heart. Programs won’t consider late applications.
There are about 7 components to the process:
- Application (form with your basic information)
- Statement of purpose / Personal statement or both
- Writing Sample
- Letters of Recommendation
- Your CV
- The Tests (The GRE and TOEFL)
To really drive the point home, here is an example timeline (with deadlines) of how the application process unfolds. At least how it unfolded for me. If you want to start in the fall semester, you need to start thinking about your application about a year ahead, usually, this is the last year of your current program, unless you are re-entering academia from the workforce or something along those lines. Regardless, this often means that August is when the process begins.
One: Narrow down three to four schools to apply to and make the first contact with the graduate coordinators, then later professors. (August – September)
Two: Find out the requirements for the programs. (Early September)
Three: Contact previous professors from your school to ask about letters. Ask them early and provide them with the deadlines. The can also help edit your statements of purpose.(Early September)
Four: Start the application process, write-down the login information so you don’t forget it. Figure out what documents you need to send and how; some schools are picky about this. If they want hard copies from the school send them early (September).
Five: Start writing your statements. Look at the website for each program so you can tailor each statement fit the goals of the university. Keep in mind, three applications means three statements since you will have to make them specific to the program. (October).
*This is probably the most important part of your applications as it demonstrates who you are and what you have to offer. It is important that it is well written and shows you are driven and ambitious. Here you can talk about your research goals, what you intend to do with your degree after graduating and how your academic career thus far has prepared you for this next step. Mention that the goals of the university line up with your own, that you feel that you will flourish as an academic there for these reasons. Additionally, mention the faculty members at the university who you would like to work with and why. *
Six: Edit your CV and your writing sample. Make your CV show that you are a well-rounded academic with experience. Find a piece of work you have written for classes that you got a good grade one. One that shows your ability to write academically. It helps to have a friend look them over to catch any minor errors or typos you may have missed yourself (October).
Seven: Take the standardized tests. These are a pain, but they are required by most schools. The GRE is required for all American schools and the TOEFL is required of all international students. As with any test, it helps to prepare. Luckily, there are lots of resources out in the inter-webs to help you study. Most schools will say what their required minimum scores are for acceptance. Now, not meeting this score is not the end of the world, but coming close helps. Especially if there is a lot of competition. However, it is the impression you make on the faculty through your interactions with them and your letter of academic intent that really matters. (October / November).
By end of November, you should have everything ready, I suggest submitting your applications end of November to early December (depending on when they are due, but I did all my applications in one day to get them over with). Everything is done online, including your letters of recommendation. Your professors submit them via a link you send them. You will need their emails and approval when you are filling out your application. When you decide that you’re going to finalize and submit your applications, make sure you give yourself time, it takes a few hours to get everything uploaded, double check everything! I made a folder in my computer for my applications and in this, I made a folder for each school. I saved everything in the folder so when it was time to apply I had everything in one place.
Now, this post may seem like overkill and the deadlines are just suggestions. But I honestly do mean to be helpful. I’m the first in my family (both sides) to go to graduate school. I didn’t have much help figuring out this process, and there were times when I felt overwhelmed. But, I did it (twice), and you can too. Just take it a step at a time, plan it out and start early. Show ’em what you have to offer; be confident, be professional, be you.