How to apply for grad school

Graduate school is a tightly-kept gate, and frankly it shouldn’t be that way. I’ve gathered some wisdom about how to succeed in making it past the gatekeepers from my own experiences as well as those of my friends in various fields. 

I applied to grad school twice – first to MA programs and two PhD programs, then to just PhD programs. And it turns out I got in. I was able to do that because I spent a lot of time asking for advice from people who did it before me, and since then I’ve spent a lot of time passing on that wisdom as well as helping my friends and family on their journeys to graduate programs as well. Regardless of the type of program you’re applying to and the field, there are a few key steps to applying and getting in.

Know why you want to go to grad school, make sure it really makes sense for you.

Before my undergrad advisers would even talk to me about how to apply, they made me sit through multiple lectures about how hard grad school is and how I should do anything else I can think of before applying to a PhD program. This was not just to torture me, it really did help. I thought seriously about who I am and what I want in life – I thought about my skills, the things I like to do, where I saw myself. I had alternative plans, like going into secondary school teaching or becoming a professional baker, but these things didn’t seem fulfilling in the same way, and also felt like potential backup plans if I didn’t succeed as an academic. It’s for this reason that a lot of industries prefer that you have a few years of experience out of college before you even consider applying to grad school. This isn’t as true in medicine or the hard sciences, where you have to maintain a set of knowledge and skills, but a year or two during which you gather yourself and figure out how to apply is perfectly fine. If you are someone who is already at a disadvantage in applying to grad school (because you don’t know anyone who has done it, it may be prohibitively expensive to apply, you need to do some extra schooling) this time will really benefit you and programs won’t see it as a negative, especially if you explain it in your application. Taking time shows you are thoughtful and committed to the course of action you’re taking, and as long as you can justify that time as being in any way productive, it won’t have been a waste. Being able to articulate why you are applying to grad school is extremely important, because programs typically care about what you’re going to do with your degree, and your success in the program often depends on having a motivation that’s more than just “I want to be successful”. The program needs to be more than just a hurdle in the way of your ideal status or salary – you need to be able to explain what you want to do after and how this program is going to get you there. In academia this is especially hard, because jobs are shaky and saying that you want to be the next Ron Chernow just sounds naïve. But even if all you can say is “I think history is important and I want to get a job teaching other people about the past in a really sophisticated way” that says a lot about you. Whatever your reasons are, don’t be ashamed of them. My husband didn’t want to tell people that he dreamed about working in video games, until he started to realize that people actually found that really interesting, and it set him immensely apart from the typical business school applicant. At this stage you might also want to start to figure out how much applying to grad school – not attending, just applying – will cost. Keep in mind that a lot of programs have steep application fees (around $100 is not atypical in some fields) and that registering for standardized tests, sending your scores, and even ordering transcripts all cost money. This is one of the gate-keeping measures of graduate school. If you need to take time to save up for your applications, do it. If you need to borrow money, figure out whether that’s going to be worth it for you.

Do your research, apply like it’s your job. 

This is the single biggest step, and it never really ends. Once you’ve decided grad school is in the cards for you, you can’t really half-ass it (the only exception I’ve ever heard to this was my mom applying to law school, but that was in the ’70s and I’ll get to why she was able to do that). You have to put a lot of time and energy into applying because applications are complicated and you have to teach yourself how to do it right on the fly. Researching graduate programs means doing 3 main things: 1) learning about how the programs/field you’re applying to work, 2) figuring out the major differences between the programs you’re considering, and 3) talking to people who have experience in those specific programs and fields. The purpose of this step of the application progress is gathering enough information that you can plan out your strategy for the actual application writing process. Every field has its own set of standards and eccentricities, and every program has their particular gestalt.

Chances are you already know something about the field you’re applying into once you’re at this stage, but you still want to do preliminary research. Maybe you’ve decided you want to apply to law school but you’ve only ever seen court dramas – you need to understand what law school actually looks like and what it means to be a lawyer. You want to know some basic things like the time to degree, whether you have to take exams before and/or after the program (you have to do this if you want to be a lawyer, doctor, or teacher, for instance), and how much doing this program will help you succeed in the industry (for instance, you don’t necessarily have to go to business school to succeed in a major corporation, whereas for certain types of academic jobs you need to have gone to a top program). But then you also want to find out more details about how these programs work – can you do them part time, how much do they cost, how do people pay for them, what is the typical work load like, are there aspects of work that are expected but not explicitly required (such as internships or volunteer duties)?

Once you have a sense of these things, you’ll want to figure out a range of programs to apply to. Again, this is field-specific – you might only want to go to one particular program, or it doesn’t really matter which program and you should just apply to 20 of them. You need to know what is typical in terms of the number and types of programs you’ll apply to, and you need to know what their requirements are (classes you might need to attend, exams you need to take, references you need to provide).  Early on in the process it can seem like every school is the same and all that matters is rank. But you’ll find that different universities have different identities – specialties they emphasize, specific types of people they attract, even just a feeling or culture based on where they’re located. Knowing these differences is important for you in finding a good fit, but it’s also going to help your application. You want to emphasize in your application the kinds of language the program uses to describe itself. Columbia, for instance, rebranded a few years ago as “in the city of New York” and they often want their applicants to talk about the benefit they think they could get from being in a big city. Universities with religious affiliations often want to hear about that. PhD programs need to know that you have enough faculty working in your field to support your particular program, so you need to know by name who in their department can work with you and what you expect to study with them. You can get a sense of these program differences from reading mission statements, faculty bios, and course listings. But you also really want to talk to people.

You can do the first two parts mostly by looking at the websites for various programs and reading ranking reports, but it really is essential to talk to people as well. Talking to people is the scariest part of grad school applications, because you often don’t know what to ask but also need a lot from these people. If you are applying to a PhD program, these conversations are halfway between advising sessions and interviews – at least some of the people you talk to should be potential advisers, and they’ll talk to you both so you can understand what you’re getting into and also so they can get a sense of you. It can feel like asking a lot to cold email these people and show up in their offices expecting them to give you their time, but they actually really want this contact. You should practice writing cold emails, and it’s ok to have a template of sorts to start out – every email should have a short first sentence introducing yourself and mentioning anyone you know in common who might have connected you, then you should say explicitly why you are contacting them (“I am emailing you because I am interested in applying for this program and I wanted to talk with you a bit to get a sense of my fit”). After that, you can add a little detail about yourself – your interests, any major questions you have, etc. This should be brief – they don’t care about your many accomplishments, and you don’t need to flatter them. They just need to know enough to have some idea of why they’re talking to you. End the email with a clear request – a time you’d like to meet in person or set up a skype/phone call, or a set of questions if you don’t think you can arrange to see them in person.

If you’re applying to a different kind of program, the purpose of talking to people can be less formal and more focused on gathering information. Talk to current and former students in the program, talk to admissions representatives, talk to professors. These people can tell you what to expect, give you a sense of what kinds of people attend these programs, and how you should prepare. Again, these are all people who want to talk to you, and as long as you’re clear about why you’re contacting them and what you are hoping to get out of the conversation, they’ll be happy to help you. Even if all you can figure out to say is “I think I want to apply but I don’t know anything yet” they can still use that to help you. You need to remember that none of these people holds the key to admitting you, so you’re not talking to them to impress them. You want to have an honest conversation about what you should do in your particular situation and see if they have any advice for you. It’s good to already have looked at program websites before you have these conversations so you have specific questions, but you can also leverage one conversation into another – some people will recommend others you can talk to, and they often want to hear who else you’ve talked to so they can understand what you already know and what you don’t. When you finally do get into a program, you want to make sure it’s a good fit, so talking to people honestly at these early stages is important to achieve that.

Figure out your special sauce. 

So I’m totally ripping off this piece of advice from my husband’s former employer, but it’s good advice. Your application is a composition of many things that have the potential to make you a good candidate, not just one piece that makes you stand out. Although you may have a lot of aspects of your application that look like someone else’s, it’s the combination that is uniquely you – your special sauce. The only way you can convince a program to accept you is if you find a way to differentiate yourself as a whole package. Once you know who you are as a candidate, you need to articulate that repeatedly throughout your application. You should repeat these elements to hammer them home so that the reviewer doesn’t have to have read just one piece of your application to get the message.

Focus on the most important elements of the application, don’t sweat the small stuff.

Part of understanding your field is know what parts of your application matter and what parts don’t. Remember I said my mom half-assed getting into law school? It’s because she got a near-perfect score on her LSATs, and for law school that makes a huge difference. It’s not the only thing that matters, but it’s important enough that the top programs are sure to at least read the rest of your application seriously if you have a good enough score. That means you should spend a lot of time studying for the exam, and it might even be worth it to pay for a prep class. In PhD programs, on the other hand, the GRE is just the lowest hurdle you have to clear. If you apply to a PhD program in the humanities, the people reading your application won’t care what your GRE scores is per se, they mostly want to see that you fall in a percentile that matches their rank (a top program will expect at least the 90th percentile) in reading and maybe writing, but they won’t even look at your math score, so it’s frankly not worth it to even study for the math section if you passed high school and college math. On the other hand, the most important parts of a PhD application are the writing sample and the personal statement, and these shouldn’t just look “nice”, they should show that you have a sophisticated level of thinking in your field and are ready to study at the graduate level. Typically, these programs don’t want a specific dissertation project proposal, but they do want a specific explanation of what you’re interested in within your discipline and what you think you might want to study. I was told to write about the questions I was interested in answering. It was also clear that the most important aspect of the writing sample was showing I could engage with secondary literature, rather than that I was particularly savvy about interpreting primary sources. Beyond these explicit requirements of the application, you also need to know whether there are unwritten requirements – PhD programs typically won’t accept you if you haven’t already talked to faculty in your field there because those are the people you’ll be working with and they need to vouch for you, and sometimes there’s one faculty member in particular who heads the group you want to be in and needs to give you the go ahead, even if you don’t plan on working with them. But in medical school, they don’t care about that stuff at all. What your program actually requires is something current students and faculty can help you figure out. A lot of applications also have little extra bits, like short answers or lists of courses you’ve taken, that take time to fill out but don’t really require any effort – don’t worry about these so much, but do make sure that you give them some time.

Write drafts, focus on saying something meaningful, and try not to impress people with your verbiage.

You will not write the perfect application on the first try. Start with one application – probably one of the programs you like a lot, but maybe not your dream school – and just write a draft of every component, not worrying about the length, just making sure it says everything it needs to say. Then go do something else, come back to it, and try to edit it to the right length and the right format. Keep working on it until you think it sounds good. Ask yourself if it sounds like you, if you use wording that is how you would typically write, but formal enough to show the reader you care. Get rid of anything you can’t immediately explain. Don’t use jargon to impress people. Make sure your special sauce is present throughout, that everything you say has a clear reason to be there. Once you have that first version, you can start to extrapolate out to your other applications. There are parts of your application that you can reuse across different programs – your description of yourself and your interests probably won’t change much between each program, maybe just a tweak here and there to emphasize aspects that are particularly important to each program. Reusing parts of your application will help you stay focused, motivated, and energized, and help ensure that you don’t let typos or weird phrasing through, because you’ll have read those sections enough. Where you want to start from scratch each time is in the language explaining why you want to go to a particular program. If you say something generic, the reviewer will know. Have a checklist in mind as you write these parts (does this program have a professor that I really want to work with or a special program or resource I like a lot?) but keep the wording itself organic.

Communicate with the programs you’re not going to, and be gracious. 

When you get accepted somewhere, especially if it’s where you really want to go, it’s easy to suddenly forget all those other places. But you still owe it to other programs to tell them quickly that you’re not attending (including withdrawing your application if necessary) so that they can offer the spot to someone else. But you’ll also want to tell some people in person, like people you talked to along the way who you might have worked with there or admissions officers who stuck their necks out for you. Before you do that, though, you want to make sure that your #1 choice is still really first place. I was surprised to end up at Columbia – I frankly didn’t even think I would get in, and it was only conversations I had with my current adviser after I was admitted that convinced me this was the place. I took advantage of visit days to let these programs finally woo me, and it became clear that places I had liked while I was applying were actually not great environments for me – they weren’t as interested in me as I was in them, or they wanted me to change some major aspect of my interests to fit theirs. Even then, there were some programs that I should have given more thought to than I did – even though I still think it was a good decision not to attend those programs, the people in those departments are my colleagues now, and I should have done more to make sure we were on the best terms possible. They know how all this works, they know that I have to reject more people than I accept, but they should still feel I spent enough time considering them. Even once you get admitted to a place, you can sour a lot of grapes by being too full of yourself (this happened recently in a department I’m close to).

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