Applying in Quarantine: What does a productive application schedule look like in a pandemic?

Although every country is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic in its own way, we all have one thing in common: we’re all seeing less of each other than we used to. So what does that mean for the grad school application process? For one, it means that the SIPA video essay won’t be as daunting if you’ve been on Zoom all summer!

But where you might have been able to settle down in a coffee shop before and benefit from that secondhand productivity before COVID-19, being stuck at home, staring at screens all day, and potentially needing to pay more attention to your family members might make it harder to concentrate on how to build a narrative around your goals and sell your past professional and academic experiences to grad programs.

When I applied to SIPA in the fall/winter of 2018-2019, I lived abroad in Tunisia, was in between a couple jobs, deciding whether to stay or go, but chose to stay for at least a month to take my GRE (you will be able to waive it this year) and write my application essays in a relatively nicer climate than the suburbs of Michigan. I wasn’t seeing too many people at the time and had to set my own schedule between a consulting gig, some freelance work, and GRE/application prep. This time prepared me in a way for quarantine, so here are some tips to create a productive environment to meet your application deadlines!

  1. Find study buddies: Depending on your ability to see people during COVID, set up check-ins and accountability measures with your friends. I was lucky that another friend of mine was applying to grad school on the same timeline as me, so we arranged our GRE dates around the same time and set goals and personal deadlines for sending our personal statements and essays to friends for editing as well as reaching out to recommenders. We called each other every week to check in and talk about our potential futures! If you don’t have other friends applying to grad school, get your friends to have work or study sessions with you over Zoom or other videoconferencing platforms. You don’t have to talk the whole time, but it’s great to have company on the other end of the line.
  2. Manage your time: With quarantine and social distancing, our perception of time right now is fairly warped. Sometimes days can feel like a full year and a leap day, and other times, you hit 6pm and can’t recall anything you’ve done that day. Whatever time management method works for you, create dedicated blocks of time in your schedule to work on your application. The earlier you start, the easier it is to manage at the end, but you don’t need to sit down for 16 hours and finish it all (I say this as a chronic procrastinator). Some people swear by the Pomodoro method, which is great if you can get motivated for short bursts of time. Before you know it, looming tasks become much smaller. You can also try productivity apps like Forest, which helps you limit your phone screen time while you focus on other tasks.
  3. Don’t waste your time trying to read minds: There are a lot of global events happening this year and the admissions committee is likely going to be hearing many different perspectives on the same events. Figure out what you want to say, not what you think admissions wants to hear. This isn’t really a productivity tip, but it might make the writing and rewriting process of your personal statements and other essays more fulfilling. I never thought I’d enjoy the process of having to sell myself as a candidate to graduate programs, but once I dug deep into why these programs mattered to me and the future I envisioned for myself, writing them became fun and helped me share my goals with my friends and family. One potential upside of the increased alone time might be the chance to reflect and introspect more deeply into your path (don’t be fooled, no one’s is linear) and what could lie ahead. The world is changing so rapidly, you can even be more creative than before about where SIPA might lead you!

The SIPA admissions blog will continue to be updated with advice from current students and the Admissions staff, so check back here for new insights about the process and don’t pressure yourself into being productive in the same ways you used to be!

Applications are just one part of the process, so keep taking care of yourself and maintaining your wellbeing throughout this cycle!