Applying to graduate school is a process that will slowly kill your soul. I’m barely kidding. What you remember of the stress and anxiety of applying to your undergraduate institution is only what your mind has let you keep after systematically blocking out and erasing most of the horrible process. It is worse than you remember, but not so bad that you can’t get through it. I’ve applied to four programs and am finishing the application for my fifth, and this is what the process taught me.
1) Procrastinating will kill your application.
I’m not talking about just starting the application the night before it’s due, I mean starting the entire process a minimum of a month before the due dates. Even then, you’re looking at an application that won’t be as good and will cause you twice as much stress as if you had started two months early, so if your deadlines were all in the first two weeks of January like mine were, start in November. Look at school websites, read the faculty profiles to see if you’re interested in the same things, talk to your adviser, ask professors for recommendation letters, start looking through old term papers to see which ones you can turn into writing samples. It will make everything better. Speaking of writing samples.
2) Writing samples are hard.
If you’re a liberal arts person, chances are you’re going to have to submit a writing sample, and not just the term paper you did junior year. The requirements for my programs specified papers of minimum 4,000 words, or 15 to 20 pages. I used a term paper I had written this past semester that was about 12 pages, and then kept working on it over winter break. It’s now 4,600 words and 14 pages, and will probably be 2 or 3 pages longer soon. Make sure you have enough time to make something into a really good writing sample, since it’s going to be showing people that you can handle the stuff their current grad. students are already churning out. Also, make people who are better at writing than you are read it. Their comments may require you to completely rework parts of the paper, and, again, if you start early you’ll have enough time to do so.
3) Statements of Purpose are harder.
It’s basically 2 to 3 pages of what you want to do and why the program should accept you. You will spend many hours staring at a blank page trying to intimidate it into writing itself, then more hours staring at the draft trying to intimidate it into making itself less crappy. You will consider sending them a tear-stained bar napkin with crayon scrawled on it, “I am not good enough to be a member of your department, nor do I deserve any financial aid; I only ask that you mail me a McDonald’s application along with my rejection letter.”
Push those thoughts away; you will have plenty of time to give them more space after your applications are submitted. For now, take it to a writing center or writer’s workshop on campus and ask for help. The best advice I got about it was from my favorite archaeology professor who told me to treat it more like a job application than a starry-eyed manifesto of your passion for dead languages; be clear and direct, and tell the department why you would be a good addition to the school and list everything you’ve done or learned or read that could qualify you a place there.
4) Create the applications online early.
Most, if not all, applications are online now, and you can start them early and then go back and work on them at your leisure. You’ll be filling out a lot of the same information in different places and uploading scans of your official transcript (make sure you get that early too) and your supporting documents and GRE scores and everything. It will be tedious, but a lot of schools will ask you for supplementary information, so be on the look out for that. Which brings me to…
5) Plan on submitting your application online 2 or 3 days before the actual deadline.
Why? Two reasons. One, some will ask you for additional written documents, and you need to have time to write those. Example: I applied to Minnesota, and when I came to the page of the web application where I had to upload my writing sample, statement of purpose, curriculum vitae, etc, it asked me for an additional personal statement with their own prompt, which I hadn’t known about before. It wasn’t that different than the prompt for the statement of purpose, and since I was doing it all a day or two before the deadline, I had no trouble hammering it out, revising it, and submitting it. So, yeah, keep that in mind, though stuff like that won’t need to be over 2 or so pages, and that one actually specified it should only be one page.
Take it with enough time that you’ll be able to retake it if you have to, in my case that was mid October. Download the free sample test and math review from the website, and invest in a book if you want, I bought one on amazon for $12. Keep in mind that the GRE is strict about time regulation, so you can only take the test once in a 30 day period; make sure that’s enough time if you have to retake it and get your scores back.
7) You can do it.
The process will make you a very cynical, stressed out, generally unpleasant person to be around, but remember that once it’s over, it’s over. Take an afternoon or a night off every so often to hang out with friends or rewatch season 2 of Sherlock. Eat a lot of chocolate. Read Game of Thrones in between revising your statement of purpose. If possible, find puppies. Really, you will be okay.