As the weather cools down, costume shops and haunted houses become high-traffic areas, and this year’s installment of the Saw franchise arrives in theatres, I can’t help but recall–with a shudder–my experiences during this season one year ago. While I was finishing up my semester and pulling together my Edie Sedgwick costume for Dallas’s annual Halloween Block Party, I was also mired deep in the horror-show: The Dreaded Graduate School Application Process. (Cue chilling music from a Wes Craven movie.)
But it doesn’t have to be as scary as it may sound. I’d like to share the path that led me to graduate studies, and provide some advice for those who are contemplating a degree–or multiple degrees–beyond the bachelor’s.
When I began college, I was fairly certain of what I wanted to accomplish. My plans did not involve graduate school. In fact, I’d plotted out my semesters strategically so that I could graduate one year early, avoid a year’s worth of loans, and enter the job market as swiftly and smoothly as possible. Looking back, I’m amazed by how anxious I was to expedite the college process. As a student, I focused on getting practical experience that would help me along my uncertain career path in film production.
But somewhere along the end of my sophomore year, I had a change of heart. I was given the opportunity to be a teaching assistant for an interdisciplinary humanities class. I loved the experience, and until then, had never considered my role in college as first and foremost a learner, much less contemplated the prospect of being a teacher myself. College became less a tedious prerequisite to the “real world,” and more a place where I could be exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking. I picked up a double-major in English and took several courses in Women’s Studies that profoundly changed my outlook.
As the years progressed, I continued to get hands-on experience in media production, but also discovered my passion for analyzing, reading, and writing about media from a feminist perspective. So I decided to take advantage of my full four years as undergraduate after all, participating in academic conferences, applying for fellowships, and submitting my work to peer-reviewed journals. The next logical step for me? Graduate school.
However, never in my wildest nightmares did I imagine myself applying for admission to 13 different graduate schools. I dipped into my college loan money and scraped up as much of my work-study earnings as I could to pay the roughly $1,100 total in standardized testing fees, application fees, postage, not to mention the “incidental costs” of coffee (and beer) to get me through the agony.
Sounds insane, right? Why bother applying to so many schools?
The grad school application process is a crapshoot.
One of my advisors said those words to me in all seriousness, and I took it to heart. Spaces for graduate students (and funding packages) are very limited in most programs, and the selection criteria differ among schools. It’s better to err on the side of caution and apply to more rather than fewer schools; you’ll have more options to choose from once the acceptance letters start to roll in. That said, there is no “magic number,” and the amount of schools you apply to will depend on your resources, the types of programs you target, and the amount of time you have to devote to the process. Do what makes sense for you.
Set aside some cash for necessary fees.
I applied to Master’s and Ph.D. programs in media studies, and spent anywhere from $50 to $80 per application on “required fees.” And while most schools conduct their application processes online nowadays, there are still some departments that require hard copies of transcripts or other materials. Be sure to allow plenty of time—and some cash—to post these items.
I sold my old books and DVD’s, played my guitar for tip money at coffeeshops, and even dipped into my college loan money intended for monthly rent and utilities in order to cover these fees. I cringe at the thought of how any shred of savings I had at that point was depleted, but as one professor put it, I was “investing in my future.” Ah, the power of positive thinking! I can say with confidence, however, that the sacrifices were worth it–I was accepted to most of the programs I applied to and had a significant pool to choose from.
Whether you’re a senior in college or working a full-time job, it’s important to devote any spare time you may have to reading about different programs and degrees. What types of degrees are available at a specific school? How will these degrees benefit you in your long-term career path? What sorts of funding are available to graduate students? (In my next post, I’ll discuss the dilemma of choosing which school to accept. For some, it’s a clear-cut decision, but for many of us, it all comes down to offered funding.) Consult the Internet and knowledgeable teachers or colleagues for the real deal.
For instance: if you want to teach at a college level, most positions require a Ph.D. Some graduate schools will allow you to enter a Ph.D. program directly after completing a bachelor’s degree, others will require that you complete a one or two-year Master’s program. It all depends on the school. Make sure you find out the requirements before you pour effort and money into an application.
Again, one of the best ways to find out about grad programs is to speak with professors or colleagues who specialize in your field of interest. (You’ll need to get in touch with them anyway, as you’ll need several good letters of recommendation!) Checking out the graduate catalogues/department websites for schools you are interested in can also extremely helpful, and most departments will be happy to answer your questions via e-mail, telephone, or even in person. Don’t hesitate to inquire.
Fulfill all the components of the application.
Most applications require transcripts from all institutions you attended, letters of recommendation, standardized test scores, and in some cases, writing samples, a creative portfolio (usually for MFA programs), and a “statement of purpose” in which you explain your intentions and goals as a graduate student.
Make sure to tailor these written elements of the application to each school you apply to. Be specific about your interests—mention the faculty members you’d like to work with, and know what the department specializes in. It’s extremely important to identify past work you have done, and the relevance of your own intellectual goals to what the department has to offer. How will your expertise and interests match up with the school you’re applying to? Not unlike an online dating service, grad committees seek out applicants who will be a good “fit” for their department. So make sure you are genuine and earnest about your graduate school—and post-graduate school—aspirations. The University of Texas’s Radio-TV-Film department provides broadly useful information for anyone hoping to pursue graduate studies: A Look Inside the Graduate Studies Admission Process.
One last general piece of advice for organizing your application process: I found that it was helpful to log my progress in an Excel spreadsheet aptly titled “The Big Grad School List.” I sorted the schools chronologically by application deadline date—a great way to avoid last-minute panic and expensive overnight postage for application materials! In my next post, I’ll discuss the important decision-making process that begins once you’ve received those stacks of acceptance letters from schools.
Looking back, the whole ordeal seems much less frightening compared with the prospect of seeking my first “real job” and paying off student loan debt simultaneously. That, to me, is the real horror-show. And though that day will play out for me somewhere down the line, for now I’m enjoying the process of learning, teaching, and to a lesser extent, loan deferment–as a graduate student.
As a full-time graduate student, Rachel blogs about her experiences living on a modest monthly stipend, and hopes to provide some useful advice for surviving the graduate school process–both financially and emotionally.
Photo credit: stock.xchng.