Recap: The Grad School Application Process: A View from the Trenches

On September 20, 2019, I hosted a HASTAC Digital Friday webinar about applying to graduate school. I gave my presentation the tongue-in-cheek subtitle “A View from the Trenches” because, with so many files and deadlines to keep track of, the grad school application cycle can occasionally feel like the planning of a military campaign. Having gone through the process twice, I’ve learned that it is challenging, but with careful planning, and by starting early, it is possible to reduce the stress involved in applying.

The first thing is to determine your academic interests. This is crucial for research-based programs, and especially for doctoral programs, as you will be expected to make a contribution to scholarly knowledge. If you haven’t done academic research before, that’s not a deal breaker. Everyone applying to grad school, whether an experienced researcher or a novice, must look at the relevant literature in their field and identify research questions to explore. Talking to friends and mentors will help you figure out the topic(s) you want to focus on.

Once you have a sense of what you want to study, look for universities where faculty members specialize in those subjects. As a graduate student, you will work closely with your advisor, so it is essential that you find a good match. Don’t be afraid to email professors to find out if they are taking grad students this year. When you write your personal statement, be sure to articulate your main research question, any supporting topics that interest you, and the opportunity you see to grow as a scholar by working with particular professors. This is not an undergraduate college admissions essay, so keep personal matters to a minimum. Focus instead on your professional goals.

Simultaneously, you should read about the universities’ resources — stipend levels, the student health insurance policy, libraries, certificate or supplementary training programs, and lifestyle options (e.g., gyms, clubs, things to do in the community). Identifying academic resources outside of your prospective department will allow you to argue persuasively why a given university is the right place for you. Identifying lifestyle options matters (although to a lesser degree than academics) because you still have to live while in grad school.

Many schools charge application fees, and professional exams like the GRE and LSAT cost money. Cost may affect how many schools you apply to. The burgeoning movement to abolish the GRE is encouraging, as it will remove a cost barrier to many graduate programs, but you may not benefit from this cultural change at this time.

As you apply, keep backups of all your files — transcripts, personal statement drafts, writing samples, etc. — in case you suffer catastrophic computer failure. You don’t want to start an application over from scratch! When you ask mentors for letters of recommendation, ask them early and be helpful (e.g., give them the school’s instructions, plus documents about you that they can reference as they write your letter). It is OK to follow up with your writers, to make sure the letters are submitted on time, but be polite, as your mentors are taking time out of their schedules to support you.  

You’ll almost certainly get some rejections. This is normal — grad school admissions are competitive! But hopefully you’ll get some acceptances. When you do, get the specifics of your offer in writing. You do not want to commit to a program without having the details of funding, insurance, teaching or service requirements, and other program expectations. Visit the school in person, if possible, before you accept your offer.

For further reading, I would recommend Donald Asher’s Graduate Admissions Essays (fourth edition) and Robert L. Peters’s Getting What You Came For (1997 revised edition), as well as Karen Kelsky’s The Professor Is In. Professional guides in your field may be helpful, too. The best resources, however, will likely be your mentors — the people you ask for letters of recommendation. They know the field, and they also know you. They’ll steer you in the right direction.