As I'm wrapping up the Ph.D. application process, there are a few things I want to note, particularly for anyone reading who may be considering applying to graduate school. When I began this process, I had applied to three schools for my undergrad degree, none of them too terrifying - two SLACs and the local state university. When I applied to my Master's program, I applied only to this program, and did everything somewhat half-assedly: I took the general GRE with little to no preparation, took the subject GRE the same way, though on stand-by, as I hadn't even thought to register in time, and used the department's file copy of my (fifty-something page) honors thesis as a writing sample.
In short, I was woefully unprepared for all of the work that goes into actually
applying to graduate school.
Here's what I've learned about the process, from compiling applications to two different programs, at a total of six universities - three of them Ivies, one top-thirty school (top ten in medieval lit), and two state schools with strong programs, but perhaps less competition for spots. Whether this is good
advice remains to be seen, of course, as I won't hear from many of these schools for some time, but I did originally conceive of this blog as a means of chronicling the process, so here goes:
- First and foremost, don't listen to all the hype
. When I was beginning this process, I read anything I could find about the application process: I read first-hand accounts of acceptances and rejections, I read blogging communities dedicated to discussing the minutiae of their applications, the potential preferences and motives of admissions committees, and their individual successes and failures, and I listened to stories from various people I knew, about some student or another, who'd published several articles, and still been rejected from all of the top programs. While I don't think that anyone would argue that it's easy to get into a top program, it's important not to start underestimating yourself. Remember that GRE scores and GPA aren't going to make or break your future. As a corollary, I think it's important to keep your own work habits in mind. I read blogs in which people talked about working on the twenty-somethingth draft of their statement of purpose - I think I wrote five or six. Don't feel that you have to continue obsessing over parts of your application long past the point where your revisions actually benefit you. Write a statement, edit it, send it to a professor you trust - but when you have something you that you know really is good, something that represents you as a student, it really is okay to be happy with your work.
- Realize that, particularly if you are applying to Ph.D. programs while still a student, you are not going to finish your applications as quickly as you think you will.
I think I originally set myself a personal deadline of Thanksgiving weekend. I submitted my last application earlier this week, less than a week before its final deadline. This process is long, and complicated. You will have to research not only the schools you might want to study at and their faculty, but also the actual research of those professors, so that you can tailor your statement of purpose to each program. Some schools may require you to gather random information that you thought you wouldn't need - Harvard's application, for example, has a section that rather resembles filling out a FAFSA. You'll need to organize transcripts from every school you've attended, and GRE score reports, all the while bearing in mind that the people you're relying on to get things to these schools on time are often pretty damn incompetent. And, of course, no matter how good your writing sample is, you will need to put in significant time editing it.
- The process is damn expensive.
I applied to a total of five schools in the end - and it cost me at least five hundred big ones. When you begin the process, you're aware, of course, that you have to pay application fees, but what you may not realize is that there are tons of small expenses that pile up: official transcript costs, GRE test fees, GRE score reports - and it costs extra to order those reports by phone, which is the only way to be sure that they'll be sent out in a timely fashion - even the fees to mail packets of letters, SOPs, and/or writing samples to your school. That, of course, is assuming that you manage everything on time, and don't wind up having to FedEx your application materials in to have them in by the correct due date - I know a few people who've wound up paying fifty dollars per school just to have things in on time.
- Don't sell yourself short
. Yes, this is different from item number one. Don't be afraid to reach for a top program. Alternately, don't feel that you absolutely mus tapply to a program you know
you'll hate, solely out of a fear that you need a safety school (for one thing, there really is not such thing as a safety school when applying for Ph.D. programs) - if you know you will hate the school, why bother spending your money on it?
I probably have more to add to this list later, so you can look forward to a second post, but in the meantime, I have but one remaining fit paragraph to write, one packet to mail, and then I'm finished with this process. So, I'm going to go enjoy a good book in the bath, and go to sleep early.