Graduate School Applications can be an intimidating, obscure feat, especially if it is your first go-around applying to grad schools. As a first-generation academic myself, I am also familiar with the isolating experience of preparing applications and feeling like I did not have the mentorship support I needed. I would hunt for samples, spend hours on google and attend as many free workshops as I could to help quell the fear that applications induced. And when things are scary and obscure, the tendency to push them off for as long as possible is oh-so-tempting. However, time is of the essence when applying to grad school. With some strategic planning, time management and the courage to connect with others, applying for grad school can be more of an exciting task than a daunting one!
Here are some tips that I have accumulated over the years to keep the imposter at bay while applying for grad school:
1.Choose the right references for your letters of recommendation.
Reflect on your academic career thus far and carefully choose references that will be able to speak to multiple aspects of your academic career. This may include Professors whose course(s) you have excelled, those who you have taken multiple courses with, or those who you have worked with on research or other side projects.
Pro Tip: Be prepared to have them ask you for a CV/resume and/or your statement of interest (more on this below).
2.Timing: contact your references as early as possible.
Professors often get busy around application season and may also be receiving many requests for letters. Be sure to give them enough notice and time for them to write you a strong letter.
3.Don’t be shy to ask if they are willing to write a POSITIVE letter of recommendation.
Unfortunately, the horror stories of admission committees receiving letters that portray students in a negative light are true. Don’t be shy to ask if you will receive a positive review in your letter of recommendation. This may be easier (and less awkward) to do in an in-person conversation, but can also easily be done via email if needed.
4.Do your research.
Research the schools that you are interested in applying to and do a deep dive into their different programs, the faculty members and the courses offered. Do you see yourself fitting in well with the research interests of other graduate students and faculty members? Are there unique aspects of the program, like courses or opportunities offered, that would be beneficial to your academic journey? Take note of these and save them for your statement of interest (I promise, I am getting to this soon!)
5.Put yourself out there and Connect with Graduate Students already enrolled in the program.
This is such a great way to get insights into what the program you are interested in is like, the atmosphere of the department and whether or not graduate students are well-supported at the university in question. You would be surprised at how willing and happy graduate students are to offer peer mentorship and chat about their experiences! They may even have suggestions on faculty members to reach out to that align with your research interests.
This leads me to my next tip–
6.Reach out to potential supervisors
It’s always good to get a feel on whether or not a professor that you are interested in working with has the capacity to take on students. Having these preliminary conversations with potential supervisors can be useful to gauge their interest and to help with your decision-making process on whether or not the school and program are the right fit for you. I will note though not to let a lack of response from a supervisor deter you from applying. Although some schools and programs require that you secure a supervisor before applying, not all of them do, and so it is completely fine to apply without having spoken to faculty members.
Pro tip: Consult the guidelines given by your selected program of application to determine whether or not securing a supervisor ahead of time is a requirement.
7.You should also thoroughly consult the application guidelines for information about the Statement of Interest (ah finally!).
Statement of Interests will often have specific elements that should be covered, such as highlighting your previous academic experience, work and volunteer experience, a description of your research interests or proposed project, etc. Guidelines also tend to outline the required length that your statement should be. If anything is unclear, don’t hesitate to send clarification emails to the program administrator! It’s better to ask and clarify details about the application rather than submit an application that is incomplete. Applications that are missing elements or do not meet all requirements are often filtered out of consideration by admission committees.
Pro tip: I always suggest also highlighting why the program is the right fit for YOU! One way to do this is to specify which courses and faculty members would contribute to your research project. This conveys that you have done your research on the program at this specific school (hello tip 4!!) and have intentionally chosen it for its unique aspects.
8.In a similar fashion, showcase what YOU bring to the table.
What skills do you have that will make you a strong and successful candidate for this program? In other words, SELL YOURSELF. You want to convince the admission committee that they can’t pass your application up and would be missing out if you were to go to another institution.
9.Review, review, review!
Schedule some time to review your statement of interest. Ask trusted professors, peers, friends and/or family to give you honest constructive feedback on the clarity and structure of your statement. It’s also helpful to set aside your application for a couple of days and come back to review it with fresh eyes – you’ll often catch things you might have missed from being in tunnel vision mode!
10.Last but not least, HAVE THE AUDACITY.
Audacity as defined by Oxford Languages refers to a willingness to take bold risks. Applying to schools can be a scary, nerve-wrecking, doubt-induced process, but always have the AUDACITY to apply. You owe it to yourself.
For more tips, resources, and community support on all things grad school, visit @firstgenacademic on Instagram, where I share some of the raw and honest truths about navigating academia. I also offer editing services and peer mentorship for a variety of different applications including statement of interests, grant applications and cover letters.