Do your research: are you interested in a one-year program versus a two-year program, how big of a cohort are you looking for, what kind of people do you want in your cohort, how important is financial assistance to you, are you looking for a program that gives you a lot of hands-on experience and professional development, are you interested in doing research and publishing, how are faculty: are they people of color, how long have they been there, where did they study and work before this, etc. etc. etc. Personally, I think this is the hardest part. Finding answers to the questions you’re looking for is quite difficult, but not impossible. Start early and stay committed.
Figure out what your backup plan is if you don’t get into graduate school during this application cycle. Do you have a job to fall back on? Will you continue applying for other jobs? What’s your next move? Because in this day and age, our plans to succeed don’t always make it to the front of the cover of Elle Magazine.
My thoughts on actually applying:
Be the early bird. You know, the one in that “early bird gets the early worm” saying. Start working on your resume. Continue to edit and revise it until it’s perfect. And when it is perfect, deconstruct it some more and revise it again until it’s better. Write to your recommendation writers, or at least prepare them for it. Think about taking the GRE if it’s needed. How many weeks do you need to study? What test prep books are you going to use? You may want to start writing a rough draft of your personal statement. Do it. Write out your goals. Say them out loud. Put it on paper or a napkin. Write it on your iPhone and do the preliminary brainstorm. The more you talk about it, the more you realize you want this. The easier it gets to validate your decision to apply and pursue your academic and professional interests. I’m telling you, from one guy with a slight bird phobia to another “normal” individual, I’ve never been happier about being a “bird” than when I was applying to my graduate schools and programs. My two cents on the GRE: Practice taking the tests on the actual computer if you get a chance to. Some review books will come with a CD. I personally preferred using the Kaplan Review Books over the Princeton Review (TPR).
Keep track of everything. How many schools are you applying to? Do they require the GRE scores? Do you need to send them your transcripts? Does it have a statement of purpose component AND/OR a personal statement segment? How much does it cost to submit your application? When’s the due date? Will your transcripts arrive in time? Have your Letters of Recommendations been submitted already?
Be prepared to wait. It’s going to take some months before you hear back from graduate admissions. Have an idea of when you’re expected to hear an update regarding your application status. If it’s around that time, but you haven’t personally heard anything, follow-up with them. While you wait, you might as well prepare yourself for potential interviews. Ask yourself the hard questions. Have people “interview” you for fun. Talk about yourself and why you want to go into this field, what you hope to learn, and the skillsets you have.
Waiting for my Interview with the University of Arizona.
Accept the (un)expected. My first letter I received from a school was from the University of Connecticut. I thought I was a “shoe-in” based on what I had talked about with the Recruiter. And yet, when I opened that attachment on that email, I was absolutely crushed. I never expected to have been rejected from my first school. But I did. I accepted the fact that I didn’t get in somewhere and that was okay. That meant I was normal. That meant I had something they weren’t looking for. It meant I still needed to grow and I could do that growth elsewhere. It also made it so much more relieving, satisfying, and rewarding when I finally did get accepted to somewhere. Accept the decisions. And if you really want to go to that school, appeal. It never hurts to try.
My thoughts on what happens when you’ve received your admissions decisions (hopefully, acceptances)
Prioritize: Again, ask yourself: what exactly are you looking for? Are you looking for an experience out of your home state? Do you need scholarships and assistantships to (help) pay for tuition? Are you interested in doing research or developing your skills professionally? There were so many times when I thought, “Oh, I could totally see myself going to this school” or “Oh my gosh, the assistantship that I would be working with would be such a great fit for me”. But at the end of the day, I was looking for a place that could support me financially. With almost $30,000 in undergraduate student loans, I couldn’t afford to take out another set of loans to further my academic endeavors. So, at the end of the day, it came down to who would support me the most and provide me with the best financial success. After weeks of prioritizing and evaluating what each program was offering me, I chose the University of Vermont because they offered me everything I was looking for: out-of-state tuition remission, a new location, a small, yet diverse cohort, an interview process which means they want the best of the best, and a network of alumni that spans all across the states. I was also accepted in the University of Rhode Island and the University of Arizona which also provided me with assistantships and scholarships that would completely cover my tuition and living expenses. But in the end, I knew what I wanted.
Start asking questions. If you don’t have an answer to something, ASK. For me, I wanted to see how the faculty would respond to my questions and whether or not they would give me bullsh*t answers in order to further promote their programs. I wanted to see how a queer, person of color would fit into the program, yet alone a new, less-diverse environment. I had to ask the tough questions because if I didn’t, then I wouldn’t get the answers that I was looking for. Ask current students in the program. network with alumni if you know of any. Reach out and speak out. I realized that I wanted to attend the University of Vermont when all I started doing was talking about this place with friends, colleagues, and the folks I met during interview weekend.
My thoughts on what happens after you’ve accepted a program
It’s stressful. And you’ll have to make the best of it, tackle one issue at a time, and just, “trust the process”. I’m currently figuring out the following: where I’m living all the way in Vermont while I’m here in California, who’s going to take over my apartment lease while I’m away for graduate school, how I’m supposed to ship my clothes and essentials to the east coast, what I’m going to do with this soon-to-be long distance relationship of mine, and the financial stresses of moving, shipping, and prepping for the winter season. IT’S TOUGH.
Connect with your cohort. These are the folks you’ll be spending the next 9-24 months with, depending on the length of your program. Make friends. Find people you can count on. This is no longer about doing this by yourself. Hell, it’s completely possible. But I’ve always found that having a supportive network will give me the encouragement (and competitiveness) that I need to be successful.
Be excited. This is a new start. A fresh start. Everything that went wrong during your undergraduate career doesn’t have to happen again. You’re different. And this time, your 2nd college experience will be different. Learn from your mistakes and cherish the fact that you’ll be making new ones.
This entire process never ends. It is a continue “road” that only gets longer. There will be several pit stops, flat tires, empty tanks, and broken windshield wipers along the way. But there will also be 6am sunrises, karaoke sessions in the car listening to 90’s-jams, intimate conversations and intellectual debates, and spontaneous photoshoots at Vista Points. That is the road we embark on. And this is the journey ahead of me.
It is this #roadtogradschool that I am beyond thrilled to be on.