Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did. - Newt Gingrich
The first time I applied to graduate school was during the Fall of 2015. I was an international transfer student, 1.5 years into my bachelor’s degree in psychology, and with less than one year left to graduate. I was considering at the time Ph.D. programs in industrial-organizational psychology and was applying to various universities across the United States. Now, I consider myself an expert in information-gathering (no, really, I’m often tempted to list Googling under my skills) but back then, either I wasn’t as skilled, or there was simply too much hidden or explicit information to digest that my first-generation international student self could not comprehend in real-time - at least not without frequent anxiety attacks. If there is one thing I wish I would have done differently is to come up with a timeline and follow it closely (I kind of did and sort of (mostly) didn’t).
June - August
Research and identify programs of interest following a three-step process: 1) conduct a broad search, 2) create a structured comparison, and 3) conduct a detailed exploration (you can read more about these three steps here). When conducting the broad search, you can use all sorts of tools and websites such as Princeton Review. At this point, you might wonder whether you’re bound by a specific geographic location, types of degrees, urban vs. more rural types of environments, and more big picture aspects. As you work to identify various programs, it is time to create a spreadsheet where you can input all the information you find - here is an excellent example of how that spreadsheet might look like (don’t forget to include the cost of living for the cities where your programs of interest are based)
The step above will help you understand if and where standardized testing is required. Many universities have moved towards excluding the GRE requirements, but it’s always worth checking
The step above will also give you a good idea of the financial implications of attending graduate school. Make sure to conduct additional search sessions to identify potential funding avenues. More often than not, this information might not be available upfront on the university’s or the department’s website, and if that’s the case, you can and should contact the graduate college and/or the program coordinator of the program you have in mind and ask them about funding opportunities (such as Teaching Assistantships, Research Assistantships, and more)
If it turns out that you must take the GRE, start planning for it immediately. You can sign up for prep courses - most universities offer such services through their Career Services department and come up with a plan for studying and taking the GRE
Start working on your personal statement. If you don’t know where to start, you’re not alone. You can simply start by googling “personal statement for graduate school in X field,” and you’ll surely find many informative articles and guides. Here is a good example from Yale’s Office of Career Strategy. The first draft might be difficult to drag out. Don’t focus on writing perfection, just let your thoughts flow on paper.
Have a final draft of your personal statement ready. Get advice on it from your university’s writing center, share it with trusted family and friends and ask for their opinion. Most importantly, share it with a few professors you trust and ask for their feedback. You might receive conflicting advice (i.e., family members might see things differently than your professors do), so it’s important to filter through the advice you receive and polish up the best personal statement you can come up with.
Contact professors in the program you’re applying to. This is of utmost importance, especially if you’re applying to Ph.D. programs where it is customary for students to work closely with their advisors, so be prepared to reach out to potential advisors. You’ll want to do this for a few different reasons: 1) to introduce yourself and establish a connection, 2) to see if that particular advisor is even accepting students within your application cycle, and 3) to assess mutual interests. Here is an example of how an email to a potential graduate advisor might look like.
Once you start contacting professors and updating your graduate programs spreadsheet, conduct further research into that specific school’s and program’s specific funding opportunities.
Request letters of recommendation - usually from the 3 individuals who can speak strongly about you, your performance, and your work ethic. These three letters should complement one another and tell a holistic story of who you are. They can come from professors, or from a mix of professors and supervisors, depending on who can speak in the utmost stronger terms about your work. Read this article to gain a little more insight into how to ask for letters of recommendation.
Take standardized tests if need be
Initiate the applications. Really, even if the deadline is, say, December 1st, you want to start early and see all those details behind the application portal. Sometimes you’ll find additional essay questions that were not mentioned on the website upfront, sometimes you’ll see that the system allows for more letters of recommendation, and so on. It is very good practice to start early. The goal is not to submit right away but rather to familiarize yourself with the various application portals (yes, often they’re different) and gather any missing information
Have the Career Services office on your campus and other people you trust review your application materials, including your resume/CV
Initiate the ask for transcripts when and where applicable. Pay attention to this, as some programs might allow you to submit your application with unofficial transcripts only (they’ll ask for official ones if admitted).
It's showtime! Many programs have a December 1st deadline, so you’ll want to make sure that you’re submitting well before the deadline. Sometimes, the letter of recommendation writers do not (DO NOT) receive the formal request for submitting a letter on your behalf until you actually pushed the submit button on your application. Know if that’s the case ahead of time (that’s why you’re initiating the application process in October) so that you leave them plenty of time to send in the letter!
If you encounter financial hardship, please know that it’s okay to contact the graduate programs you want to apply to and ask for an application fee waiver! Usually, the fees range between $50-$150+, so they can add up really fast. Know that help is available should you need it, and don’t hesitate to ask for it. Many universities have explicit information available on their websites about fee waiving applications and procedures, so a simple search might reveal that.
Don’t hesitate to send gentle reminders to your letter of recommendation writers. They are surely busy people and will appreciate the heads up.
Towards the end of the month, make sure that all applications went in.
If you’re applying to master’s programs, they often have rolling admissions, with hard deadlines ranging from January to March of the following year, so there is a little more flexibility there.
Generally speaking, when trying to gather and organize vast amounts of information, for your use or to share it with others, you’ll want to remember to:
Make it cognitively easy for people to follow - information should be concise and easy to read
Ensure you include all relevant information in your communications (i.e., when requesting a letter of recommendation, make sure to share your CV, transcripts, a draft of your personal statement, and your unofficial transcript). Also, it is perfectly acceptable (even encouraged) to provide your letter of recommendation writer with bullet points of what you’d like them to emphasize in the letter - don’t do this until they formally accepted to write the letter!)
Everyone is busy - your emails should have a clear subject line and probably not more than three short paragraphs of information. This will make the reader more likely to read it through and respond timely.
Imagine taking 15-18-21 credits, holding a job or research position, and having to apply to multiple graduate school programs at the same time! IT WILL FEEL HORRIBLE! Having a timeline and being organized will most definitely help keep you on track. The spreadsheet and advanced homework will significantly reduce anxiety and even financial burden (no one should go into debt to apply to grad school!). Plus, the more you read and prepare for the process, the easier it will get (did I mention this really awesome resource targeted towards applicants from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds, such as women, first-generation, and minority college students?!).
P.S. in case you were wondering I did not get accepted to any of the 15+ programs I applied to back in 2015. The best I got, was an offer for a master’s program in industrial-organizational psychology with the possibility of being strongly considered to their Ph.D. program upon graduation. The financial implications of that opportunity were huge since there was no assistance available for the master’s program, and so I had to decline that offer. A few years and some applications later, I’m now an excited doctoral student in educational leadership in higher education.