Monday, August 19, 2013

Adventures in Applying to Graduate School

The time has finally come. I have been anticipating this moment for four years, and now that it is upon me, I am both riddled with anxiety and beaming with excitement. It’s time to apply to graduate programs to begin in the 2014-2015 school year, and I think I’d like to document this experience. One of my most viewed blog articles is a guest article by a close friend of mine who wanted to share his account of the journey to grad school. To atone for my complicity in sharing his vulgar, though admittedly popular narrative, I’ve decided to share some bullet points on my own experience. It is my hope that this can be helpful for those of you that are preparing to apply to graduate school in the near future, or that this might elicit some response from those of you who have experience with this process.

I am applying to seven programs, one of which is a dual MPH/PHD program, and the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, for a total of nine applications. Three applications are already open (which I have started), but the rest will open in early to mid-September. To satiate my organizational needs, I’ve constructed an Excel file that lists each requirement, fee, deadline, and special notes for each application, though many of the finer details, I’ve discovered, are not available until one actually begins the process.

Personal Statement: This is a given for any application, and from what I understand, it is the most critical component of one’s graduate application, tied, some argue, with the Letters of Recommendation. Years ago, I was told that the Personal Statement is the one venue where the applicant has a chance to describe her life experiences that have led to her choice of study at her choice of graduate school, in painstaking detail no less. This is patently false, and justifiably so – the reviewers don’t want to read a 25 page paper that documents every decision I made to end up where I am. For the schools with which I’ve started the application process, the word limit is 500 or 1000. Some schools divide the statement into sections: one for life story, and one for academic/career intentions. Either way, this presents a small challenge, but it is by no means insurmountable. I’m more worried about tailoring nine different statements to nine different applications.

Letters of Recommendation: I have heard so many different tips and tricks for this (and even developed one of my own), that I’m kind of paralyzed with indecision. The fundamental truths about Letters of Recommendation are: (1) They must be from individuals who can personally vouch for the quality of the applicant’s work and their preparedness for graduate work. (2) They, like the Personal Statement, can make or break an application. Though I’ve worked hard to establish a social network of professional and academic anthropologists in order to avoid the myopia of my own campus’ bubble, I fear that my work with a select few professors – combined with the attrition of university faculty – has dramatically limited my pool of potential letter-writers. The completion of nine applications will require 27 Letters of Recommendation, for which I currently have 13 accounted. I believe that all 27 letters will need to be submitted online (via the process of inviting a reference to submit their letter in a web browser), though I’m not entirely sure yet.

GRE: The GRE is an ignominious component of the graduate application process, though it is compulsory for all eight programs to which I am applying. It is not a felicitous appraisal of one’s intellectual abilities or capacity; rather, it exists only to scrutinize one’s speed and memory. In the quantitative section, in particular, the test-taker has the inherent option to solve problems in a conventional manner, which might jeopardize her ability to complete the section in the provided time, or in a tactical manner which is rather tendentious toward those who can afford (with both time and money) the GRE test prep materials and/or courses. GRE prep materials/courses encourage test-takers to learn pre-calculated tricks in order to solve circuitous problems with lightning speed, and even though it might take me a few more seconds to elucidate the same solution, those seconds accumulate; one must be incredibly parsimonious with their time. As you might guess, I have taken the GRE once with loathsome results, and so I will have to take it at least once more. This wouldn’t be a dire concern for me, except that I am told that even though many programs may only require GRE scores as a formality, the applicant’s award package is contingent on those numbers. What this means to me is that despite all of the fervently arduous work that I’ve done for the last 4 years – seeking and taking advantage of opportunities to research, teach, present, and network – my ability to attend graduate school with full-funding is threatened by (what is essentially) a corporate racket.

(An addendum: ETS has recently introduced a service called the Personal Potential Index, whereby an applicant invites references – presumably the same who would write Letters of Recommendation – to evaluate their “noncognitive skills or core personal attributes that provide a more complete picture of an applicant’s potential for success.” In other words: ETS acknowledges the criticisms of standardized testing and, in recompense, would like to sell you the service of standardized Letters of Recommentation.)

Writing Samples, Transcripts, and CV: Some programs require writing samples, while others make it optional. Some are limited to three pages and others are limited to 40 pages. Luckily, I’ve saved everything I’ve ever written, so there is a considerable pool of papers from which to choose.

The criteria of transcripts vary across the programs, as well. Some are willing to accept unofficial transcripts up-front, while asking for official transcripts after accepting the applicant. Some require only official transcripts, which of course steps outside the otherwise streamlined online application process. Some graduate schools want all of my transcripts – from both my home institution and the institution with which I studied abroad – and others are willing to accept just the transcripts from my home institution, as long the credits earned from the other school have been transferred.

Thankfully, I followed the advice of a professor in my very first semester, who told me to write and revise a CV as soon and often as possible. Now that I’m at the point of applying, I find that no school requires a CV, though some have made the submission of a CV optional. (He also suggested that I construct and maintain a dossier, which I have not yet done. Not surprisingly, no graduate program that I’ve encountered even mentions the submission of a dossier; it is my understanding that this will become more salient as I begin applying for teaching/research positions in my professional career.)

Fee Waivers: I would like to be able to eat during this semester, so while this step complicates my application process, it is entirely necessary. Not including the cost of transcripts and GRE testing, the price tag that hangs from my pursuit of graduate studies reads $696.00. Of course, many schools offer waivers for those fees. In fact, at first glance, I thought only some of my graduate school choices offered fee waivers, but after some extra digging and a few phone calls, I found that all of these institutions offer need-based waivers; some come from the graduate school, some from the college, and some from the actual graduate program to which one applies. The requirements for receiving a waiver vary as well: For some, one only needs their financial aid officer to send the school a letter that confirms you qualify for a need-based fee waiver, while others require that you send copies of your SAR and income tax return as well. Even more confusing is that most of the schools ask that one applies for a waiver as soon as possible, though others specifically require the applicant to complete their application and pay before being considered for a waiver.

Stay Tuned: I’ve been preparing for this for four years, and I still feel underprepared. Now that I’ve approached the threshold, I’m actually quite a bit more nervous than I thought I’d be, but I’m still very excited to move forward in the process. We’ll see how things develop once I’ve sculpted my Personal Statement and more applications open up.