Though this won’t be relevant for anyone for many months I figured I might as well write everything while it was fresh in my mind. The process won’t be the same for everyone or for every campus/program, but I hope at least some of my advice is helpful for anyone that wants it.
1. Many steps in the process will be completely out of your control and you will just have to deal with it. For control freaks like me this is the stuff of nightmares, creating many fitful nights and drowsy mornings. Letters of recommendation come from your professors, in my case one of them was knee-deep in research (in India) when the letter was due. Even though he had had ample notice and a copy of previous letters saved on his hard-drive, he was nowhere near a computer. Luckily the program was willing to give him a couple weeks to send in the letter (thankfully he was back in the states by that time), but things like this happen.
Going along with this is obtaining transcripts. I’ll mention this again later, but basically I feel like I’ve given my two previous campuses much more money than they deserve to mail an official piece of paper. In one case everything was automated, so it went pretty smoothly, until I was given two weeks notice to send my transcripts in to a program I was just accepted to. The usual painless process suddenly made me want to have a mental breakdown in the middle of the UPS and Fedex stores I rushed between. To complete the process for ordering the transcripts I had to SIGN a piece of paper with my account info and FAX it to the transcript peeps. This worked every other time I had done it but suddenly it was failing me. I got verifications from every fax, but still the transcript peeps said they didn’t have it. GAH!
Another story about transcripts going awry involves my other campus. I had ordered a rush delivery (just to make triple sure it got there before the due date and therefore paying triple the amount) and has done all the paperwork in person. So of course the intended campus never received the transcripts (not even late). Joy.
2. GRE scores are important, but not as important as your essay. I stressed over the GRE both time I took it. Yes, BOTH times. When I took it the first time I felt like I did pretty well, only to get my scores MONTHS later and see that I was a certified dunce and should just start over (or maybe that was me just overreacting). I quickly applied to take it again and studied my ass off for it. I bought more study guides, did endless amounts of drills. I was in a sheer, sweaty panic. Two of the schools I applied to have very strict expectations in regard to GRE scores. They even had MINIMUM requirements. Good God! I hadn’t even met one campuses MINIMUM.
Devastated as I was I continued to study, praying that my scored would be so outstanding this time they would disregard the last set and take me in. The day before I was to retake the GRE I got a call. The university with the highest GRE expectations (of which I did not meet) had accepted me. I nearly dropped the phone. They never mentioned my scores, just raved about my essay and told me my advisor was thrilled to have me on.
The next day I swaggered in to the test center. I didn’t care anymore. Since I’d spent $80 on the test I wasn’t just going to purposefully fail, so I made a really good attempt. Toward the end I really needed to pee and I was pretty sure my extremities were going to have to be amputated (seriously, is it standard practice for ALL test centers to be freezing?). The morning after I retook the GRE I heard from another campus (with high GRE standards) and I had gotten in to their very exclusive program.
This really reinforces why it’s important to ASK (as you’ll see later). I talked to the person in charge of graduate admissions at a certain university. I’m not going to say which campus it was, but let’s just say it’s always in the top 20 range of amazing universities. He told me the most important part of the application was the essay. You have to sell yourself and make them believe that theirs is the only campus for you, and you are the only student for them. After that they consider letters or recommendation, transcripts and lastly GRE scores. I was told they would take someone with poor GRE scores and an outstanding essay over a person with perfect scores and a crap essay.
So make sure your essay knocks their socks off.
3. Start looking at schools early. You really want to get a good idea about the programs out there. If you’re lucky you might even find ones that fit you more than the ones you’d set your sights on. Don’t limit yourself to the programs you’ve heard others talk about. Do independent research. This also helps to get a good idea of early deadlines.
I was called in by the person in charge of graduate admissions at my current campus. I thought she was going to tell me not to go to grad school, to give it up, start over, think of other careers, etc. Instead she told me about a fantastic program that I had never heard of. I looked into it. It was prestigious, expensive and only accepted ten students a year. I applied and slowly fell in love with it.
I got accepted. I’ll probably end up going there. I had no idea it existed until three months ago.
4. Visit the campus. Give the department notice that you’ll be coming for a visit and they’ll probably set you up with a pretty sweet tour of the place. Talk to professors. Walk around the department. Sit in on a class. Ask students who are actually in the program to talk to you about their experiences. You want to know both the positives and (most importantly) negatives. You want that honesty before you make a commitment.
5. Ask. Ask. Ask. Did one campus want two copies of official transcripts, or will a .pdf of unofficial ones be ok? If you can save $20 on transcript fees it’ll be worth it. If you aren’t sure if a campus needs transcripts ASK. I was accepted to one campus on the condition that I sent in my transcripts within 12 business days of the notification. I had no idea they needed them when I initially applied.
Don’t be embarrassed to ask. You want to make sure you’re application is as complete as it needs to be.
6. Get an idea of when they notify people about being accepted. You don’t want to be sitting around mid-February biting your nails off. Just ask (see #5 if you need a refresher).
7. Write down every account number, e-mail address and password you set up for different schools. This applies to schools you previously attended and the ones you have to set up for the application process. You’ll be kicking yourself if you realize you need your community college unofficial transcripts and have no idea what your username, much less your password, happened to be. You may have to set up accounts for the university as part of the application process too, so it’s good to jot down that info while it’s fresh in your mind.
If I learned anything from this it’s that the process in anything but painless.
From mixing up due dates to sending the same letter twice, anything could go wrong along the way. Just make sure you pay attention to the big deadlines and ROCK THE ESSAY.