photo by Andrew Neel via Unsplash
I’m so excited because today’s post is a guest post featuring one my best friends, Holly! You’ve probably seen her alluded to or featured in many of my college posts. She’s the Paris Gellar to my Rory Gilmore. While my blog focuses pretty heavily on college and law school, I realized that I want to be able to reach all stylish academics, but I don’t have enough personal knowledge to speak about graduate school admissions or experiences (graduate: excluding law or medical school). Then one afternoon, I realized I should call in the best person I know to speak of such things: my best friend! So, today on the blog, Holly will be sharing her experiences with graduate school admissions. The post is riddled with tips and tricks for making the process as painless as possible. I hope you enjoy. I will put the disclaimer out there that Holly is pursuing a M.A. in History at the present time, so her knowledge is tailored to that field. However, I do think her tips are useful for any graduate program, but obviously be sure to do your own research about your individual program.
I knew as early as high school that I was destined for graduate school. Though the desire to punish yourself with 2-7 more years of advanced education is not a decision everyone makes so early in their life, nothing can prepare you for the roller coaster that is graduate school. I studied history for my Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in undergrad, so naturally, I decided that my future was destined for the halls of academia. A life of teaching as a professor and writing historical books and articles appealed to me. While all my best friends in undergrad chose the route of law school, I was the only one who pursued a conventional graduate program. The major hurdle on the road to graduate school was actually applying and surviving, the harrowing process of graduate admissions. Unlike law school, whose admissions process is similar to undergraduate admission, the graduate admissions process (at least in the field of history) is vastly different. Since I have successfully survived the process (though not without a lot of rejections, tears, and comfort food), I am offering my two cents and encouraging support for anyone who intends to take the same crazy adventure on which I embarked.
First thing first, as soon as you discover you want to pursue advanced degrees, find out what kind of standardized test you have to take and start studying for it. For most conventional grad programs the test is the GRE. I know, it’s the words that no one wants to hear. But, the sooner you can take the exam and get it out of the way, it will give you more time to focus on the actual admissions process. Since I knew early on that I was pursuing graduate-level degrees, I took a GRE prep course at the end of the spring semester my junior year of college and then took the actual exam over the summer before senior year started. All I can say is that no matter how you slice it, standardized tests suck. Luckily, in most cases, the university won’t give two figs what you actually scored. Still, if you want to take it again go ahead and take it again. That’s the benefit of taking it early!
The second part of the process starts with countless hours googling potential advisors and programs of interest. All grad programs are unique, but in the case of history, whether you are pursuing an M.A. or a Ph.D., keep this in mind: you’re shopping for an advisor, not school name recognition. Name recognition of particular schools (e.g. Harvard, UC Berkeley, University of Chicago, etc.) is not nearly as important as the professor who is going to serve as your advisor for the next 2-5 years of school. That is not to say that I am discouraging anyone from attending those schools (because seriously if you get in then go). I am just saying that big name schools are not the only way to go. Many brilliant and well-respected historians teach at universities that aren’t Ivy League or typical big name institutions. Your academic advisor in graduate school (at least in history) is everything. They are not only responsible for guiding you through your program, but they are responsible for whether your pass your comprehensive exams and/or your thesis or dissertation. Their name will be linked to yours if you are applying for a job as a professor later so you want to choose an advisor who is respectful to you, respected in the field, and has a good track record of landing graduates jobs after graduation. How do you find an advisor? Bust out your FBI hat and start googling. This requires knowing what you want to study. So at least have a general idea of what want to pursue in grad school. If you know that much, you can start looking up different schools and finding people who study what you like to study. Another way to go about this is reading different academic journal articles or books about what you like and finding where the authors are currently teaching. Or, you could go the old fashioned way and ask your undergrad professors if they have colleagues or know of any professors who study what you like. The most important thing to do is to email the professor you’re interested in and introduce yourself and express your interests. Also, make it clear that you are contemplating applying to their program and inquire whether they will be accepting graduate students for the next year. A professor who responds (because to be honest not all professors will answer your email) is likely to be brutally honest about whether they are accepting grad students or are interested in your research. So if a response expresses interest in you and your area of study, then do not hesitate in building a professional email relationship with that person. Professors hold a lot of power in graduate admissions so any morsel of communication and interest is helpful to the process.
Once you can narrow where you want to apply and who you want to work with, then you can start the real application process. Basic requirements for a history program will include three letters of recommendation (which should be from professors you have worked closely with or who know you and can attest to your work), a writing sample (of anywhere between 15-30 pages), a letter of intent (which should state: “I want to study –” and “I would like to work with Professor(s) —”), and transcripts from every college level institution you attended (and I do mean every. single. school.) Some schools may also require a CV or resume and a statement on language proficiency levels (fun fact: you’ll need foreign languages for history). Keep track of all the requirements, deadlines, and the like in a spreadsheet of some kind. Kiss your wallet goodbye and wave as the fees for applications, GRE scores, and transcripts make your bank account a barren desert and then begin the awful process of waiting.
This is the stage of the process that I think is akin to setting yourself on fire in misery while everyone else is happily going about their own business. If I could do this whole process over again, I’d omit one very large, and very bad, decision. Since I knew I was going to be a professor I decided to apply to all Ph.D. programs straight out of undergrad. It can be done (in fact I know many who have done it) but I do not advise it. Trust me, there is nothing wrong with doing an M.A. before the Ph.D., even if you already know you want the Ph.D.. While my friends were receiving what felt like numerous acceptances to different law schools, I waited, and waited, and waited, only to receive crushing rejection letters. Sometimes it wasn’t just one rejection in a day, but multiple. There is no way to describe how utterly discouraged, defeated, and depressed I felt about the rejections. I tried to put on a happy face and be happy for my friends, but truth be told every time they talked about where they were thinking of going I wanted to curl into a ball and cry. I had phenomenal grades, amazing recommendations, teaching experience, and numerous other things on my CV that I considered assets to my admission into graduate school. But, at every turn, I was being told, ‘sorry kid but we don’t want you.’ My friends didn’t know what to say, my family didn’t know what to say, and I faced the very real reality that I would need a plan B.
I am writing this now in an effort to make it clear that despite how scarring the experience was, it’s not the end of the world if you receive rejections. It certainly made me feel like I was a failure at the time, but getting punched in the face by grad school admissions doesn’t make anyone a failure. I wish I’d kept this phrase in my mind throughout the whole process: IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED, TRY AND TRY AGAIN. Part of life is learning how to fail and face rejection. I don’t think I ever truly knew what it felt like to fail or be rejected before that moment in time. But, this whole process was unique. It was a unique lesson and at the end of the day, I am grateful for the rollercoaster that it was. Learn to fail and learn not to take it personally. Graduate admissions exemplify how not personal many failures and rejections are. Graduate admissions contain many anomalies. How many students does the program already have? How many people were competing for the same advisor? Did the department have enough funding for x amount of students? How many graduate students are your potential advisor already supervising? Is the professor going on sabbatical? All of these questions and numerous others are just a sampling of the variables that are taken into account when accepting graduate students. They symbolize not only how my rejections and failure were in no way personal, but about bureaucracy, logistics, and matters out of my control. If you’re put into the position of utter defeat by something like grad admissions, or by something else, then have your moment to grieve, pick yourself up, and keep going forward.
It turned out for me that I didn’t need a plan B. While I was at work one day my father texted me a picture of a letter from Boston College. I told him to open the letter, thinking that if it were a rejection he would at least be able to soften the blow for me. It was the last school that I heard anything from. He replied with a picture of the letter. It read, “Your application for admission has been reviewed by a faculty committee in the Department of History. While you were not recommended for admission to the Department’s doctoral program, the committee would like to extend an offer of admission to the Department’s Master of Arts program.” I was absolutely stunned. It turns out that in the application process there was a small and discreet little box that stated something like ‘would you like to be considered for the department’s M.A. program if you’re not accepted for the Ph.D.?’ For whatever reason, I don’t remember why, I was compelled to check that little box and thought nothing of it after the application was submitted. Turns out that little box really saved my bacon. It did bring up new challenges about finances and moving across the country, but my dream was to be an academic and at that point I would take any steps necessary to get there.
I have since completed my first year in the M.A. program. I will be applying to Ph.D. programs this fall and though I am still suffering from immense anxiety about going through the whole application process again, I know this time around that I won’t let rejection put my dreams on hold. One way or another, as long as you keep moving forward, it will all work out in the end.
Thank you, Holly! If you have questions about graduate school or Boston College, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below. I will forward all graduate-related questions to Holly.