Guide to Graduate School Admissions

Stylish Academic's Guide to Graduate School Admissions

photo by Andrew Neel via Unsplash

Hello, World.

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.


Guest Post- Holly
Thank you, Holly! If you have questions about graduate school or Boston College, please email us at bottledcreativityblog@gmail.com or comment below. I will forward all graduate-related questions to Holly.

Truly,
Callie leigh

Dealing With Stress, Senior Year, and the LSAT

when the road diverges postHello, World.

I know I haven’t been blogging much this semester, and that really saddens me. Essentially, I had a moment at the beginning of the year in which blogging lost its appeal. I started having major self-doubt. This is the one space I have that is completely my own, it is what I make it, and it is the one space that I have that is unrelated to my academic career and everything else I do. Now, I know it’s not totally unrelated, but what I mean is that this is the space that I have completely because I enjoy it. I do blogging for me, and for blogging’s sake. I love blogging, but some things sort of turned me off to blogging for a bit. But alas, I’m back with a renewed sense of purpose and love for this space. So, my apologies for my absence, I plan to get back to blogging consistently.

I wanted to start this post with an update about my senior year of undergraduate education. This semester’s been a whirlwind, and not in the best way. This semester I have the LSAT, my sister’s wedding, my thesis, my role as an RA, my role as AHC co-chair, law school applications, and then my social life. I have a little too much on my plate, and on top of that, I’ve been sick twice (which is HIGHLY unusual for me). I think my body is boycotting the level of stress I typically operate under. But alas, round one of LSAT didn’t go as planned, so I will be retaking it in December right before finals. The law school applications themselves are going well, though I pushed back my submit date in light of my first LSAT score. My classes are not the best I’ve ever taken, but I’m doing well enough. My thesis is amazing, as I love my adviser, and I feel confident the finished project will be strong and something I’m really invested in. My sister’s wedding was probably the best day in years. It went beautifully, and it was so much fun! I plan to share lots of photos and a few thoughts about it later this week. Being an RA is going great, I love my new building! AHC is busy, but I’m so passionate about it and invested in the mission of the Council, that it’s worth all the hours of work.

Now for my social life. Senior year is difficult on this front. Everyone is super busy, which I totally understand. The hard part, though, is that I live alone. I don’t have roommates who I see because I live with them, and I don’t have the luxury of spontaneously getting coffee with my friends late at night because we’re stressed and have hours of work left. I have to plan social time. The difficult part is that everyone is busy, and frankly, most people assume I’m busy or unavailable. People also seem to invite me to things more as an after thought when I ask them if they’re free on Fridays. Don’t get me wrong, I totally get that everyone is busy, but it can get really lonely not having roommates. Some of my friends say I’m lucky because I have alone time. This is true, but only so far. There are nights when I order in because all my friends are getting food with their roommates, or going to a movie, and I can’t go because I’m working or have something the next day. I probably sound whiney, and maybe I am, but loneliness is different than solitude. I’m okay with solitude, but loneliness can be taxing on a person, especially when that person is already extremely stressed, and no longer feels like they have a solid support system. I’m also having some majors feels about the fact that my friends and I are graduating in May. It’s only November, and I already feel like we’re going in a 100 different directions. I’m scared for what the future holds, and I’m anxious about which law schools I’ll get into. I’m also on the cusp of a major change (if I end up on the East Coast for school, or move to a totally new area). The idea of being separated from all the people I’ve grown to love over the past three years is nerve-wracking, so maybe that’s why I feel more mopey than usual. I don’t want to separate from them now, I want to have until May 22nd, and yet I feel this inexplicable distance.

To clarify, senior year is going great in a lot of ways, but I’m also getting a bit emotional and nostalgic as I realize this is the beginning of the end. This is my last year at Saint Mary’s. Man, that’s a hard pill to swallow. Sure, I wish I felt more supported in certain ways, but my RA family understands the lonely aspect, and my parents call daily to check on me and assess my stress level. I’m thankful for those who do make an effort to see how I’m doing, and who actually hear me when I bemoan loneliness, the LSAT, or stress. Senior year can be hard, so remember self-care is extremely important. Remember, you’re not a robot and you’re not perfect, and it’s completely okay. Surround yourself with laughter and friendship and understanding, and you’ll make it through. I look forward to finishing the semester strong, figuring out where I’ll be next year, and looking ahead to another great adventure. Saint Mary’s is a fantastic place, and I’m cherishing the last academic year I have here.

What’s been stressing you lately? And how do you handle the stress?

Truly,
Callie leigh

Successful Slumber Secrets

Hello, World.

I’m back at school, and currently in my third day of my Jan Term class. I’m taking A Month in Yoknapatawphna County, a class focusing on William Faulkner. Thus far, I am really enjoying the material and the discussion. My class only has 12 people, and everyone is super engaged, which is refreshing. Last semester I was so stressed I felt like I didn’t really devote enough time to any of my classes. This term, though, I only have one class and one novel to read at a time, which is way more manageable. Anyway, JanTerm is considered the “fun” month on campus, and it’s often hard to get a lot of sleep. I’m also terrible at sleeping well when I am stressed, so I thought I would share my before-bed routine, as well as some helpful tips about getting a good night’s sleep when you are stressed or are in your “fun” mindset.
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When I get ready for bed, I usually wait until right before I am going to sleep because otherwise I get super tired, and am useless. However, when I decide it’s time for sleep, I get into pajamas, wash my face, take my makeup off, brush my teeth, and drink half a bottle of water. If the room is a little louder than I like, something that results from either living with someone or living near loud people, I will pop in headphones for a bit and listen to mellow music, such as classical or my pandora station of epic movie scores (yes, I have one). Prior to getting into bed, I spray my pillows with a lavender fragrance. This scent is supposed to help people relax because it is calming, and quiets the mind.

While I’m laying in bed, I will set my alarm, check all social media one last time, turn off my light, dim my light on my phone, and then put my phone next to my bed. If I get up for any reason after I’ve fallen asleep, I try to go into as little light as possible because it’s been proven that going into a well-lit room in the middle of sleeping decreases the amount of sleep you will get after you return to bed. I also sleep with no jewelry because it is simply more comfortable. Some women sleep with sports bras, but this can be harmful to women, and can also be less comfortable. Another thing I avoid? Food at least an hour or two to when I plan on going to bed. Have you ever eaten, then gone straight to sleep? I have, and when I woke up I felt nauseas and uncomfortable. Another way to increase your sleeping is to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.

A few final tips that I do not personally practice, but have read about:

1) Keep noise in your room to a minimum, and make sure your room is inviting and comfortable.
2) Stretch, take a warm bath, or something that will relax your body.
3) Cut down on caffeine later in the day. My dad has a no caffeine past two o’clock rule because he has trouble sleeping, so cutting down anything that will wake you up, or make it difficult to turn your thoughts off is helpful.
4) Take 5 deep breaths while lying in bed. This is a calming exercise. I do this before major tests, uncomfortable situations, or talks with people I don’t know very well.
5) And, finally, the tip that scholars love, and that I find a little funny. Reserve your bed for sleep and any kind of physical activity. Do not work in bed, do homework in bed, or think a ton while in bed. If you work from your bed, you will associate it with work, and it will be far more difficult for you to fall asleep. If you associate bed with sleep only, then you will immediately calm down once you lie down.

Sleep is super important, and we do acquire sleep debts as humans, so make sure you are well-rested and alert for work or school. My family has a history of sleeping disorders, so I do whatever I can to fall asleep quickly, stay asleep, and feel alert the next day. Hope this helps!

Truly,
Callie leigh

These Days.

Hello, World.

Life lately has been utterly insane, but a good insane.

Drinking: a pumpkin spice latte (during the fall and winter months you’ll find me with at least one pumpkin flavored beverage a day). I LOVE pumpkin spice lattes. I love warm drinks that taste like a fall, and I don’t know if I should be proud or ashamed that the people at Starbucks now know my order and name (and it’s correct spelling).

Weather: today is a little warmer than the last few days, but I’ve decided to boycott warm weather, and therefore am still wearing a sweater, jeans, and boots. Fall fashion is the easiest, funnest, and most creative. Whoever said diamonds are a girl’s best friend apparently didn’t know about the invention of layering. During fall and winter, its all about the layers.

Reading:  To be perfectly honest with you, I never stop reading these days. I’ve read more this semester than I ever have read for school. Although, maybe that’s because in college I actually read all the material. But who knows. For my film and book club I am reading Perks of Being a Wallflower, which if you have not read, you should. And if you dislike it you do not have a soul (kidding, but really, it’s gut-wrenchingly good). Fans of the John Green variety will greatly appreciate the novel and its ability to rip you up and help you discover something beautiful all at once.

Thinking About: I tried to make my schedule for Spring semester on Monday, and all the classes I had originally planned either had unusual professors or conflicted with one another. Insert rant about a panic attack here. So, once I gathered myself into something better than a blubbering mess, I decided to really look at my four year plan, and figure out Plan B. Ironically, Plan B wasn’t bad. However, because my high school didn’t offer a lot of AP classes, I still have some requirements to fill, which prevents me from being able to really try out a lot of different English, History, or Politics classes, which is rather unfortunate. Fingers crossed I get the classes I want because if I don’t, well, I really don’t know what I’ll do for Plan C.

Excited About: HALLOWEEN. I really enjoy Halloween, and this year I love my costume. Since its on a Thursday this year, I think I’m going to dress up, hit Chipotle (they give you food for $3 if you wear a costume, I’m so there), watch Harry Potter with my roommate and friends, and do some homework. It may be a relaxing Halloween, but that’s just what I need.

Missing: My family. I always miss them when I’m away from home, and I miss talking to my sister about anything and everything. I’m also missing free time. I really don’t have much time this semester to just sit, watch some TV while eating bon bons with my roommate, or journal, or paint my nails, or go running. I really want to go running more. It helps me think clearer.

Addicted to: Fall. Everything fall related is my current obsession, as you could probably gauge from the fact that everything on my blog lately is either about pumpkin, spice, leaves changing, or fall fashion. I have a probably everyone, but they say the first step is admitting it.

What’s going on in your life lately? Anything special planned this fall?

Truly,

Callie Leigh