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

Stylish Academic’s Guide to Doing It All

Stylish Academic's Guide to Doing ItALL.png

Hello, World.

I was having a conversation with an alumnus of my law school last weekend, and he mentioned that law associates who come in guns blazing, who charge the highest amount and work all hours of the week won’t [usually] last a year at his firm. Then he mentioned that it’s the same for law school – some students go in so hot that by the second semester, they cannot hang anymore. So, why is burnout such a real problem among young professionals and how do we prevent being one of the shooting stars (this is a How to Get Away With Murder reference, which if you aren’t watching, I recommend you start! So wickedly entertaining)? Well, a lot of not burning out is pacing yourself and preparing properly.

I watched a fellow law student my 1L year constantly stay up until the wee hours of the morning, only to get up early to be able to commute to school. This person worked constantly, rarely taking breaks and sort of overworking himself past the point of efficient studying. There were a few times I watched him fall asleep in class. I mean, if you’re sleeping through lecture, you cannot possibly be helping yourself. Also, if I noticed, there is a high probability the professor noticed considering we sat in the second row. At the time, I just kept feeling like that lifestyle just wasn’t sustainable. When I had my first day of property second semester, my professor, an older man who’s been teaching for years, said something about how last semester was over and the people who did well may do worse and the people who didn’t do well may do better.

Well, burnout was real, and a lot of those people who burned the midnight oil in the library looked so tired and worn out. A similar burnout occurs during finals. People don’t pace themselves, and by their last exam, their fingers flutter over their keyboard at a lag and their eyes don’t stay open without effort. Doing it all can be exhausting, but it doesn’t have to be. There are smart strategies for getting it all done without suffering from complete burnout. So, today I want to offer my guide to getting it all done and remaining intact in the process.

Going back to How to Get Away With Murder for a moment, the law students who are referred to as the “Keating five” seem to be doing it all. They seem to be the top of their class, assisting their professor in criminal case trials, having a personal life, and covering up murders. I mean, the five stars are busy people. One of the interesting things about TV that we all know? It’s scripted and only shows us the highlights. We obviously don’t need twenty minutes of footage where the law students are studying in the library. The fact they study is implied by their status as a law student. However, there could be twenty minutes of footage of someone studying or someone working and it wouldn’t be inaccurate, just boring. Still, those boring moments contribute to the person’s outward success (if the students don’t study, their grades suffer, and ultimately they may lose their status as one of the chosen criminal law students). The boring moments are part of the “doing it all.” The reason we don’t focus on them, however, is because we focus on people’s major moments even though we are well aware that there’s much more that goes into that moment.

ONE || Find something that releases stress. The quickest way to get it all done without killing yourself is having something that you love that doesn’t cause stress. In fact, it shouldn’t be a neutral activity, but an activity that actively releases your stress. If you do not have something that releases your stress, you’ll be too stressed out to get everything done well. Remember, a lot of people get everything done, but they cut corners and don’t always get it all done properly.

TWO || Stay aware of your limits. Become familiar with any limits you have, and stay aware of them. If you know you are not someone who can work on Sunday nights, build a schedule that excludes Sunday night working. If you know you’re not someone who works well with a certain personality type, figure out ways in which working with that personality becomes easier (or figure a way to work with them less). Knowing your limits allows you to better play to your strengths.

THREE || Do what makes you happy. This may seem like an odd tip, but I feel like doing it all doesn’t really mean anything if you aren’t doing what you love. It’s a lot easier to stay vigilant and motivated if you love what you do. If you don’t love what you do, chances are every step on your career road will feel like you’re weighted down.

FOUR || Be selective. You can do it all, but when I say all I mean you can do everything you want to do. If you don’t want to do something, you are wasting precious time. When I was in college, my friend proposed that I try to be Co-Editor-in-Chief with her for the school newspaper. I thought initially, yeah, that’d be a good resume builder. However, after more thought, I realized it wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to do and I knew my efforts would be better spent on the things I loved. So, be selective in what you want to do, then do it all!

FIVE || Stay organized. When you’re trying to do too many things at once, chances are something slips through the cracks. So, make sure you have a well-established system of staying on top of your tasks and commitments. For me, I make to-do lists. Loads of to-do lists. To-do lists help me track what needs to get done when. I put them in order of highest priority to lowest priority. I also have a section of things I should get done if I have a really productive day and finish my to-list early.

My final tip is this: doing it all is about preparation. You can do it all, but you want to be sure you’re prepared for what’s coming and that you remain in control of your schedule. If you become overwhelmed, you’ll probably start to let things slide, and your work product is diminished. Stay on top of your life and make strategic moves in your career. Look at things with the big picture in mind (aka do NOT get bogged down in too many details, but don’t lose sight of making sure the details are right). Life is about balance. If you are unbalanced, you cannot succeed because you will not know how to handle a heavier workload, a moved-up timeline, etc. Doing a lot of preparation on the front end will make the end result much better (and far more stress-free).

How do you do it all?

Truly,
Callie leigh