By Katie Kohls
(Cue T. Swift) I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling… stressed, sleep deprived, and ready to punch the next person who asks what I’m going to do after graduation. I’m also feeling 22, but that seems irrelevant at this point. Like many seniors and overachieving juniors, I’m prepping for graduate school. I’m feeling overwhelmed and underprepared. Okay so maybe I’m just a slacker (probably), didn’t prepare enough (yea), and am stressing more than is logical (definitely). But for those of you who are interested in learning from my mistakes, here’s my experience, tips, and observations so far in prepping for graduate school. (So in case anyone is wondering, I am an English major with minors in Religious Studies and Writing. So my experience is influenced by my liberal arts background, but I’m assuming feelings and pressure are similar to all backgrounds.)
So first of all, do you even want to go to grad school? I mean if it is required to do what you want to do with your career, then it’s kind of obvious. But for those of you who it may help your position, give you a pay raise, or just would give you a variety of experience, think about it for a while. Graduate school is a serious commitment of your time, money, and energy. It shouldn’t be used as an excuse to avoid entering the “real world.” Also if you’re on the fence, there is nothing wrong with deferring a year or more. Take that year to gain some work experience, travel, start paying off student loans, go on a mission’s trip, or do something else that’s awesome. If you do decide or need to go to graduate school, good for you.
Next step: look into which graduate schools you would like to possibly attend. There are a few different programs for me since my career goal is to get my PhD in English and I hope to teach literature at the college level. Learn what your options are to get to your end goal and find schools that offer that program. I didn’t have a set idea of where to even apply so I looked at national rankings. I considered how far I was willing to go, research resources and the strength of their libraries, the size of the school, what their faculty’s strengths were (do they have people that are leaders in research in 20th century literature or modernism or Shakespeare?), and the options for funding. I then composed a list of possible schools.
Before/after/during all of this, you probably have to take the GRE/MCAT/LSAT/etc. I need the GRE or Graduate Record Examination. Make sure to check your possible schools for test requirements. For those that need the GRE, check for the subject tests. For example, some schools for me may require the literature in English exam. Other subject tests are biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, or psychology. Also it costs $195 for just the standard GRE. Each subject test is $150. Any changes to your testing center, registering late, extras, and more are typically $50, too. But they do have some study resources for free. So save and plan ahead so you don’t have to starve for a couple of weeks to pay for it or have to sell a kidney. Also, the GRE sends your scores to four schools for free and then you have to pay for each subsequent score — so choose wisely.
So you have your schools and your tests, so now to the actual application. For English majors, it’s pretty standard to need three letters of recommendation, writing samples, a personal statement, possibly an academic statement of purpose, plus your transcripts. Each school is different so be organized: make a spreadsheet or have a notebook specifically devoted to your prospective graduate schools. Start well before the deadline (mine are all around mid-December).
Remember, your professors are key in getting you into graduate school. Letters of recommendation from them will look the best, especially if they can personalize it to you. Your professors have also gone through this experience, so ask them for assistance and guidance (mine have been amazing). I’d also recommend having an English or writing person and a professor from your area look over your personal statement whether you’re English or not. Presenting well-written work that adequately reflects your area will make you look better.
There are other things to help you gain admittance that aren’t required (at least for me). Internships, volunteering, leading or being a member of a related group on campus, and even excelling in outside interests. Doing research outside of the classroom, attending conferences, and just gaining valuable experience in your field. Get out of the classroom and do something more.
So I’m still trying to figure all of this out, and I don’t know everything and I haven’t completed half of what I need to do yet. But I hope that my experience so far will be of some help to you. My advice is don’t push this stuff off, save and prepare for any standard exam you need, be organized, befriend and seek guidance from your professors, and do more than is just required. To everyone stressing about what to do after graduation: breathe, focus, and it’ll be ok. Some days I don’t believe this either, but have faith and keep on trying.