The first time I applied for grad school it was a bit of a lark. I was serious about it, I wanted to go, I had goals, and I am happy to be here now. However, it was a little fun. I took a white paper and crisped it up with the help of some friends who read it and provided comments. I wrote a personal statement, got some letters of recommendation, and generally felt pretty good about the process. It wasn’t stressful.

The second time I applied to grad school it was a slog. For several weeks I gave up most of my free time to application writing — and when I wasn’t working on applications I thought about how I ought to be doing something about it. Applications are due while you’re coming up on the end of your semester or end of the year push at work — or both! There just isn’t enough time for everything. I think even applying for grad school qualifies you to attend.

Here are some things I learned in the application process. Note, I haven’t gotten in anywhere (yet), so we’ll see how it pans out.

You have to do a lot of research.

This changes by field, school, and even individual faculty preference. Some possible mentors / advisors like to talk with prospective students ahead of time. On two of my applications I was explicitly asked who I spoke with in the department. On others I was asked to list faculty (in order of preference even!) that I would be interested in working with. Some schools requested in essays to list faculty. In general, it’s considered important to explain why a particular school: what about that school attracts you? What resources do they have that you want to take advantage of? What research that they are doing interests you?

Faculty profiles and department websites are useful for this, but far from complete. A co-worker suggested I contact someone who, based on their profile, I shared no research interests with. However, we talked and it turns out we had things in common! In general, colleagues, peers, other academics, and friends were the best resource I had for investigating schools and potential faculty.

I also went to some Q&A sessions / office hours run by schools / departments / labs. Some really cool people wrote blog posts and / or Tweets soliciting grad students. These are great.

Sometimes the people you want to work with aren’t taking grad students.

Most schools I looked at did not maintain lists of who is taking on grad students starting in the fall, but I think two did. Sometimes I contacted people and got back “Sorry, not taking on anyone this year. Try $OtherProfessor.” This was actually really helpful! But, it’s a downer to learn you’re not going to get to work with one of your academic heroes because the timing is wrong.

It’s expensive and waivers might not help.

Most applications in the US cost about $100 (USD). In some fields it’s recommended you apply to 8-10 schools. That’s a lot of money. I think everywhere I applied had a waiver you could apply for, but I generally didn’t qualify. Some waivers require you to submit days to weeks ahead of the deadline. Others require that you participate in certain professional organizations, student organizations, or live locally to the school. These might be less useful than you were hoping.

Everyone says your writing sample matters, but only five people will read it.

This is what I was told anyway. I was told that my writing sample (which was 20 pages!) will probably only be read by faculty who are thinking of taking me on as an advisee. Someone else might pick it up and read it out of curiosity. I was told stories about how the right writing sample turned “eh, maybe” candidates into enthusiastic yeses.

Everyone says letters of recommendation matter and it’s extremely frustrating.

My recommenders are all amazing people I have so much respect and admiration for it’s wild. They’re people I want to be like in my academic career. They also all got their letters in the day they were due. I had a moment where I genuinely thought I was just not going to go to grad school because of how close the deadline was.

I’ve been told that a great letter matters a lot, but meh letters don’t hold you back as much as it sounds like they will. I’ve been told that where a recommender is affiliated matters a lot.

My personal statement radically changed based on school / program.

Two of the schools I applied to had very specific requirements for their personal statements. Other schools wanted me to mostly talk about my research interests. One school had a 350 word personal statement, but a 1,000 word research statement. I wrote a research statement and a personal statement and then used them as the basis for what I submitted to different schools. Each application ended up with something pretty different, and not just because I talked about why each program was exciting to me in different ways.

I also applied to different kinds of programs, and presented myself a differently depending on the program’s focus and the faculty. For the more social science heavy programs I emphasized the empirical research I did, while for others I leaned more heavily on my philosophical background and theoretical interests.

Oh, also, I was told to not use contractions. Getting rid of them in all my materials was super tedious.

Diversity Statements are becoming more common.

A few of my schools had diversity statements either required or optional. The purpose of these, I was told, is not to play some sort of marginalization Olympics, but to show that you can talk about diversity (and equity and inclusion, etc) without being offensive. It’s just as valid to write about your own disability as the disability of a parent (though, ask their permission first).

Triple check what’s required.

I made spreadsheets about what each school required. For example, some people wanted official transcripts, some unofficial. Some places required essays rather than generic personal statements, and I needed to build in enough time to manage that.

Ask your friends to help.

I hate asking for help, but applying for grad school made me shameless. I asked anyone I could to read over materials, proofread, or just talk with me about what I was writing. People picked up on things like “you used the word ‘technology’ five times in this one sentence and it looks real weird.”

Some schools have projects where current grad students will even look over materials!