Applying to Graduate School? it Can Be a Challenge, but You Can Do It!

Okay, so some of the following is going to sound very self-aggrandizing, but it’s important for you to understand some of my background to understand the message of the article.

I’ve now completed two masters’ degrees and have enough credits to make another, but some of those credits are unrelated. I’m now working on my PhD in gifted education. It’s been thirteen years since I completed my undergraduate degree. I graduated as an honors student with a 4.0 (out of 4.0) GPA, 2nd in my class, Phi Beta Kappa. As an undergraduate, I was president of the English club, president of Sigma Tau Delta (the English honors society), editor of the school’s literary magazine, and an award-winning student (I told you it would sound self-aggrandizing-sorry, but you’ll see the point in a moment). When it was time to apply for graduate school I had more than fifty pages of my novel ready to go, my Graduate Record Exam (GRE) earned me honors, my recommendations were embarrassingly glowing, I had earned numerous scholarships, and was even an Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics winner (there are only about five or six per year). I applied to four local (local to Maryland) universities, including reach schools and safety schools. And-at first-I didn’t get into graduate school at all. Not at all. Not a single school.

So, what happened? I’d done everything I thought I needed to do to prepare for graduate school. It’s much like preparing in the senior year of high school to enter undergraduate-taking exams (the GRE instead of the SAT), asking for recommendations, ensuring extracurricular activities round out the student, achieving honors and awards, maintaining a strong GPA, and so on. But, for graduate school, especially one involving a product (my masters’ degrees are in writing), the product itself must be superior. Apparently, mine was not-at least, not initially.

After the initial shock of not getting into graduate school, I turned to my undergraduate creative writing advisor, Maribeth Fischer (The Life you Longed For, The Language of Goodbye) and we worked diligently and quickly on my manuscript. While we thought it was wonderful, brilliant, stupendous, apparently the graduate schools had not thought the same. We revised and revised, and then I sent it off again asking for a reconsideration from one college-Johns Hopkins University. Finally, they admitted me.

There is much to consider when applying to graduate school. Depending on the type of graduate school you plan to apply to, keep in mind that some graduate programs only admit a handful of students. My cohort at the University of Miami was four-four of us admitted out of more than one hundred applications.

If there is a product, such as chapters, a portfolio, a presentation, it has to be the best ever. Have others review it and help you with it.

Apply widely. At first, I wasn’t willing to move to attend graduate school, so I applied to only local Maryland, Virginia, and Washington DC universities, but there can be a bias against those who live locally as the university strives for national and international diversity.

While reapplying to Johns Hopkins University, I also sent out a new round of applications-to twenty colleges around the country. The good news is that in the second round of applications I was accepted to eighteen of the twenty colleges. It was a huge pain to my advisors to ask them to handle so many recommendation letters, and I will forever be in their debt, but it paid off. As a result, I dually enrolled at the University of Miami where I earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and at Johns Hopkins University where I earned an Master of Arts in Creative Writing (how I did both at once is another story).

Now, don’t feel this story is about you not getting into graduate school. Most graduate programs don’t require a product such as a manuscript or portfolio, and most are not as exclusive as admitting only four members to a cohort at a time. My advice is to be sure your overall application, which includes essays, recommendations, grades, GRE, activities, and so forth, is as strong as YOU can make them. Graduate schools are filled with all types of people with a wide range of abilities and backgrounds.

Apply widely. If you apply only to your local colleges, there might be a locality bias that prevents you from entering those schools. Be prepared to move if necessary. I gave up a condo, a car, and left my extended family behind to move with my then wife from Maryland to Miami.

I would also apply in numbers. Yes, it can get expensive to apply to numerous colleges, but like all those years studying in high school for a future payoff, the amount spent to get into graduate school will payoff sometime in the future through higher income and greater career satisfaction.

Most importantly, have confidence in yourself, don’t let rejection letters stand in your way, and plow ahead. You can do it.