Kate Arnold

Omicron, USC

Stay Sane, Sister: 6 Tips for Surviving Grad School Applications

Kate Arnold, Theta Foundation scholarship recipient

As a freshman pre-med student enrolling in Biology 101, the road ahead appeared daunting. Challenging science courses, extracurricular requirements, and a standardized test stood between the MD and me. But while these prerequisites were difficult in their own right, the hardest part was the one I had no control over: the grad school application waiting period.

Whether anticipating an interview invitation or notification of acceptance, this wait can seem infinite and disheartening—but it doesn’t have to be this way! Here are a few valuable suggestions for staying sane during the process, tested in the trenches of my own grad school application experience:

1. Be patient. Remember that these things take time—admissions committees won’t be able to evaluate your application overnight! Once you’ve fulfilled all admissions criteria in a timely manner, try to take a step back. Instead of checking your application status each day or endlessly refreshing your email inbox, channel that energy into something more constructive, like other applications or interview prep.

It can also be helpful to get a sense of the expected timeline. Skim the admissions website for information regarding application and interview turnaround, or if that information isn’t available, consider sending an email or asking an admissions officer in person. Knowing that the next batch of acceptances won’t be sent out until a certain date will help put you at ease in the meantime.

2. Resist the urge to compare. Numerous websites have sprung up to take advantage of eager applicants’ desire to know how other applicants are faring in the process. It can be easy to see the scores and activities that accepted students boast of and to feel unqualified as a result. Avoid these situations! Whether you are comparing yourself to a friend, colleague, or anonymous applicant on a website, it won’t bring you any closer to your goal. Try to focus on your own achievements, and remember that there are no universal criteria for acceptance to grad school. It is your unique experiences, perspectives, and accomplishments that will get you in the door.

3. Remain a competitive applicant. For some people, the submission of their application marks the end of grad school-relevant pursuits, but you don’t have to fall in to this trap. There are many opportunities to maintain an edge, even after you’ve submitted your application materials.

Celebrating Crop
Kate, left, being supported by her Theta sisters!

One way is to continue your involvement in pertinent academic and extracurricular enterprises. Whether you’re engaged in research, working as a TA, or volunteering in the community, keep devoting time and effort to these important activities. They may provide an interesting story or perspective you can discuss during interviews. Furthermore, your continued participation demonstrates that you aren’t simply involved for the sake of padding a résumé.

In addition, some schools welcome “update letters” that express sustained interest in the institution and provide information on activities that took place after application submission. Be sure to research the school’s policy, as some programs specifically discourage this type of correspondence. However, if update letters are allowed, they can be an excellent way to showcase your persistence, as well as empower you to take action during the waiting period.

4. Do what you love. What are the activities that bring you joy? Sometimes the intensity of waiting to hear back from grad schools can steal your energy away from these things. Rather than focusing on the application process at their expense, continue to make time for other important pursuits. Yoga, running, and other forms of exercise can keep your mind off grad school, relieve stress, and help you stay physically and mentally healthy. As a creative outlet, pursue your favorite hobbies and engage with interests and talents outside your field of study. By remaining immersed in other activities, you’ll be better able to keep things in perspective. Remember: grad school is only one part of your life, and there are many other aspects that help define who you are.

5. Remember your goals. After weeks of waiting, it can seem like there’s nothing you want more in life than to be accepted to your dream school—or any school, for that matter. But when you start to feel that way, take a step back and consider the big picture. What’s really your goal? To be a teacher, researcher, lawyer, physician? To solve a humanitarian problem, to discover new knowledge, to shape young minds? Reflecting on your driving motivations will help you remember that grad school is simply one step in the process. Being accepted to your dream school is a possibility; but acceptance to a different school, or even reapplying in the next cycle, can still allow you to achieve your goals.

6. Use your support system. While applying to grad school may seem like an isolating process, it certainly doesn’t have to be that way! Reach out to your network of family, friends, mentors, and Theta sisters and keep them updated along the way. They’ll be able to celebrate your successes and encourage you amidst setbacks or silence. Ask your loved ones to remind you of your past achievements and future goals. In doing so, they’ll help you maintain your identity and confidence independent of grad school outcomes.

Are you pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree during the 2016-17 Academic Year? The 2016 Theta Foundation Scholarship Application (for scholarships awarded for the 2016-17 Academic Year) is now available! Visit our Apply Now page for complete information.

This blog post is part of our Scholar Blogger series, showcasing four of Theta’s leading women who are sharing their experiences, insight, and advice on topics relevant to all students. Learn more about the Scholar Blogger series here.