Tag Archives: graduate school

Graduate School Problems: The Impossible Reading Load

I’m often baffled by the quantity of reading assigned for many of my classes. I’m used to it after attending a rigorous high school and then a big research university for undergrad, but the standard seems to be to assign more reading than reasonably achievable for class each week. And by “achievable” I mean reading for full understanding – as in you could sit down and critique/wield the writer’s argument in a research paper.

I fluctuate between the belief that the other English graduate students are super-human readers who can devour written content at unthinkable rates and the more realistic notion that no one actually does the assigned reading in its entirety. For example, last week I was expected to read about 700-800 pages. This was an especially heavy load page-wise, but at least it didn’t involve the Middle English dialect of the Pearl poet, or the philosophy of Hegel, Kant, and Kierkegaard (previous weeks’ readings). So, here’s my confession: I didn’t read it all – not even close.

What I do is read with a “research lens.” Yes, for all you literary purists out there, this is significantly different than if I were to read for enjoyment or even full understanding. First, I hedge my bets on which pieces the professor is going to want to focus on class. More often than not, many of the secondary articles were assigned to give some historical background or some other tidbit of criticism that will not be central to the class discussion. Therefore, it’s important to know the take-away of each article, but not necessarily the subtleties of the all the references, dates, historical facts, etc. the article might mention.

You might ask – as I often have myself – why would the professor assign articles that she does not deem important enough to thoroughly parse out in class? The answers I have theorized are 1. the professor actually is a superhuman reading robot who underestimates her students’ abilities to read and discuss efficiently in the time allotted or 2. many of the secondary articles assigned are there to give the students a sense of the criticism out there on the topic, and to have a reference point to look back at if they decide to write a research paper on that text.

Theory is a little trickier. Some of it is so esoteric that you will probably not understand all its nuances the first time you read it. However, often the theory will be a focus of the class discussion, and the professor will expect you to be able to apply it to the text during discussion. So, when dealing with theory I usually take this approach:

1. Read any headings/subtitles. These help to situate your reading and keep you on track if there are any weird digressions.
2. If there are any identifiable introductions/conclusions, read those.
3. Then, I skim for passages in which the theorist takes a step back from examples and structuring his or her argument and attempts to summarize his/her position.

This I hope will at least give me a sense of what is going on in the theory and will help me know what to ask when the professor (usually) begins class by asking whether there were any questions about the theory or parts you struggled with.

Near the end of the semester, I am often working on papers concurrently with my readings for class. This means two things: 1. I already know what I am writing about for my semester projects and 2. my time is even more limited. When this happens, I usually have to resort to skimming primary texts and even quicker skimming on the secondary articles. Is this the trademark of a lazy student? Possibly. But I like to think it’s also the trademark of a student that puts an emphasis on research – which may pay off in the long run.

In the end, I am always prioritizing research. If I think any article or a primary text fits into my research interests, I read it all the more carefully. The rest of the game is keeping a mental (and perhaps a written) inventory on which readings have been suggested by the professor and what was discussed about them in class. That way, if I end up writing on a particular text, I can go back and read those articles and notes in more depth. Not doing all the readings in a given week also allows me more time to work on my semester projects – especially since it is easy to get bogged down in day-to-day work and forget about final papers until late in the game.

So, I think it is safe to say that regardless of what program you are in you will likely be assigned an insane amount of reading and will likely feel like you are reading at a slower pace than your fellow students. I try to keep out of the slog of feeling stressed and overworked by always reading with the lens of my research interests and, most importantly, prioritizing my readings based on relevance.

The Waiting Game: Graduate Application Purgatory

So, I’ve been gone from the blog for a while. Sorry! Things got busy and I started doing some creative writing that took precedence over the blog, but since it is acceptance/rejection season for graduate school applicants, I thought I would share my story.

I do not remember waiting for responses to my applications fondly. In fact, it was not a good time in my life. Since statistics are really no comfort in this area, my hope is that a bit of anecdotal advice might give those playing the waiting game more realistic expectations of the admissions process.

At the time I applied, my understanding was that I would hear by March whether or not I had been accepted. As I found out, this is very misleading because it suggests that there is a day in March when the school sends out all their acceptances and rejections and then waits for the chips to fall. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

In January, most of the admissions committees meet and decide on their top applicants. I’m not on an admissions committee (obviously), but I know they’ve been active because I’ve already been asked to meet with a “strong candidate” who was visiting. It’s fairly safe to say most schools have a good sense of the what this year’s pool of applicants has to offer by February. Then, schools have to make a gamble on how many students to accept, knowing that some will take the offer and others will decline it.

I know of cases where this has gone wrong on the institution’s end: they admitted a reasonable number of students – figuring maybe half will accept the offer – and nearly everyone accepted. When funding is involved, this is a huge monetary blow for the school that usually results in admitting fewer applicants the next year.  To avoid this pitfall, many institutions send out acceptances in waves. Their first-choice applicants receive acceptances, and they see how many of them accept or decline before they send out the next wave of acceptances. For this reason, you may not receive a rejection until very late in the game.

Other factors you may not be aware of can also factor into your schools’ decision process. For example, my graduate institution is making a switch in the program that will hopefully lessen the time-to-dissertation for their current students. In order to allocate enough money for this, they plan to have a very small incoming class next year. So, regardless of how great of a fit your application is, you may have applied to a particular school on a tough year. This is perhaps reason not to despair and to apply again.

For me, the panic ensued when I found out through the grape vine that others had already begun hearing back from schools at the beginning of February. One friend from my undergraduate program had already received acceptances and rejections from various schools by mid-February. Granted, I applied to about half the number of schools as this one friend (something I semi-regret, but that’s another story), but I still found it unnerving that I had heard absolutely NOTHING. Not a word from any of my schools.

Then I began to hear rumors that most schools send out acceptances in February and rejections in March. There is some truth to this, but it is not the whole story either. Many schools send out their first wave of acceptances in February (i.e. the students that they really want to recruit). As it neared the end of February, I had received one rejection and no acceptances. I began to despair more and more. Chances of acceptance looked dismal, and regardless, I felt that I should have heard something by now.

Finally, a glimmer of hope came while I was taking the bus home one weekend. My phone rang and I recognized the caller ID as coming from the locations of one of my schools. I did not want to pick up the phone because the bus was near-silent with the exception of the muffled sound of music coming from a few headphones, so I let it go to voicemail, barely able to contain my excitement. I told myself that I would listen to it when I got home because – just in case – if it was bad news I did not want to break down on public transportation. Nevertheless, I didn’t take my own advice and listened to the voicemail on the bus: I had been accepted to an MA program with funding! This is the point where if I was in a musical, I would break out in song and the rest of the bus would join in.

This particular school was my form of a “safety school” because it was a terminal MA program (not PhD). The real benefit of this program was that it would be a stepping stone to future PhD programs, and since I was offered funding, it wouldn’t be a significant financial burden. Now – slight digression – many people will tell you that there is no such thing as a “safety school” for PhD applications, and this is partly true. Even a school that is not highly ranked as a graduate school in your discipline will still reject you if your research interests are not a good fit. Conversely, you might get into a top-ranked school and get rejected from all the lower-ranked schools you applied to just because your research interests happened to fit with a faculty member at that school.

So, needless to say, getting into any graduate at this time was a much-needed relief in this harrowing process. The one gray lining (as in the opposite of a silver lining) was that if I went through with the terminal MA program, I would have to think about reapplying for PhD programs again in a year. ONE YEAR. However, because this post is about silver linings and not gray ones, let’s say that an MA program would also be a benefit because it would give me more time to figure out whether the PhD was something I really wanted to pursue.

February came and went and I had not heard back from many other schools, except for maybe a couple rejections. All this time, I was desperately checking the “search” feature on the Grad Cafe website, which I hesitate to relate because if you do this it will drive you to insanity. This site allows people to post when they receive an acceptance or rejection from any graduate school. Never before has a device of the internet been so arbitrarily torturous to the minds of so many hopefuls. I warn you that it is a terrible thing to see twelve ecstatic people posting “OMG MY DREAM SCHOOL! Accepted w/ funding” for your #1 school while you sit at your computer screen knowing that you did not receive one of those acceptances. Ouch.

Then, one night when I was sitting at my apartment, I received a strange Evite from someone I did not know at 12:30am on March 1st (I actually went back through my horribly disorganized inbox to find this). When I opened it, it said “PhD Recruitment Event” and I had a serious WTF moment, because to my knowledge I had not been accepted to any PhD programs. (I like to think this was a hilarious miscommunication in the department that these Evites were sent out before the official admissions letters, but it was ok because this definitely indicated an ADMITTANCE).  Later that same day (if you’ll remember it was 12:30am so this was technically the same day, though within normal business hours) I received my official admittance letter, which confirmed that it was not a cruel joke. Bang the happy drums!

March is late for a first round of acceptances to go out, but in this case it did happen. If you take one thing away from this story: it’s not over until it’s over. You could receive a call from admissions mere days before the April 15th deadline to tell you that you have been taken off the waitlist. In fact, I was just talking to a friend in my cohort today who had this happen to him. He was visiting another school he had been admitted to in April when he received the call that he had been taken off the waitlist. Also, once it hits mid-March, it’s appropriate to email schools that have not gotten back to you and inquire about the status of your application. Many of the official rejection letters I received did not come in the mail until late March, but when I emailed the schools, they let me know that I had indeed been rejected. This sucks, but it’s better to know that you are for sure not on the waitlist at another school before you make your decision.

There also exists the possibility that you could get accepted to an MA program at a school for which you applied for the PhD (well, only if you don’t already have an MA). This happened to me with the University of Toronto and the University of Chicago. Generally, this is the case with schools that have a strong enough reputation that people will pay for a terminal MA. It is kind of like a courtesy admittance in the event that you are not high enough on the list to get funded, but they still think your credentials are good enough for them to accept your money. Unfortunately, this is often not a viable means of getting into that school’s PhD program down the road, though it may get you into a good program at another school.

While I will say I am extremely happy to have been accepted at my current school and I love the program here, one last bit of very disappointing news came when I was not accepted to my alma mater.  This really came as a shock to me because while I had been advised that it was generally not the best idea to get all degrees from BA to PhD from the same institution, no one ever indicated to me that I would not be given the opportunity. My initial thoughts were: many of my advisors/recommenders played influential roles on the admissions committee, so how in good conscience could they encourage me to apply to graduate school and recommend me to other schools if they did not want me in their program?

The truth is that many admissions committees right now are hyper-aware of the dismal job market and are making decisions that they feel will best-equip their students to find academic jobs. Unfortunately, having all three degrees from the same institution is rarely a “plus” on a job application. I try my hardest not to take that one personally because I know it was not a matter of whether or not my professors though I was suited for graduate school, or else their recommendations would not have gotten me into a PhD program elsewhere. Still, it was very disheartening to hear that I had not received acceptance from my alma mater. I probably cried the hardest at that one just because I was insulted.

So, here is a story of waiting and woe in Application Purgatory, and ultimate deliverance. I hope that it will give those out there playing the torturous waiting game some hope that they might still receive that acceptance letter, and even if that does not work out, that you should not take it personally and try again next year if it is your dream. Good luck to all those applying and please feel free to ask questions!

Feeling Stressed in Graduate School vs. Feeling Stressed in the “Real World”

I often wonder, why are graduate students so stressed? Or perhaps more accurately – why has stress (whether or not there is good reason for it) become such a fundamental part of the graduate school experience?

People in the business world have to make deadlines, compete for promotions, and deal with terrible bosses. They sometimes do challenging work, sometimes do mundane work, and sometimes have to work late. Many, many people don’t enjoy their jobs. Nonetheless, there is no doubt people associate graduate school with higher levels of stress and anxiety.

How many times has a relative or acquaintance responded with “oh, I could never do more school!” when you confess that you are willingly subjecting yourself to attending more classes and writing more papers after obtaining your undergraduate degree?

Based on my experience in the “real world,” the 9-5 working schedule was both overwhelming and relieving. I would come home at night and simply be too exhausted to do what would normally constitute “me time.” Unless I had a specific event organized with friends, I was considerably less interested in going to see movies, meeting up for a drink, or simply hanging out at someone else’s house. I was generally in bed by 10:30pm after a glass of wine and some TV. Even on Fridays, I was at times too exhausted to go out with friends. At the office, dealing with the added stress of customer service in addition to getting work done often made for a harried and taxing 8 hours of work.

However, for the most part these stresses did not follow me home at the end of the day (except for the tiredness). If I wanted to go to bed at 10:30pm, no unfinished work would prevent me from doing that. I could sit down to a nice dinner without worrying that I should be getting something done. And if I wanted to be a lazy bum and watch TV for the entire evening, I also had that choice.

The fundamental difference between the “real world” I experienced and graduate school is that the “work” follows you everywhere – 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You could sit down and relax at the end of the day, but you could also start reading those 200 pages you have due in a few days. Even if you procrastinate the work, it still hangs over your head like a shoulder angel shaking its head in condemnation. Moreover, the work is never finished because you are almost always given more to do that is reasonable to accomplish in the allotted time frame.

All that being said, I think a large part of getting through graduate school is asking yourself why you chose this system and figuring out how it can work for you. I chose this system because I enjoy the work I do in graduate school more than I did the work at a marketing firm. I also would rather sit through three hours of class than a three hour business meeting. Of course, this sometimes depends on the class, but in general I’m here because I enjoy discussing English literature.

I also prefer the scheduling freedom. This can be a conundrum for many graduate students because although the 9-5 schedule is more rigid, it is also an excuse for why work was not completed outside of that time frame. If you don’t have something important done by 4pm, you know you have to work extra hard in the last hour but in graduate school it is easy to fall into an endless cycle of putting things off. But when it comes down to it – I would rather accept the challenge of scheduling my working hours and my free time rather than having them scheduled for me.

If I prefer to work out in the afternoons and study from 7-10pm, I can. If I’d rather sleep in later and stay up later, I – to some extent – also have that choice. People in the corporate world usually do not experience this type of freedom coupled with this type of responsibility until they own they are high up on the rungs of business. If you owned your own business, you may have the flexibility to set your own store hours, but your work would most certainly follow you home every day.

Like everything, this lifestyle has the good and bad elements. They key difference I always try to remind myself of is that I had a choice whether or not to come to graduate school. I could be sitting in an office job right now making $30K a year with prospects for promotion. But I gave that up to be here.

Scheduling my time is more stressful and at times I let it get the better of me. I believe it is safe to claim that graduate students are more stressed than people in entry-level corporate jobs. However, if you are doing something you are passionate about – it should also be more rewarding.

My New Graduate School Roommate

So, in my post “To Live Alone or with Roommates?” I expounded on the new-found joys of living alone. You can clean, cook, shower, and sleep on your own time with no one to distract you or inconvenience you. After three weeks of living alone in my one bedroom apartment, I’m already looking into finding roommates for next year. It’s not just the fact that sharing a space can lower costs by over $100 easily. It’s that living along can be, well, lonely.

I currently have a bipolar relationship with living alone now. Sometimes, I’m loving leaving my painting supplies out and knowing that I am the sole arbitrator of the air conditioning/heat temperature. The next I’m desperate for some interaction with anyone or anything.

I’ve made an effort to schedule the occasional study date with a friend or to invite people over for wine nights or accept invitations to meet out for a drink. Yet I miss the laid back interactions of having roommates. I miss having someone to talk to without having to call them on the phone or drive/walk across town. So, while I’m going to enjoy whatever benefit there are of living alone for the rest of the year, I’m definitely looking for roommates for next year.

This is also why I made the big decision to get a pet to cohabit my one-bedroom apartment with me. A lot of thought went into this, but it was still a difficult decision. My roommates and I had an adorable panda bear hamster last year in our apartment and even though he was small, nocturnal, and not very cognizant of himself as a social being, I loved having him around.

This time around I had a strict criteria for what I was looking for in a pet and I had a good idea of what would or wouldn’t work:

A favorable work to rewards ratio.
By “work” I mean the amount of effort, training, and cleaning the pet requires, and by “rewards” I mean how social, loving, and friendly the pet is. A dog for example requires a lot of training, attention, and effort, but once the work is accomplished a dog is one of the most (if not the most) attentive, loyal, and rewarding pets. Conversely, a fish requires little to no work, but also provides little in the way of rewards. Both a good and a fish would have a good work to reward ratio, however, because both animals give as much as you put into them.

In my opinion, most exotic pets have an unfavorable work to rewards ratio. Your boa constrictor might require a ton of space, a lot of money, and gruesome live feeding requirements, but that animal will never love you and appreciate you like a dog or a cat. Some people get a lot out of the act of caring for animals like this – if you do, good for you. But I wanted an animal that was social and pretty well-domesticated.

There are certain types of animals that know when you are sad and purposefully try to comfort you. They respond to you coming in the door and, given the choice, they would run to you rather than away from you. While I liked to hold our little hamster last year, I had no delusions that the animal was cognizant of my presence and preferred being out to being in his cage running on his wheel. I could get another pet just to be a little source of responsibility and enjoyment, but that type of pet wouldn’t fill the void that being alone all the time creates.

Not particularly noisy.
I am easily annoyed by repetitive noises that I cannot turn off. I don’t mind the occasionally woof, meow, or other noise, but I’ve learned that I have a low threshold of patience with little dogs that yap at every sound or birds that squawk incessantly.

Appropriate for my living conditions.
Unfortunately, this one ruled out a dog. Not only does my apartment not allow dogs, but even if I could find a place that allowed dogs, I would be seriously limited as far as future rental places are concerned. Plus, a large to medium sized dog would probably not be happy in a one bedroom apartment with no yard. So even though I’ve been a “dog person” all my life, I felt a dog was better saved for when I get my first house.

This also meant that the pet could move with me into another living condition with roommates. The landlord would have to allow it, but also my future roommates would have to be willing to live with it.

The Verdict:
I decided to get a cat from the local shelter. Now, this flew in the face of years of dog-loving, but I’d seen and interacted with friends’ cats and found that they could be loving and social creatures as well. And frankly – a cat’s reputation to be more independent and aloof is not a bad thing when it comes to fitting into the graduate school lifestyle. I have a bit of an irregular schedule, which might mess with a dog’s feeding times or being able to establish a routine.

So far, my kitty has been getting along wonderfully in my apartment. I had to do a bit of problem solving on issues like where to place the litter box in a one-bedroom apartment, but so far the challenges have not been insurmountable and the rewards have been great! (More on this to come later…)

5 Ways to Relieve Stress in Graduate School

So, I’ve talked about being overwhelmed in graduate school and feeling stressed, but not exactly about how I attempt to cope with it. The problem that graduate students have that those in the working world do not (unless you own your own business) is that the bulk of work is expected to be done outside of typical working hours. Moreover, the nature of the work is that it is never truly done until the deadline has passed. This is not unique to graduate students, as designers, artists, and journalists will know, but it is an element of graduate school that makes the work more stressful.

If you are in graduate school, you were probably always a “good student.” Good students usually experience an existential crises when we find ourselves with more work than can reasonably be accomplished in the time allotted. We are troubled by the irony that doing better actually means not accomplishing all of our work, but rather prioritizing some projects over others.

While these are life skills that need to be learned, graduate students at times still struggle with the second crisis. When to put down the book, when to go to bed… The art of setting work aside is at times more important to success in graduate school than studying that extra hour or adding that extra paragraph on your paper. We have proven we know how to be “good students” simply by virtue of getting into graduate school, but we have not proven we know when to put academic work aside.

It is one thing to say PUT YOUR WORK DOWN. It is another to actually go and do it. However, I truly believe in order be a happy person (and not an frustrated, stressed, unhappy graduate student), you need to learn when to set your work down and come back to it tomorrow.

Here are just a few things that I’ve taken to doing whenever I am super stressed and bogged down with work:

1) Cooking
The best part about cooking as a hobby is that you need to eat anyways. Cooking your own meals can be fun, sometimes challenging, but always rewarding in the sense that you get to eat what you create. It is also less expensive and more healthy than eating out. Before you go to the grocery store, plan your meals and choose some fun and tasty recipes to try. Once you have the food purchased, you’ll be more likely to set aside that paper you’re working on come dinner time and relax while learning a valuable life skill. Even better? Invite friends over for dinner!

2) Exercise.
“Exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy, happy people don’t [abandon their graduate studies in a fit of frustration].” It’s true; moderate exercise gives you more energy, keeps your body healthy, and puts you in a good mood. You could go for a run, or if that’s not your cup of tea, you could see what your institution’s student gym has to offer in the way of group classes and equipment. Another reason to be happy: being a graduate student often comes with a free gym membership 🙂

3) Decorative artwork.
I’ve recently become obsessed with decorating my apartment. Now, art has been a talent and hobby of mine for a while, but you do not have to be a good artist to enjoy some DIY crafting projects. Look at Pinterest. There are tons of crafts that are fun and produce awesome decorations for your place. I’ve posted some examples from my apartment to get your juices flowing.






4) Changing locations.
There will be times when unfortunately, you will not have the luxury of taking an extended break from your work. We all try not to get to this point, yet it is an inevitable part of the equation of academic work. These are often the most stressful times: when we feel trapped into a marathon of work with no breaks. If you can’t put down your work even for a quick run or to cook a meal, try moving locations periodically. If you’re getting frustrated in your apartment, try moving to a more public place like a coffee shop, where the buzz of activity around you can help you calm down and realize that yes, life does go on outside of your current research paper. Conversely, if you are in a public spot and you find yourself getting increasingly tired and distracted by that laughing group of freshmen in the corner, trying moving back to your private place of residence where you can put on your most comfortable pair of sweatpants and grab a snack to rejuvenate yourself. The key is not where you study, but the act of switching it up throughout the time you’re working.

5) Make friends outside of graduate school.
Graduate school friends are great for having partners to study with and chances are you’ll have ample opportunity to interact with them in and outside of class. However, any group of people going through a stressful time together (i.e. the final weeks of class) tends to commiserate. I find that having friends who have nothing to do with my graduate studies help me remind me of my long-term goals (not just immediate goals) and provide helpful distractions from the world of graduate studies. They can be friends from college you can call or Skype with – or new friends in town that you meet through a swing dancing club or a volunteer group. However you see fit – make these friends and make an effort to stay in touch with them!

Feeling Overwhelmed in Graduate School

I’m writing this post because I have had 2 weeks of graduate school (one week of registration/orientation and one week of class) and this is the first time I am feeling truly overwhelmed. I went to my family’s lake house for Labor Day weekend to relax and enjoy some time with my family and my boyfriend, and am now en route back to school. The drive is only partly done (I’ve made a pit stop), but in all it should amount to over 6 hours of driving.

I knew which readings I had to do for class based on our syllabi and I made an effort to get these done at various points before I left or during my trip. In total, I had to read one novel, three scholarly articles, one 62 page “theory book” (as I’m going to call it), and a 646 line medieval poem. And that doesn’t count the two articles we were supposed to discuss last week but are really going to discuss this week, so I might have to refresh my memory on what they said. I approached all my readings and – I must admit – understood them to varying degrees. The poem I’ve studied before and know well. The novel was understandable if boring, the “theory book” was comprehensible, but some of the articles pretty much baffled me at first reading.

Now, during my pit stop I happened to check my email – out of habit more so that for any practical reason – and found two emails from professors I received some time during the last couple hours I was driving. They’ve asked us to “prepare questions” on the readings. Ok, so no papers to turn in, but something I arguably should arguably take the time to sit down and prepare – maybe come up with quotations that point to places in the text I want to discuss. Moreover, for some of the more flowery and theoretical texts (this was most of them, actually) the “questions” actually just alerted me to how little I understood the finer points of the theory.

So now I am faced with another 4 hours of driving in which I can think about the fact that I have these “preparations” I probably should put some time and effort into, but I can’t because I’ll be driving. Oh – and there’s a freaking time change. So an hour will be lost in limbo and I have a 9:30am class tomorrow. Also, my computer decided now was a good time to “forget” all of my passwords.

*Cue feelings of despair, desperation, and overwhelmed-ness*

This is a feeling we all experience whether it is when starting a new job or going to a new school for the first time. The company I used to work for had a saying, “Fake it till you Make it” that we used whenever requests from clients started piling in and we did not know where to begin. In the academic world this amounts to taking a step back, realizing that not everyone understands these highly theoretical articles the first time they read them or knows how to approach them, and then doing the best you can.

The first thing I always want to do is blame. My instructors weren’t thinking about the fact that sending an email less than 24 hours before class would screw people over who were working through very busy schedules the night before class. But then again, they were probably enjoying their weekends as well and my situation is probably not the norm.

I know I won’t have time to prepare beautifully crafted answers to these questions and it is a bummer that my instructors sent those emails so late in day because as a first year student I would have liked more time to prepare. I may not even have time to come up with any clear answers at all. However, reviewing the questions and at least thinking about them will prepare me to consider responses from other more seasoned graduate students in my classes when we discuss it.

Take a deep breath, maybe write down some of your frustrations, and fake it ’till you make it. For me, writing is cathartic, but do whatever works for you.

I got the worst Analytical Writing question on the GRE

Now, if you’ve ever taken the GRE or a practice test, you are hopefully familiar with the Analytical Writing portion. This section of the test gives you one of the great mysteries of the universe in a statement and asks you to argue for or against it using all the stores of knowledge you’ve accumulated in college.

What it is supposed to test is your ability to analyze a highly debatable statement and articulate a response quickly with pointed examples. Contemplating the issue, planning your response, and then actually writing it must all be completed within 30 minutes.

The analytical writing portion is essentially a philosophy paper written in the time span in which someone in the business world might craft a hasty response to an angry client. Descartes might have sat in meditation for a very long time to come up with “I think, therefore I am,” but you will have 30 minutes to BS your way to a 6.0 on the Analytical Writing GRE.

Based on the practice tests, I expected a lofty, distant statement that is so broadly controversial that one could come up with any number of examples in favor or against it, but not political enough to ruffle any feathers (i.e. you’re not going to see a political issue like: “Abortion should be illegal because…”). I assume the reason why they do this is because with specific political issues it’s harder to set aside biases and focus on writing the most strictly logical prose possible.

I was expecting to see something along the lines of:

“The meaning of a piece of art lies only in the viewer’s interpretation, the artist’s intention is irrelevant.”

(I made this one up myself, feel free to hire me if you see this ETS)

The defining characteristic of a GRE question is that the “truth” probably lies somewhere in between the statement and its anthesis, which is what makes it so arguable. However, for the purposes of this essay you can’t be wishy-washy. You have to set aside your personal feelings, pretend your in the debate team state finals, and argue for the sake of arguing.

This is why the “issue” I got is such utter crap. I first took the GRE when I was just a couple days away from moving away from my family to spend the summer studying in Spain. I had just finished a stressful semester of undergrad and had no time to relax before I needed to cram in some last minute studying for the GRE and pack for Spain. I was also deep in the throes of a quarter-life crisis over whether I should be going to graduate school or reconsidering my life and doing something more practical.

I don’t make any claims that this is an exact replication of the wording, but this is the gist of what I saw when the time started for my first section of the GRE.

“Professors are expected to be experts in their subjects, but without any real-world work experience necessary for their degrees, they grow increasingly disconnected from their students’ goals in receiving an education.”

Chances are if you are taking the GRE, you are pretty serious about going to GRADUATE SCHOOL. If you were going to law school, medical school, or getting your MBA, you would not be taking the GRE. Therefore, based on this fact alone, you probably find some value in the type of education you would be receiving in a graduate program. The GRE took the pivotal question of my quarter-life crisis and threw it in my face.

Now, the problem was not that I did not want or feel able to answer this question. It’s that the most crucial mistake a good writer can make on the Analytical Writing is feeling the need to supply an answer to the question that they believe is “right.” The reason I say this is because the answer to these philosophical questions is almost certainly in the middle of any extreme position you might take; sure, most subjects could really benefit from an instructor who has a wide variety of life experiences and perspectives, but what is the “real world”…corporate America? the big city? the Siberian wilderness?

Not taking a firm stance on one side or the other is a big mistake on the Analytical Writing. Forget the correct answer. Your job is to produce a logical and well-articulated answer. And this is where I miserably failed with this issue. I contemplated it for far too long. Then I took a judicial pro/con stance. I questioned the question. And then it cut me off in the middle of my final paragraph.


The second time I took the GRE, I did not have this problem. I tackled the issue without any personal investment whatsoever. That is the way it’s done, folks. Don’t let the GRE get you down.

Grad Student Confessions: There was an embarrassing typo in my writing sample

While I’d like to preface this anecdote with a cautionary “here’s how to learn from my mistakes,” that is not what this post is about. The moral of this story is that you will check your writing over hundreds of times, you will do everything possible to make sure all of your of your materials are in order, and you will STILL inevitably make a mistake in some capacity.

When it came time to apply to graduate schools, I thought I was ahead of the game on my applications because I already had a 20-page research paper written from one of my advanced writing classes. The paper was from second semester my sophomore year and had received an A+ in a 300-level class, so I figured it was an excellent testimony to my writing skills. Ah, sophomoric hubris.

The alternative was, of course, to write a 20-page research paper from scratch in the fall of my senior year. Three months is already a tight squeeze to properly research and edit a paper of that depth, and to get it done in time to revise didn’t seem feasible. However, when I reread my A+ paper from a year and a half ago, I was shocked at how much my writing had changed. The aspect that had changed the most was my ability to engage scholarly articles and synthesize them with my own work. Looking back, this paper had been one of my first major research projects.

The good news: I had been steadily honing my research skills during my last two years of school. The bad news: “revising” my paper was now a task of epic proportions. It’s one thing to revise the wording on a few sentences and scour for typos. It’s another issue entirely to change the way you engage in the discourse of scholarly sources.

What happened next was a month-long rat-race between my old paper and a new one I was writing from scratch. I read scholarship furiously, waiting for that one piece of inspiration that would make everything come together.

While I eventually found that inspiration (for both papers in time, but the old refurbished paper became my writing sample), I kept many different drafts of my “final” writing sample. However, each time I labeled it final, I would get a new series of revisions at the advice of a professor, or decide to take it into the writing center for some last minute consulting. I had so many different files containing the words “final” and “writing sample” that they became difficult to keep track of.

Well, if you would have asked me back then, I would have told you I scoured my final final draft multiple times for typos before I turned it into a PDF – the computerized equivalent of writing it calligraphy on a leather-bound velum book. The deed was done, and I was pleased with the accomplishment.

It was not until I decided to apply to one more program last minute that I reread the PDF of my writing sample just for kicks. Previously, one of my professors who had made comments on my essay did so by writing his comments embedded in my paragraph and putting them in bold text. As I read, I suddenly realized one sentence was not my own – it was my professor remarking that I my auto-correct had turned “intentionalism” into “internationalism” in the middle of my paragraph. Ironically, I had corrected the typo itself, but somehow my professor’s comment had slipped in there. Not only was it a mistake, it was sure to be confusing to an admissions committee and horribly embarrassing.

I nearly died of embarrassment right there. Why, why hadn’t I read it over one last time??

In order to move on you have to accept one thing: no one can be perfect. It’s hard to proofread a paper that you’ve read 100 times over. You will realize 100 things you could have done better after you turn your applications in, and you will fret over it until the whole application season is over, acceptances, rejections and all. Some schools might let you turn another copy in, that’s worth inquiring. But in the end some probably won’t out of fairness to the other students. Accept this and move on, the only thing you can do is your best – mistakes and all.

Disclaimer: I have not proofread this post.

How important is the GRE on graduate applications?

“How important are GRE scores?” may be one of the most frequently asked questions by graduate applicants. When applying for your undergraduate degree, ACT/SAT scores carried a lot of weight along with GPA. The answer is a little more complicated for graduate school.

Where graduate applicants most often get led astray is when they assume one of the following:

1. That a very high GRE score will automatically get you into top programs

2. That a mediocre GRE score will automatically keep you out of top programs

Neither of these are true and both lead applicants to believe: I need to spend all the time and money needed to get the highest GRE score possible. 

studyingWith this attitude, best case scenario you will do just that and spent a lot of time and money on the GRE and your scores will show it. Worst case scenario, you accomplish all this at the expense of your writing sample and personal statements.

In general, most graduate programs deal with fewer applicants and admit fewer students than an undergraduate program and place more emphasis on the “personal” aspects of the application.

The more time, effort, and money the school will have to put into their accepted students, the more consideration the personal aspects of the application will receive (i.e. writing sample, recommendations, and personal statements).

When a funded PhD program accepts a student, they are not only allowing them to attend their program, but are also agreeing to offer them money to do so and to direct their research and course of study over the next 5-7 years. The school is making an investment in their PhD students in hopes that the work of these students will benefit their program. An admissions committee will want answers to the questions: is this student a good fit for our program? Does this student have the skills and professional goals necessary to success in our program? GRE scores don’t reflect this kind of potential in a student. This doesn’t mean they won’t cut the applicant demographic with the lowest percentile of GRE scores. However, it does mean that for PhD programs, the personal aspects of the application will be more important than the GRE scores.

All this being said, every admissions committee is going to place different emphasis on GRE scores based on how accurately they believe the GRE predict intellectual potential. Not even a 170 on the verbal GRE or a 6.0 on the Analytical Writing can compensate for a mediocre writing sample or a lackluster personal statement. If you take one piece of advice away from this: try to do your best on the GRE, but keep a reasonable goal in mind, and if you don’t reach it, don’t throw your applications in the trash just yet.

How to apply to graduate school

The first step in applying is deciding if graduate school is right for you. So, now you’ve decided: it’s time to gather your materials and start sending in those applications.

This list pretty much covers all the bases of what a school will expect for a graduate application. You’ll find many don’t expect all of these things, and some will even throw a few extra wild cards at you just to keep you on your toes.

What you’ll need:

  • Subject and General GRE Test scores
  • Personal Statement
  • Academic Statement of Purpose
  • Writing sample
  • Transcripts from degree-awarding institutions
  • 3 faculty recommendations

Applications are generally due during the months of December and January. My earliest application was due December 6th and the latest was February 2nd, but the majority were due between mid-December and early January. Your first order of business is to figure out when you are taking the GREs. Trust me, this is something you’ll want to get out of the way ASAP. If you are really prepared, I’d recommend looking at the times the Subject and General GREs are offered a year in advance. The best time to take it is over the summer when you’ll have free time to study and fewer conflicts. You can always take it again if you’re unhappy with your initial score.

Another thing you’ll want to think about as early in advance as possible is your writing sample. What will you write about? When will you have time to work on it in addition to your studies? Ideally, the writing sample will be the most recent sample of your best work to date. As many applicants will note, this presents a conundrum. If you have a paper you’re working on for the current semester, will you have enough time to revise and polish it before the application deadline? If it’s a paper from a previous semester, will it really reflect all you’ve learned since? I will have much more to say on this subject later, but for now know that it is something to start thinking about as early as possible.

Next, you need to ask your instructors for recommendations. If they are popular professors, chances are many students will be asking them to write recommendations. The earlier in advance your recommenders know which recommendations they have to write, the better they can prioritize their time. The last thing you need is a hurriedly written recommendation or worse, an irritated recommender. While you’ll want to initiate the discussion with your recommenders as early as possible, you’ll need to keep them updated as you get further in the process.

I kept a spreadsheet of all the schools I applied to, which materials they required, whether the recommendations had been sent etc. I also kept a list of all the usernames and passwords I used to sign in to each application. Even if you’re not an organization freak, I highly recommend doing something similar. After the first four times you forget where you wrote down the application login number to a particular school, you’ll want to throw your computer across the room, and believe me, there will be plenty else to stress about before this process is over.

In order to create said spreadsheet, you’ll need to decide which schools you’re applying to. Talk with professors in your intended field, ask graduate students for recommendations, and research the programs you’re looking into. Also, think about where you would be willing to live and what type of atmosphere you prefer. Remember, application fees are not cheap. If you know ahead of time that a particular school is not strong in your field of interest, or that you’d prefer a small liberal arts school over a big research university, it’s best to save yourself the time and application fees from the beginning.

Almost all applications will be online. I only had to send in one application by mail, but be aware that there may be schools that will require you to send materials by mail. Now you will begin the arduous process of signing in to all the applications and filling out the personal information they require. Wouldn’t it be nice if they standardized this process? Yep, sure would. Get ready to fill out your mailing addresses (both permanent and local), GRE scores, and undergraduate institution code ONE MILLION TIMES. Ha, ok it’s only like 10, but it’ll feel like a million.

Around September of the year I applied, I had all the aforementioned tasks out of the way (except for the Subject GRE, but that’s another story) and I thought I was well ahead of the game. Boy, was I in for a stress-coaster. I went back and forth on which writing sample I was going to use so many times I still to this day sometimes forget which one I picked for a minute. I thought “personalizing” my personal statements for each school was a matter of pulling up a single word document and making a few minor edits. Misleading information on all the schools’ websites regarding how to submit transcripts sent me into a frenzy approximately twice a week.

You may think yourself the most prepared, organized, put-together applicant in the world, but inevitably something will go amiss with your applications. However, if you plan ahead and know what you’re doing, you’ll have time to work through any problems and get your applications in on time.mini_stain

Good luck!

– J.K.