Applying to Graduate School: Tips to Avoid Insanity

The graduate application process may seem overwhelming, but it doesn't have to be. Read on for some stress-busting tips from someone who's been there.

If you’ve considered graduate school, you know that the decision and application process can be daunting. Well, don’t panic! I applied this year and remained (relatively) sane, and so can you. Here are a few tips from my own experience.

Start early

Even if grad school is just on the horizon, it doesn’t hurt to start boosting your credentials now. Graduate admission offices focus on applications holistically rather than just on numbers and test scores. Imagine your entire application as a kind of résumé: the more valuable and varied your skill-set, the more likely a school is to invest in you. Try taking a graduate-level course in your field of interest; if money is an issue, speak with your employer’s HR office to ask if they offer tuition assistance. If your program has a foreign language requirement, try a language class at a local community college or adult education center. You might also consider applying for a part-time job as a research or faculty assistant in your field at a local university. (In my case, the tuition benefits of working at a university were so great that I took a full-time job there!) While none of this is required, any exposure to research, writing, or graduate course work in your field will be a stellar addition to your application.

Talk, talk, talk

Reach out to your undergraduate professors—especially those who are recently out of graduate school—and set up a phone call or meeting to get general advice. This might seem awkward to you, especially if you’ve been out of school for a long time, but they’re used to it, and they’re there to help. My undergraduate professors initially discouraged me from pursuing my Ph.D. because of the tough job market; however, their brutal honesty was a much-needed reality check. When I did make the decision, they were incredibly supportive, and I also felt better about asking for recommendation letters!

Coworkers or others in your field can also be a surprisingly helpful resource. People who have put the time and effort into earning a graduate degree are generally willing to answer questions, check in on you, and give advice.

Think it out

Depending on your program, you could be in graduate school for several years: how does that fit into your life? Staying close to my family and friends was important to me, so I printed a list of programs, crossed off any in locations I didn’t like, and then did a second pass to assess program strength and quality. If location isn’t an issue for you, think about other essentials, like specializations in certain areas or financial aid. You’ll need to be willing to sacrifice some things if earning your degree at a top-ranked school is your biggest priority. You have to start somewhere, though, so start by choosing programs that fit well with your lifestyle.

Use spreadsheets

Were it not for Google Spreadsheets, I would have drowned in printouts and tears before I ever opened an application. I used numbers or short notes to rank each potential school according to several categories: location, program rank, faculty, GRE or language requirements, courses I was interested in taking, etc. This might sound like overkill, but you’d be surprised at how your preferences can change once they’re written out in front of you. The spreadsheet can also be a handy way to keep track of passwords, materials to hand in, or faculty you want to contact later during the application process. I even sent spreadsheets to my recommenders to ensure they got all the links they needed to submit my letters. Having a central place to keep track of things is essential, especially if you’re naturally disorganized like me!


For many programs, especially in the humanities, test scores are a small part of your application. However, boosting your scores can only help. You can drastically improve your score by understanding how to guess and write strategically; if you are taking the GRE, I would recommend picking up review books a couple of months before your test. Go through their strategy suggestions carefully, and take as many practice tests as you can. Check requirements early too; if your program requires a GRE subject test, note that most of these are only offered two or three times a year. I missed that memo and wound up pulling more all-nighters with Macbeth and Beowulf than any reasonable person should.

Just do it

The majority of your applications will be time-consuming and repetitive, so start as soon as they’re open. Filling in your biographical information (15 times in a row, mind you!) on your porch one September afternoon is infinitely better than doing so at 11:53 p.m. the night the application is due! Starting the essays early will also be a weight off your shoulders. There is no shortage of articles detailing how to formulate your personal statement; look up examples, think about your approach, and leave enough time to edit and get feedback. Getting all this done early will make it less stressful if technical glitches, writer’s block, or recommendation letter delays pop up at any point close to your deadline.

In short, start early, stay relaxed, and don’t hesitate to ask friends, co-workers, or old professors for help. Take it from someone who’s been there: it all comes together in the end. It’s just a matter of how easy you want to make it on yourself!

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About Jessica McCann

Jessica McCann

Jessica McCann works in research communications at Harvard University as well as a freelance writer and editor. She graduated in 2004 from Northeastern University with a BA in English and a minor in international affairs, and in 2017 with a master’s in English Literature from Harvard University Extension School. Outside of work, Jess is usually doing yoga, running, traveling, or eating ice cream cones on the beach.


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