Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Student Mom: The Application

So, I originally intended to break this post up into several different posts for each section of the application I want to talk about. But then, I kind of waited too long to really remember everything about the application process (I turned it in last September, I should have written this post back then). Also, this is all probably terribly boring to read about, so let's just cram it into one longer boring post instead of multiple, repetitive boring posts, shall we?  Good. Here's the condensed version of my reflections/advice about the actual grad school application.

Letters of Recommendation

My program required that I provide three letters of recommendation from academic sources. This was by far the most intimidating part of the application process for me, because (if you remember) I'd been out of school for over three years at the point I was applying and didn't really have a lot of contact with any of my professors. When my husband was in undergrad, he knew he would need letters of recommendation for law school and so he carefully cultivated some relationships with professors specifically to ask them for letters. Since I had no thoughts of grad school at the time, I went to no such pains with my professors.

I have a friend who went back to school for her master's and she had been out of undergrad for so long that she actually signed up for pre-req undergrad classes at a local community college first just to get some professors that could recommend her. I didn't think my situation was quite so dire as that, but my emails to my professors all contained some version of the plea, "I hope you remember me... ." I was a bit lucky in that I had a student teaching mentor who I knew already had a letter on file for me, and another professor that I actually worked for (so that had to leave some kind of impression, right?). For the third letter, I went back and forth about who to ask. There were a few professors I think I would have preferred to ask, but I just didn't feel like I'd made enough of a connection with them, so I ended up asking a professor who I am friends with on Goodreads (bless Goodreads, another reason I love that site so much) and had maintained a connection with that way.

Here are the pieces of advice I would give from my experience:

-It is worth it to keep up a connection with professors from your undergrad experience! I wish I would have realized that more when I was actually there.
-Professors are busy people, so ask early. I sent emails out last June (the deadline wasn't until Nov. 1st) and I was still sending polite reminder requests in mid October.
-Make sure you know how the letters need to be submitted before you contact your recommenders. Some universities require online submission, others want the old fashioned paper letter signed and with a stamp (I had some confused professors who expected the online submission, but apparently my university isn't up with the times).

Statement of Intent
For my application, I had to write a 500 word statement of intent. This is sometimes also called a personal essay or letter of intent, or some other such name. Requirements and expectations vary depending on program and school. I had a vague idea about what I wanted to write for this statement, but then I went online to look at some example statements and realized I was completely off base. I probably read five or six example essays before writing my own, and while it certainly wasn't anything ground-breaking, at least I didn't embarrass myself by submitting something completely off-topic.

So my advice for writing this statement:
-Read example essays! The internet is a wonderful invention for this, there's lots of stuff out there.
-DO NOT submit your first draft (I admit, I was tempted to do this). No matter how brilliant of a writer you are, it only gets better with revision.
-Have someone else read it. For me, this was my husband. He thought my statement was cliche and bland, but safe (which is what I was going for).

Writing Sample
Because I applied for an English literature program, I was required to submit a 12 to 15 page writing sample. So I picked one of my best pieces from my undergraduate classes (my final paper for my Shakespeare class). Once again, I was tempted to just submit the paper as it was (after all, it got an A in that class), but I listened to my better advisers and sent it off to my brilliant and generous friend Katie (soon to be Dr. Katie, whenever she finishes her thesis) who completely tore it apart and made me realize how much better the paper could be (honestly, why didn't I have her review it back in undergrad when I wrote it? She had such good advice...). It was too much work to make every change she suggested (I didn't have access to enough of my original sources), but I was able to spruce the paper up to what I consider a more acceptable graduate level. Anyway, I don't have any more specific advice other than to reiterate the value of having someone else read your work, and revise, revise, revise.

There was a general part of the application too, forms where I provided all my personal information and the resume of all my previous academic experience, etc. I'm not sure that I have any sort of advice to give for that other than to get it done early. Don't procrastinate getting your application in on time. It's stressful enough being a mom and working on the application, so just get it done early.

And that's it! There you have all my astounding insights into completing a grad school application that will be accepted by a middling university. I hope someone finds this useful someday.

To read the rest of the posts in this series, click here.

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