The process of applying to graduate school is unlike any other application process, and the factors that determine the fate of a grad school application are not always what one would expect. Common-sense assumptions about how admission decisions are reached are often wrong, and certain miscalculations can doom an application to the rejection pile. For many students, the application process is steeped in uncertainty and confusion about how it works. Everyone understands it’s a competition, but not all the rules are clear. This makes it stressful and also quite perilous.
Understandably, many students search far and wide for advice and tips on how to best handle certain aspects of their graduate school applications. However, while it may seem wise to seek advice from as many people and sources as possible, this quickly leads to a new problem: conflicting advice.
One professor might tell you it’s a good idea to contact faculty members you want to work with before applying, while another advises against it. One academic advisor tells you that GPA is the most important factor in determining who is admitted but another advisor says your statement of purpose has a larger impact. A PhD student advises that potential graduate supervisors should be chosen on the basis of research area and methods. Another student says that interpersonal compatibility should be your top criterion. One career counsellor tells you the reputation of the program or university you attend will make a big difference when you eventually join the workforce. Another will say that the reputation of the school is irrelevant and it’s the specific knowledge and skills you acquire that really matters. It is all so frustrating!
Why is there so much widely varying and often contradictory advice about how to deal with the grad school application process? And how can one make the best decisions despite receiving contradictory advice from ostensibly sound sources?
Part of the reason is that aspects of the grad-school application process simply cannot be reduced to one-size-fits-all situations. For example, graduate programs in the fine arts or humanities select students through a small committee of faculty members but in a STEM or social science program the prospective supervisor is often making decisions about the applicant. It’s these differences, in the selection process among different program domains, which make it difficult to ascertain a direct pathway to graduate school.
The take away from this is that it’s important to know yourself and what you want to get out of your schooling. If you are someone who is very relational, having a supervisor who is personable will matter. If you are interested in a very specific topic, picking a school that specializes in that area will become important.
All-in-all, the journey to grad school is not a linear path, and nor should it be. What one person advises you about grad school will be different from the rest, but that should not deter you from continuing to seek advice; and guaranteed, you will soon be that person giving advice one day!
Beyond the Blog
- Thinking of applying to grad school? Learn more here.