By Lynn Curry, CMU McNair Director
This time of year tends to bring higher levels of stress to our scholars in general, more so for those scholars currently applying to graduate school. Scholars spend copious amounts of time exploring potential grad programs, crafting draft application materials and even reaching out to prospective faculty advisors during our Summer Research Institute. They do this all the while conducting research and significantly enhancing their credentials, especially their GRE scores!
So, why is it that many, if not most, students find themselves in a real tizzy come mid-November?
Years of observation tells me it comes down to a few key phenomena that have the potential of colliding and making a challenging situation even more so.
- Despite the best of intentions, time has escaped and scholars feel super behind in the process. READ: you procrastinated BIG TIME and now you’ve got to deal.
- Despite having done a ton of prep-work in the summer, scholars still don’t have a clear plan for applying to grad school.
- Despite spending a lot of time preparing for big ticket items, like the GRE, scholars are still wrestling with their scores.
Typically it’s one of two scenarios: (1) their scores are poor, but they’re not doing anything about it, yet and simultaneously, they are paralyzed by the fear that their GRE scores will keep them out of grad school. OR (2) they are scheduled to retake the test and saddled with the additional pressure of “they should be” studying their ass off every single day between now and then to make their effort pay off in the end!!
- Despite *thinking* that grad school is the next best step for them, scholars are dealing with an *internal struggle* over the decision, usually related to deeply seeded fear, self-doubt, family issues, etc. This internal struggle continues to delay any significant progress made toward actually applying.
And this one I see a lot >>
- Scholars have a hard time prioritizing grad school over their current classes and extracurricular activities. They fail to realize that their grades “no longer matter” in the sense that grad schools will be making a decision on their admission based on the grades they already have to date + spending time to do the best on their grad apps is what is going to solidify their next maneuver for the future.
What to do if you find yourself in one (or more) of these positions?
Stop what you’re doing and let yourself discover what’s really going on. Listen to your internal dialogue, especially as it relates to all grad-school related items. Are you hearing pretty negative chatter? Are you experiencing fear + anxiety when you start “doing stuff” for your grad apps? Pinpoint what’s going on as best you can. Tell yourself that it’s okay to be feeling this way because *most everyone* feels this way during this process. It’s normal!
Acknowledge what you’re feeling + and then TAKE ACTION. Small steps can always lead to bigger, more consistent steps!
Here are some ideas based on the challenges above:
1 – If you are feeling behind, take a look at your schedule and see if you can carve out a chunk of time each day to work on your applications. If taking an entire Saturday and catching up sounds better to you than “chunking it out” then do that. The most important thing is that you STOP thinking about the fact that you don’t have as much completed as you had planned. It is what it is.
Another way to put it. Knock that shit off. Said affectionately, and of course in a supportive way, from your loving McNair staff! lol
Once you get the ball rolling >> you are going to feel much better.
2 – You might feel *lost* when it comes to working on your apps because you still don’t have a finalized list of schools to which you are going to apply. This is very common since this decision can feel a little scary, especially since you are probably a little nervous about how your credentials will measure up to others in the applicant pool. That’s okay!
You might need to take some time, maybe a Saturday afternoon, and go through your school list with a fine-tooth comb. You might need to spend some time searching for additional programs. Talking through your list with your faculty mentor is also a really good exercise. Even try chatting with one of your professors who might know you are applying to grad school, but might not know the specifics. Get their “read” on the situation with their “fresh” set of eyes.
Once you formalize your list >> you are going to feel much better.
3 – GRE scores. It’s time to make peace with your GRE scores and motor ahead. The thing is, if they really do suck (and that’s okay if they do, if you tried your best), then you have to become extra-strategic about a) reaching out to faculty and making connections, b) visiting your top-choice schools if at all possible or c) acknowledging that you might need to add in a few more less competitive master’s programs as your next step.
Bottom line is to stop thinking about your GRE scores. You are not your GRE scores. They come into play when it comes to grad school, you just need to find your way to people who are willing to take a chance on you nonetheless.
Once you make peace with your GRE scores >> you are going to feel much better.
4 – Dealing with “internal garbage” such as negative self-talk or deeply rooted family issues that continue to hold you back can be a little more tricky. You don’t have the time (at least right now) to flip a switch and make these issues go away. So my best recommendation in this regard is to simply stop your head from going to these deeper + darker places as much as you can AND keep your head focused on the task of completing your applications.
Of course you’ll have to come to terms with
ALL at least *some* of your issues (smile) once you start sorting through grad offers and actually make a decision to move forward in your education. In the meantime, arrest those self-defeating thoughts as much as you can!
Do the whole wear a rubber band on your wrist and “ping” yourself every time that negativity comes up for you. Picture those thoughts as clouds when they arise and then picture them simply floating away. They’re there, you can say hello, but then you let them be and just keep moving ahead with your goals.
Once you learn to quiet your head even a smidge >> you are going to feel much better.
5 – Lastly, you’ve got to keep the BIG PICTURE front and center in your mind. I know it’s hard to do with pressing items like huge research papers due in a week, exams being squeezed in before your actual final exams, presentations and more. I tell my students of course you don’t want to fail out of college (not a good idea!), but grad schools aren’t looking at your grades this semester. They’ve already got your transcripts in front of them, at least the part they are going to be scrutinizing and making a decision on.
I know this is especially hard for my type-A, I always get good grades, kind of students. I get it. I was one myself. Still, you’ve got to put this in your brain … rocking out your applications RIGHT NOW is going to be what enables you to take that next step in your education. It’s what is going to solidify the funding offers that will enable you to pursue your passion and achieve an advanced degree.
You might have that paper due next week, but perhaps you can “downshift” a bit, still do a “decent” job, but maybe not to perfection. Put that extra energy into your grad apps that are going to hopefully pay ten-fold in their ultimate result.
Once you realize that the long-term pay-off of applying to grad school is more important than the immediate pressures of your current course load >> you are going to feel much better.
Hope at least some of this resonates with those of you in the trenches and making your way toward what is certain to be a very exciting graduate journey ahead. You can do it. McNair scholars know how to bring it together + make things happen. One thing at a time and you’ll be popping out in to the light in no time.
Remember you can BREATHE over the holiday break too!
P.S. For inspiration: a shot of a Grad App Tracker Board from one of our previous McNair scholars while in the throes of applying! Keep it going!