Applying to graduate school: the application

In theory, applying to graduate school is easy. You fill out a few forms, write a brief essay, convince people to vouch for you, and send off your information into the ether.

In practice, however, the process can be exhausting. I vividly recall sitting in front of my computer for many nights in a row, stress-eating chips and salsa while Googling synonyms for “research” “interests.”

There are, however, a few tips that made my life easier.



A single Excel workbook became my bedrock, starting from the moment I began researching graduate schools. You can download my blank spreadsheet template here. I first used it to compare graduate programs, loading a spreadsheet with as much information as possible in order to narrow down my list. Important factors of comparison included: faculty’s research interests; financial aid; ranking; internship opportunities; and median years to graduation.

Please note that I didn’t fill out this information for every single program in my field — I only compared schools I wanted to attend in locations I might want to live. (Quality of life is a very important factor for me, but you may have a different rubric.) After considering my options, I identified twelve programs that seemed to be a good match.

Tangent: E-mailing faculty

In graduate school, you are typically applying to become someone’s academic apprentice. Your advisor will hold the key to your career. (There are some schools, particularly in industrial-organizational psychology, where there is a shared mentorship model, but this is usually the exception.) An important factor I considered during my search was whether or not my intended faculty advisor was accepting students during the admissions cycle.

I had great success cold-emailing faculty members. I wrote a polite message indicating my interest in their research and explaining why I thought I’d be a good fit for their lab; I included my CV, though this is certainly not necessary nor universally welcome. In all cases but one, I received a reply (this was also helpful in assessing the potential advisor’s demeanor). I was thus able to rule out some schools based on advisors’ statuses.

After this, my Excel workbook then evolved from a tool of comparison to a tracker of progress. I started with a brand new spreadsheet, entering in my shortlist of graduate programs by deadline (from earliest to latest). I then created headings that represented different parts of the application process: “Application,” “Statement of Purpose,” “GREs [sent],” “References,” etc. As I completed each part of a specific school’s application, I’d mark it off on my spreadsheet. I also included columns for important, relevant information: log-in passwords, deadlines, application fees, and so on.

Once the spreadsheet was set up, I was able to (a) comprehensively view the progress of each program’s application and (b) easily update the status of each component within those applications. This was invaluable in keeping track of all the tiny, moving parts involved.

I continued using this workbook during the interview phase, too. It was very helpful in keeping track of my travel, costs (especially as many schools had specific reimbursement policies in place), and other first impressions. You can bet I also created a new spreadsheet to compare my offers once I started receiving letters!


Speaking of components within a graduate application — most US universities require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). While there are many GRE prep programs available, my personal opinion is that disciplined self-study and tons of practice exams will usually be more than sufficient. (Note that the quantitative section is supposedly no more difficult than the SAT!) I used a combination of the Princeton Review’s online curriculum, a dozen sample tests, and one very strict study and practice testing schedule.


It is always a highly personal decision deciding who to ask for recommendation letters. In general, you’d like to be able to find people in your field (or another, closely-related one) who can know you and can speak to your research skills. I have found in talking to others that, oftentimes, recommendation letters from distant disciplines will still be helpful if they are strong.

The one sure thing is that you must give your references enough time to prepare a strong letter. I have aided this by providing each writer with (1) a list of all the programs and their deadlines, (2) a copy of my CV and (3) a “brag sheet” of my accomplishments, research interests, and areas of emphasis. I also made sure to check in one month, two weeks, and (when necessary) days before the deadline to make sure my references were submitted.

The application

Please see this post for tools that constantly organize and streamline my life. I used a few of these tools in new ways during the graduate school process.

  • Google Calendar was used to store all my various deadlines. I also added reminders periodically, especially so that I could “nudge” my reference providers.
  • Dropbox stored all drafts of my personal statements. It gave me peace of mind knowing I could save, edit, and back-up my files on the cloud, anywhere and at all times.
  • XMarks helped me save and sync my many bookmarks. I created folders for each school with links to their admissions requirements, faculty profiles, application portals, etc.
  • LastPass allowed me to save the many, many usernames and passwords I created for each of my applications. (Now, if only there was a centralized application system… but that’s a story for another time.)


During this very intense process, it is critical to take care of one’s self! I counteracted the huge amounts of stress hormones in my body with exercise-induced endorphins. I also made sure to see my friends and have a Netflix night a week. These small habits kept me sane throughout a pretty taxing time. Find ways to blow off steam and stay engaged in the real world.

See other posts in this “Applying to Grad School” series!