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!

Applying to graduate school: pre-application

My friend once said to me:

Graduate school is like a Get Out of Jail Free card. You can use it when you run out of career options, but most people play their card too early.

At the time I heard this, I agreed. After all, who wouldn’t want to escape the 9-to-5 by finding refuge in the Ivory Tower? (This same friend, by the way, later enrolled in a M.Arch program.)

Many years later, I find that perspective to be impractical. Graduate school shouldn’t be a last resort, but a meaningful and intentional enterprise. After all, like any major decision, it has the power to shape the trajectory of your personal and professional life. It’s no joke!

Based on my experiences and those of others, there are two steps critical to the pursuit of a graduate degree: identifying passions and gathering information.

Identifying passions

Bad reasons to go to graduate school:

  • It seems like the next logical step. It most certainly doesn’t have to be, no matter what people tell you. In this day and age, there are new and exciting ways to build a life for yourself.
  • You want to impress the people around you. You cannot seek validation externally, especially in graduate school. The compliments of others alone cannot sustain you for 5+ years of your life.
  • You want to increase your earnings potential. You will be spending a significant amount of time out of the job market… watching peers achieve milestones that your graduate student lifestyle does not allow.

A good reason to go to graduate school? You’re truly passionate about your research question. Another important factor? You understand the costs, benefits, risks and rewards of academia. There is plenty of literature out there describing the difficulties (and sometimes near-impossibility) of landing a prized tenure-track position. Information is your friend.

Personally, my own path to graduate school was not always clear. When I reached a crossroads professionally, I grappled with important questions. What did I value? What were my lifelong interests and passions? What was my end game? Would graduate school help me achieve those goals? There are many exercises to help you achieve career-related clarity, including the wonderful flower diagram from Richard Bolles’ bestselling What Color Is Your Parachute? (see worksheet here).

Gathering information

A critical precursor to becoming a researcher should be — surprise! — researching. It’s imperative that prospective students truly understand what life will be like post-graduate school. There are several means to this end.


The more hands-on experience you can get, the better. I’ve found that many labs and researchers are open to taking on volunteers, given that you can demonstrate passion and professionalism.

It’s important to have working knowledge of the research process. Be aware that there are many stages, including (but not limited to): writing grants to secure funding; developing project protocols; obtaining human subjects rights and other regulatory approvals (particularly within the social sciences); running the project itself; cleaning, entering, and analyzing data; preparing manuscripts, posters, and other forms of dissemination; and, of course, the countless stacks of paperwork in between.

It is always helpful to conduct research in the field you want to work in. This demonstrates that you are familiar with, and interested in, relevant themes and topics. In some cases, however, it’s not possible to obtain that sort of directly-related experience. For example, Berkeley didn’t have any industrial-organizational psychologists on faculty. I did, however, gain work extensively in peripherally related fields (social and clinical psychology), which turned out in my favor.


I believe that prospective graduate students should be given a recommended (required?) reading list. Below I’ve included some incredibly insightful pieces, written by leading academics.


Finally, I have found it immensely helpful to conduct informational interviews with professionals. These are essentially informal conversations where you are exploring someone else’s career. In most cases, simply politely asking someone for a moment of their time can open the door to a very useful informational interview. There are many resources on getting the most out of these conversations, including a guide at Berkeley and sample questions at Quintessential Careers. It goes without saying that everyone’s journey is highly individual/anecdotal, though that doesn’t mean they’re not realistic or enlightening.

In arranging my informational interviews, I made sure to cover both breadth and depth: breadth, by talking to people in many different fields (including unrelated ones that I thought might be interesting); and depth, by discussing trajectories with people at various stages in their career (e.g., students, early career, senior faculty, etc.). In doing so, I discovered new and interesting professions — including my current one! — and was able to envision next steps in my career.

Informational interviews can also begin the strange social phenomenon of “networking.” Generally, I have found people are always eager to pay it forward and share advice on their career. If you cultivate these relationships, you can continue to have great mentorship and resources down the line.

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

Productivity tools

[Photo: Inter-American Teacher Education Network]
“Productivity tools” are more than just buzzwords — they’re actually incredibly useful (and, at times, irreplaceable). Here are some that I find invaluable!

Google Calendar. I would be utterly lost without my calendars. I have over 10 sub-calendars, categorized by theme: School, Work, Health… I even have one for the time that I have to spend in transit. This is what works for my neurotic self, but I know others who live and die by Microsoft Outlook or their pen-and-paper planners (the DayDesigner is particularly intriguing).

Boomerang for Gmail (email scheduler). You might not think scheduling your emails is necessary, but I’ve found it very useful in two specific circumstances. (A) I’m up late at night and want to send an email. Rather than messaging someone at 2am, I can have Boomerang schedule the email to be sent at a humane time of day. (B) I receive an email and want to respond to it later. Boomerang can “ping” me by re-sending the email later, so that it appears in my inbox at a more convenient time.

Dropbox (cloud file storage). Dropbox enables me to easily save, back-up, share and remotely access my documents through the power of the world wide web. You can use it through many means: browser plug-in, desktop standalone, mobile app. Please note that Google Drive also does a great job of cloud storage, although it has the advantage (or disadvantage, depending) of allowing direct online editing of files.

XMarks (bookmark synchronization). XMarks is a plug-in that helps me sync my vast collection of Internet bookmarks. I always have my favorite websites at my fingertips, no matter what browser or computer I’m using. This was indispensable when I was working on grad school and grant applications, as I had to constantly consult and edit different webpages.

LastPass (passwords storage). LastPass, through very secure technology that I don’t quite understand, allows you to save and input your passwords. If you’re a Mac user, the iCloud keychain does the same thing. In any case, it is so liberating, freeing up all that mental space previously used to memorize passwords.

Zotero (references catalog). I have no idea how anyone made it through graduate school without bibliographic software. Many academics pay for the old standby, EndNote, to organize and edit their citations. Personally, I’m a huge advocate for a free, open-source version, which I’ve been using since my undergrad honors thesis days. Zotero plugs into your Internet browser and word editing software, enabling you to easily create and update your references. For example: it takes less than a minute to “download” a PubMed page into Zotero and insert the formatted citation and bibliography into my grant on Microsoft Word.

Evernote (note-taking application). Evernote sounds like a simple app — just a way to jot down notes — but its real strength is that it is cloud-based, highly organizable, and editable. I use it as a net to catch all the thoughts that I want to file away for a later time.

Today’s technology is continually innovating, so I’ll explore and report back when I can! Last updated: August 5, 2015

Ph.D. bound

This week, I accepted an offer of admissions from William Marsh Rice University. Come fall, I will begin pursuing my doctoral degree in industrial/organizational psychology.

The best (or worst, depending on who you ask) is yet to come, and already so much has happened. My hope is to document my adventures in academia here, but with a few disclaimers.

  1. n=1. My story is a case study that is, of course, not broadly generalizable. What I found to be useful may not be relevant to you (particularly if you are a student from another discipline).
  2. All opinions shared on this blog are solely my own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of any institutions with which I am associated.