My Experience Applying to Graduate Programs

As a high school student, applying to universities seemed nowhere near as daunting as the prospect of applying to graduate programs in mathematics. My naïve thought process was how different could applying to graduate programs possibly be, right? In my experience, it has been very different. Where applying for my undergraduate studies seemed mostly stress free but a bit time consuming, applying for graduate programs has made me question if I really want to earn a graduate degree at all. While that answer has remained “yes,” my application process has been a unique and unexpected challenge.

Things that have gotten me (halfway) through my graduate program applications:

  1. Realizing the worst case scenario is they say “no.”No matter how fantastic, average, or terrible my application looks to an institution, the worst thing that can happen is they reject it. If so, then I wasted a few hours of my life on their application. I’ve wasted more time watching television or perusing social networking sites since I’ve been in college than I could possibly spend sending these applications. Sure there are associated fees but (as I could not see myself but someone had to tell me) I’d rather pay for an application which gets rejected than never know if I could have gone to the institution that I have a desire to attend.
  2. Talking to current graduate students.I am lucky that I am friends with several graduate students at my current institution and have also been in contact with graduate students at other institutions where I am applying. It has been very grounding to know that no one that I’ve talked to (though I’m sure there are many exceptions) regrets going to graduate school. It gives me a nice light at the end of this strange application tunnel I feel like I come into on occasion. I can see how fighting though my own real or imagined shortcomings will be worthwhile through the experiences of others.
  3. Talking to other students who are applying to grad school.I avoided this one like the plague for a semester. I didn’t want anyone else to know about the weird mix of emotions I was having because I could not imagine other students feeling the same way. Within the last few weeks, I’ve been chatting with several other soon-to-be grad students and I’ve found that feeling overwhelmed and inadequate is anything but rare when going through the application hoops. It seems pretty normal that some of our worst insecurities about our academic careers seem to find boiling points during the applications. Within the same application, I felt like I was both not “well rounded” enough with my college coursework and that I didn’t focus on mathematics sufficiently. This combination doesn’t make any sense but I’ve found that several other students felt similarly when working on their own applications. Speaking with other students honestly about this process has been comforting because I am not alone.
  4. Working with a faculty mentor.I have been very fortunate as I am currently doing undergraduate research with a phenomenal advisor who made it very clear that he wanted to help me navigate this process. From proof-reading my personal statement to helping me cast a wider net of applications, he has been nothing but encouraging despite my occasional references to preferring the career of homeless beach dweller to completing another application. Even if it wasn’t a mathematician, having someone to discuss my concerns when I was freaking out about missing an opportunity to attend a different undergraduate institution (3 years too late but it really would not have been the best choice anyway), GRE scores, or just having general anxiety has been monumental for me. Without such support, I probably would have stopped applying long ago because I would never view the reality that something will work out despite how I feel. You don’t run your first marathon without seeking wisdom from someone who has done it before whether that is through a friend, a book, or an online resource so why not use the wisdom and resources available regarding graduate programs? It has been crucial to my sanity for me to utilize the wisdom that he is able to provide.

Of course, I’m sure that there have been many successful applicants who have gone through this process without some or all of these elements. However, I started this process on my own and found it very overwhelming. Graduate school is going to be hard so why should I make it worse? Why let the last year of my undergraduate work be tainted with more stress than necessary? As I am applying to different programs, I have experienced everything from extreme anxiety and fear to incredible encouragement. For me, it is worth the effort and emotions and I have been able to create a support system that keeps me from impeding my own success.


About Sarah K. Salmon

I am a graduate student in mathematics studying algebraic combinatorics flavored by Coxeter groups at University of Colorado, Boulder. I earned my B.S. in mathematics at Northern Arizona University in May 2014.
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