The Grad School Shuffle
Entering freshman year for me felt like staring down another brief eternity; I had just finished high school and completed a chapter of my life, only to be faced with the prospect of starting yet another chapter at another school for another four years. At the time, it felt like I would be at W.I.U. forever and my “grown up life” would never begin. Looking back as a senior, I now see that time in my life as a fresh start- life is not a series of endings, but a compilation of new and exciting beginnings (cheesy as that may sound).
At the end of my senior year of undergrad, I find myself in a similar position to the one I was in four years ago, with one major exception (aside from the mountain of debt the older me is now saddled with): I am expected to know what I’m doing. It is terrifying. When a high school student applies to college for the first time, they are not expected to know anything more than the absolute basics. Heck, you don’t even have to declare a major for the first year or two (some never do). If you try to apply to a grad program as “undecided” you’ll be laughed out of the place and $100 poorer to boot.
The thing about applying to grad school is that it forces you to focus. With each draft of my statement of purpose, I was told to be more specific, to find my area of expertise, to pinpoint exactly what I want to know; my struggle with this process was one of language. Before looking at grad programs at various schools, I had never heard of ecocriticism, technocracy, or transnational anglophile multicultural lit. Professors in some of these big schools have areas so specific, they study only the aesthetics of black female authors in three counties of the American southeast written between 1842 and 1868. While applicants are not expected to be quite that focused, you are required generally to figure out at least one area of focus, a timeframe, and what side of the pond you’ll be studying. It’s a process that is at once horribly uncomfortable and pleasantly liberating, because you’re forced to think of yourself not as a future grad student, but as a future expert of something. It forces you to answer those questions of who you want to be when you grow up in a manner that will actually get you where you’re going. You can’t just say “I want to be a professor” because you are beyond that point in the process. You must now say “I want to be a professor of___” and go from there. You’re taking a tangible step towards your future, and it’s up to you to find out where exactly you should be going.
Applying to grad school can be this great activity of transformation and fulfillment, or it can be a bunch of really boring paperwork. Heck, we’re English majors, we know something can be both at once. I was prepared for that. What I was not prepared for is the fact that grad school applications are expensive as all get out. Every application is between $60 and $100, plus $7-$10 for official transcripts and $27 for GRE scores (which cost you $150 to get in the first place). Multiply that by about 10 schools and you’ve got a whole lot of money invested in a bit of writing and a glimmer of hope. While I never want to say that the extortion of already poor students is good, the fee does have certain unexpected effects which helped my application process along. Having to pay outrageous amounts of money for each application meant that I narrowed down my school list and focused my search on schools which I could see myself attending and which were situated within my realm of possibility. Let’s be honest, there is no way I’m getting into Johns Hopkins no matter how many hearts and smiley faces I draw next to the entry in my list of applications. It was far better for me to focus on a range of schools with programs more suited to my interests and faculty with whom I could see myself working with in the future than to waste my time and resources on schools with prestige and no heart. Additionally, the hefty price made me slow down and focus on producing the best application possible. If I was about to drop over $100 on this, then it’s going to have to be competitive or that money was wasted. It’s still a little unsettling that I had to pay so much money to maybe not be accepted, but in the end the application process is a necessary, if painful evil one must face.
Having gone through all of this, I somehow feel more confident in the work I’ve done as an undergrad here at Western. Throughout the process I’ve been supported by such amazing professors (shout out to Dr. Morrow, Dr. Banash, and Dr. Helwig for writing about a thousand letters of recommendation and coaching me through the process), without whom I would have been lost. With just a few months before graduation, I’ve realized that I am going to miss this place and the people here much more than I had expected. I’ve found a home here and it never occurred to me that I’d be leaving so soon. I look to the future now not as an ending, but as another in a long series of new beginnings. Good luck with your own journey forward (you’re going to need it).