It was the start of Senior year, on a brisk August evening. I gulped in a deep breath of fresh air, and smiled at the colorfully polluted sky, carefree! Senior year of college. Finally free, ready to have a fun, responsibility-free semester—wait a second. OH, right, I decided to apply to grad school *cue reality check.*

Dramatic introductions aside, applying for grad school was an immensely valuable experience for me. It forced me to think deeply about what impact I want to have on the world through my career, as well as teaching me even more about formal application processes.

Graduate school applications are both very similar to and very different from college apps. For the sake of nostalgia, and for anyone out there needing a little college-app pick-me-up, here is my best advice learned from both processes—along with a run-down of the key differences in college and grad school apps.

Think about your audience

This is where I noticed major differences between applying for grad school and applying for college. Where a grad school application often requires a concise and rigid format, college applications can be more creative and varied with more diverse readers. I had to take away some of my broader context sections of my grad school application to keep it focused on specific academic proposals. However, remember that college applications can take more of a storytelling perspective or use more creative formats—talk about your essay topics as if they’re a story with a beginning context of your interests and how they or you have grown!

Make it personal

If you’re comfortable discussing a personal topic, these can often make for the most compelling and authentic essays. In high school, one topic I wrote on was my passion for performing arts—modeling, acting, and dance, which consumed many hours daily for me. When I spent time reflecting on where these interests came from, I realized that my love for performing arts came from its helping me overcome the shyness, quietude, and fearing getting out of my comfort zone that I struggled with earlier in high school. Even in grad school applications, including your personal motivations for any topic of study or research shows the reader your dedication and gives them a chance to connect to your words.

Performing arts helped me abandon my shyness to become the full-on weirdo I was meant to be! Write about whatever speaks to you! (Also, The Californians anyone??)

Get different opinions

A good rule of thumb here is to have one academic perspective, and one friend or family perspective for anyone giving advice on your essays. In high school I had a friend and my college counselor review my apps, while I recently had a professor and mentor and then my mom review my graduate school apps.

Don’t hesitate to reach out

Professors, admissions offices, and even students are 9/10 times ecstatic to receive emails asking about what they’re doing or school-related questions. If you write a polite and well-thought out email, you have nothing to lose! I emailed professors across the world while applying to grad school, and they happily replied (though the time difference is an extra challenge to navigate). Include some information about yourself and why you are interested in the school or area of work/study someone is focusing on, and you may make a lasting connection!

Start early and make it fun

Don’t try to crank out everything in a few late nights. Applications are a huge process, but you can avoid lots of stress if you spread them out and start as early as possible. Remember that everything will go through lots of changes as you discover more about yourself through the process, and as you get advice from peers and mentors. Try to make it fun by switching up study environments and celebrating your application process! I personally enjoy treating myself to a pint of ice cream or a fun dinner with family or friends after finishing a tough process.

Stay genuine to yourself

Last but not least, keep your application process genuine to who you are and what you believe in. Don’t compare yourself to others as everyone pursues a different path in life, and what is best for someone else may not be best for you. This will pay off in helping you narrow in on your passions, pursue what truly brings you fulfillment, and will help you discover things you never knew about yourself along the way! Though it’s hard, try not to stress out, and let yourself take breaks when you need to. Happy writing everyone!

Application season will be over before you know it–you’ll have lots of time to enjoy Senior year, don’t worry.



Madelyn Douglas

Madelyn Douglas

MAJOR: Electrical (Computer) Engineering YEAR: Class of 2020 HOMETOWN: Bethseda, Maryland PRONOUNS: she/her/hers