How to Become Grad Student

Having received many useful bits of advice from friends and from Googling “grad school help how to do X” during the graduate school application process, I’m want to try to put it down before I forget it. So, in the spirit of my friend Ben’s “How to Grad Student,” here’s my “How to Become Grad Student.” I hope it helps you plan your time to make it a gentle process. If you notice any of this to be bad advice you don’t want leading others on the internet astray or you have any questions, let me know at jacobhoerger(AT) and I’ll update/help accordingly.

Why you should want to do a good job on your application:

Besides the obvious reasons (it’s a big time and money investment, you want to find a good place for you where you’ll learn a lot and hopefully be happy, you want to eventually be able to support yourself and others), one thing I didn’t appreciate when I started apply was that cliché as it sounds, your “career” as a grad student has started already when you’re doing the applications. It’s really the beginning of your induction/indoctrination into The Discipline, the people and ideas and fads etc. that you’ll have to engage with once you’re a student. You’ll find what was taught at your undergrad department was only a sliver of the whole discipline’s pie, so reading about other departments and approaches will help you know better what everything else tastes like, even if you still prefer your flavor (apple) best.

So I recommend starting to think about your applications early (like in the summer if that’s possible for you) because it will allow you to go gradually through the steps of learning about the state of things and how you fit into them, even if some of the steps (e.g. sending inquiry emails, talking to department coordinators) seem a bit prissy. Plus, if you’re on the fence as to whether you want to apply this year or not yet or never, it’d be better to decide sooner rather than later.

Of course, if for whatever reason you don’t start thinking about things during the summer as I recommend, all is not lost. I had a friend who started her applications just a month before the deadline (a month that included her identity being stolen, her slicing off part of her finger, and her car getting ruined by a flood) and she still managed to get to go to the school she wanted to go to. So every situation is different. I just figure if you’re looking for advice getting it from someone you maybe sorta know might be better than from google. Final caveat: my experience is with applying for PhD programs in the humanities, so adjust things accordingly for different types of programs/timelines. What’s hopefully universal though is the time/stress-management pointers.

General time-management principle:

Not all components of the application require the same amount of attention. So, I made a * to **** ratings to help break things down. One * things can be done while you’re distracted (i.e. do it while “the game” or Game of Thrones is on) while ***** you should probably do in a library or quiet place when you have your full attention. The goal is to not waste your quality time on easy things or try to do difficult things when you’re less likely to be productive/thinking well. By planning your time this way, and by starting a ways out, you should be less stressed overall. Unless of course you’re the kind of person who thrives better on the weeklong week-before-the-deadline death march; in which case do you.

So, here’s a rough suggested timeline:


  • *Draft initial statement of purpose: If you want to apply to grad school you should probably have a reason why. So, it would be good at the beginning to state that reason for yourself. This will provide you with the 1-line explanation you’ll give when you query people you’re asking for advice/recommenders. At the minimum, at this point you want to be able to say: I want to pursue THIS TYPE OF DEGREE in THIS TYPE OF PROGRAM to study THIS TOPIC because it will enable me to DO THIS THING (e.g. “PhD in Biophysics to study mechanisms of signal transduction using the tools of biophysical chemistry in order to teach and conduct research at a research university.” If you statement right now is something more like “I want to study life because people are interesting and undergrad was fun and the real world is depressing” or something like that, don’t worry, there’ll still be plenty of time to refine your pitch. Just know that it ought to eventually look like a pitch, not a diary. (“More ‘Ford Mustang,’ less ‘Toyota Prius,’” as my friend Kesha once said).
  • *Create a working list of where you want to apply to
  • **Email/message/talk to every relevant person you know (current grad students, professors, professionals, etc) asking where might be places in which you would be a good fit; besides helping generate your list, this helps you reconnect with relevant people and maybe they’ll even describe a program so compellingly that you can copy-and-paste their words into your statement of purpose
  • **Look up where the professors whose work you know and admire are teaching
  • **Grad school rankings are even less helpful than undergrad ones, but you should check through the rankings in your area and look up the departments of each place to see whether they have something for you. Perhaps you’ll discover some hidden gems this way.
  • *Put these all into a spreadsheet that includes when application is available, the application deadline, a link to the website so you don’t have to google it every time, and any other info you can think of. I’d also recommend a column with “questions I have about this program” so that later on if you talk to people associated with each program you have something to say when they ask you if you have any questions
  • *Think about how many places to apply to, which depends on whether you have a back-up plan if you don’t get in your top choices, or if this is going to be your only time applying, or where you want to live, etc. Don’t apply to anywhere you can’t imagine yourself being (obviously).
  • ****Study for the GRE. The best way to study is just to take a number of practice GRE tests and understand where the test-writers “try to get you;” take it as soon as you feel you’re ready so it’ll be one less thing you have to think about. You don’t have to get a world-beater score, just something that the admissions committee can’t use to disqualify you
  • **Prepare your resume. Since this won’t change much, you might as well get it out of the way early. Make sure it looks good (no Comic Sans), is 2 pages or less, and is easy to scan for relevant information.


  • ****Take the GRE if you haven’t already
  • *When application go live, register for all of the places you’re considering
  • **Send inquiry emails to one professor at each program you’re interested in asking them if they’re taking on students this year; some are retiring or will be on leave the following year, so that’d be good to know. This is a first chance for you also to present your research topic to someone outside yourself, so it’s a good thing to do so you can practice sounding like someone who knows what they want to study. Expect not every prof to respond (they receive lots of such emails), but some may lead to something interesting. This email might look like:
Dear Professor X, I hope this finds you well and you have had an enriching summer. My name is Handsome Monica and I am a recent graduate of Saxapahaw State who has decided to pursue study of semiotics in graduate school beginning next fall. My undergraduate thesis evaluated Joe Bucks’ polemic against Randy Moss’s pants dropping and how that changed the media’s portrayal of pants in the early 2000s. I am familiar with you work from an undergraduate course I took on bloopers and learned lots from your paper on the difference between a knick-knack and a chachki. So, I was hoping to find out whether you are currently looking to take on graduate school advisees in semiotics at Popcorn University, particularly one with the interests described above. If so, I would be very appreciative if you let me know. Thank you, and all the best, Handsome
  • **Email recommenders — when to send emails to your recommenders will depend on the date of the first application deadline (give recommenders at least 2 months to complete) and when you think they will busiest. Professors probably aren’t going to want to write the letter during the summer, but too late into the school year they may be too busy to get to it. So I’d suggest aiming to email professors the week or two weeks right before the school year starts. If they don’t respond, email a week later. If they don’t respond again, send a 3rd email. This way, you’ll do it early enough that you can find a replacement if one you were counting on is for some reason unable. This email might include: salutation, I hope you’re doing well, here’s what I’ve been up to, here’s why I’m applying to grad school, here’s what I want to study, here’s why I want you to write a recommendation for me (remind them how they know you), actually ask them to write a rec for you (that means end with a question mark), tell them if they agree you’ll provide all the info they need to make it easy, give them an out (“if you don’t think you’ll have the time or capacity to write a strong rec, just let me know and I will understand”), thank them, and valedictate.


  • ***statement of purpose first draft. This is the most important thing to do at this point. Look up statements of purpose from others in your discipline online to help guide you. A statement of purpose might look like:
Dear Admissions Committee
o Actual 1-sentence statement of purpose “It is my ambition to go to graduate school at Thingamagig Tech in to study mechanisms of signal transduction using the tools of biophysical chemistry.
o What you hope to do with this learning (if a PhD, the answer should probably be produce scholarship in your field)
o My primary research aim is: get into more specifics, and tie in what in your background has prepared you for this interest/what work you’ve already done on it
o Other interests of mine include (just to let them know you’re not a one-dimensional person).
o Add other things in your background that suggest you will be a strong graduate candidate
o Why you are drawn to this particular program (tailor for each school, name 2–3 professors, mention any subprograms/auxiliary opportunities that are attractive to you)
o Boring concluding statement (“it was be an honor to join the vibrant community of learning at Thingamagig. Thank you very much for considering my application).
  • **finalize your list of schools
  • *Go through each application once and complete all the stuff that’s easy and won’t change (name, email, etc…). Make a list of all the other stuff for each application that you’ll need to prepare (i.e. which require special course transcripts, diversity statements, etc…)
  • ****Send recommenders who agree to write on your behalf a file containing all the information they’ll need. Although this isn’t part of your direct application, it’s the 3rd most important thing you’ll put together because you recommendations are pretty important. It should be customized for each recommender, all be in one file, and include
o Instructions for them on how to easily complete the recommendation, a list of deadlines bolded, and a list of the contents of the document
o A several paragraph overview of your work with them and what qualities you displayed in your work you want them to talk about (they want to brag for you, so you should deliberately point them to what you’d like them to say). You also might mention who else you have writing your other recommendation so you can tell them to speak to a particular aspect of your background that others won’t cover
o Your CV and transcript
o Your In-progress statement of purpose
o Writing samples (not necessarily the one you’ll submit, but the pieces most relevant to the capacity in which they know you)


  • *Send statement of purpose to friends to review and offer feedback; make changes accordingly
  • *****Work on writing sample (you’ll want to polish it, especially the introduction and conclusion so that it comes across as your best writing)
  • **Email department head at each place you plan to apply to asking to ask questions over phone or email; again, they might give you buzzwords you can filter in to your statement. In doing this you’ll also begin to get to know them and learn about the character of the department. Definitely ask if there will be any faculty turnover that will be relevant to what you want to study, and any other questions you have lingering from your spreadsheet


  • **Complete “Other stuff” in the application
  • *****Polish and proofread Statement of Purpose
  • ***Proofread biographical info entered into online applications (i.e. make sure you didn’t mistype stuff)
  • ****Finish Writing Sample and have some else proofread it for typos
  • ****Update resume and proofread (send to parents to proofread; they’ll like looking it over. Or a friend or your college career center will do.)
  • **Upload everything and Submit


Now that you’ve applied, think about what things you can do between now and then that will prepare you to take advantage of grad school once you enter. The advice I got repeatedly was to focus on learning “skills” like programing languages, software programs, actual languages. You know they’re be useful, and it’ll be easier to motivate yourself to learn those than to try to learn theories or read dense work in your field. Also, read the classics, read for fun, and travel if you can, because you might not have the chance to do some of this later.