Reflecting on grad school applications

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A person sitting in front of a laptop, checking off a box on a grad school application. In the second panel an emails says accepted.
Of course, being accepted in this case means several more years of poverty, solitude, and imposter syndrome. OpenClipart-Vectors via Pixabay, manipulated by lee lim

How do we wrap an entire life into an application essay?

While applying to graduate programs is clearly a confusing task, I’m finding that my confusion is not coming from the more logistical end of things.  

It isn’t the demanding application requirements, or the need to output all your documents in specific file formats, or a nebulous and generic request to include a writing sample with no specific content guidelines that have me puzzled. Instead, now that some of the offers have begun trickling out into the world where obsessive students can refresh GradCafe and Reddit looking for the latest updates, I am confused about how I should feel about where I have ended up.  

I have read dozens of statements on forums from grad school hopefuls recounting how if they don’t get into their dream school, “it was all for nothing.” And I find myself curious about why I don’t feel that way. About why I can’t say something like that, and why it doesn’t feel that way to me.  

The stakes feel high for me – I applied to competitive programs in a very desirable area. I want to research and write. I am a wildly impractical person, the only place I really make any sort of sense in is academia. But to come to the conclusion that five years of my time spent learning and growing, building things and tearing things down, and messing up and doing better could somehow become null and void seems a bit against the spirit of all the work I just put in.  

Graduate school forces you into a position of reflection. You are asked to sum up who you are, what you’ve done, and what you’d like to do. Sometimes in 300-500 words.  

You ask your professors to vouch for your work, to offer testimony as to why you should continue to have the privilege of learning and growing, of building things and tearing things down in this context. You try to guess what these people may say about your work, or how they might talk about the kind of person you are. You think back on countless trainings and workshops as you try to pad your CV. Form fields in application portals ask, “Is there anything else pertinent to your application that you would like to tell the committee?” and you weigh your options.  

I wonder if they should know about the work I’ve done between classes and research and jobs. Becoming a better version of myself, taking along anyone else around me who wanted to come. Do I tell them the story of the world that was built here in this place that helped countless others figure out who they were?  

I feel like it could be vitally important for the committee to know about all of those nights we spent trying to figure out how to make other people care just as much as we do. My application depends on the hours and the people and every single painfully on-the-nose impossible coincidence that popped up in my path. How I asked the questions about the world that I had and how I bore the answers that I received while here is pertinent to my application. And the committee should know.  

Every available inch of space and time in my undergraduate work has been taken up by chaotic confetti. All that esoteric noise jamming itself between the margins of my degree requirements is why the work I did here cannot possibly be for nothing. The degree was just the rough structure I used to interpret my time here – classes as lenses. There is no writing off my efforts despite what happens without betraying who I am. 

Good luck to all those who have applied.  

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