Information compiled by the GradSchools.com team
Last updated November 2010
The lead-up to sending out all those grad school applications in the fall is nothing short of crazy. Deadlines approach and threaten to pass you by. The edits of the scholarly essay and personal statement seem like they'll never end. And making sure the folks at the GRE or LSAT or MCAT or at any of the other members of the Alphabet Soup Brigade have sent out your standardized test scores to the right schools seemed, for a time, to have become a full-time job.
And then, one day, it was over: paperwork was mailed off, applications were electronically filed, and there was nothing left to do but wait. And wait. And wait.
The decision process often comes as a shock. After all that down-time, it's difficult to get yourself off your proverbial laurels and into the work-mode again. The difference this time, is that the work is of an internal variety; this time, it's all about deciding what to do next. How do you want to spend the next three to eight years of your life? Maybe you've been accepted to all the programs to which you applied. Perhaps you only got into one of them. Or, disappointingly, none. Regardless, you have some choices to make, and how you make them will likely affect the direction of the rest of your life.
Congratulations! Now what?
There's a wonderful old movie called The Candidate in which Robert Redford plays a politically-unseasoned candidate who suffers more than he ever has before in his quest for a coveted seat in the United States Senate. Finally, he wins the race, ostensibly accomplishing everything he's worked so hard for. The kicker is the last line of the film: Redford, sitting there away from all the hoopla of his victory celebration, uttering one of the most famous lines in American political cinema: "What do we do now?" This, of course, is not unlike the recently-accepted graduate student. You've worked as hard as you ever have before and you have achieved your goal. So now what?
Breathe: Remember, if you weren't serious about this in the first place, you wouldn't have applied all those many months ago. Many people, in fact, look at the application process itself as a bit of a weeding-out process; if it was easy to apply, everyone would do it. The very fact that you made it through the application process should set your mind at ease that you really do want to pursue your education further.
Weigh your options: If you've only been accepted to one program, your choice is limited to only whether you do or do not want to go back to school. If you do, great - start looking for scholarships, housing and all that other good stuff. If you don't, start putting your résumé out there. However, if you've been accepted by two or more programs, you will need to weigh the relative merits of each. Is one more prestigious than the other? Is that prestige based on the education it provides, or merely on the reputation of the school? Is the location appealing and convenient? What kind of money is the school willing to throw your way? What is the workload like? Will you have to teach courses? Is the program well-connected in the field in which you'd eventually like to work? In short, which is the best program for you, personally?
Other factors: Unlike choosing a college, grad school comes at a time of most people's lives when they have other people to consider when making their decision. Will your spouse or significant other be able to find employment? Will your children have access to excellent grammar schools around your potential graduate school? Will you be able to get to your grandmother easily if she has a medical emergency? The issues you'll need to consider are many, but only you will know what those are.
Get organized: At this point in the game, the best thing you can do is create a list of what's important to you and carefully, methodically chart your course. This is a decision that should be based on carefully considered criteria, not emotion. The last thing you want to do, after all, is make the wrong choice because you were hasty and didn't think it all through.
Trust yourself: If you're bright enough to have been accepted to a grad school in the first place, then you're certainly capable of making the right decision about which to attend. You can do this. Just trust yourself to decide correctly, and jump on in. You'll be fine.
The little envelope. Now what?
What do you do if you didn't get in? After all the effort of completing the applications, it is normal to suffer a bit when the little envelopes start pouring in. But it's not the end of the world. It may feel like it, of course, but you will pull through in the end.
Breathe: Your best bet is to not make any decisions just yet. For no matter how calm you think you are, emotions are likely running high. Step back, try not to think about it for a few weeks, and then reconsider your options. Once you're on an even keel again you can decide what to do next.
Try, try again: Consider the first round a practice run, learn from your mistakes, and have another go at it next fall. If you truly want to go to grad school, and ostensibly you do, you will find a way to get in. Start studying earlier for the standardized tests required by programs in your field. Rewrite your scholarly essay and personal statement. Reevaluate the kind of schools you plan on applying to. Remember, you can only do it better a second time around.
Reconsider: Your other option, of course, is to reconsider the endeavor altogether. After having gone through the process, you may genuinely choose to pursue a different angle; sometimes people need to try and fail at something in order to realize that they really didn't want to do it in the first place. And grad school is far from the only means to a desired end.
Whether or not you got in, you still have control of your future. Just believe in yourself, pursue your dreams whether in school or out, and follow your gut, and your intellect. As always, Shakespeare said it best: "This above all: To thine own self be true." Trust yourself and believe in your own abilities to make the right decision. It will all work out in the end.
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