Sunday, June 24, 2007

My Application Experience: Phase 2

The Applications

Once I had a short list of places to apply I just had to fill out the applications and send the appropriate materials. I was very organized about the whole process and made a spreadsheet with the specific requirements and deadlines for each university, department, etc. This part of the process would have been really straightforward except that I was in Remote Foreign Country (RFC) connecting to the internet with dial-up.

Did I mention yet that I hate dial-up?

All of the schools I applied to now had online applications. I was happy about that since it meant I didn't have to print applications and send them across the world. However, the online applications presented their own problems. First of all, some of them were just really poorly designed. They were redundant, took unnecessarily long to load, lacked enough character space in text boxes for the requested information (i.e. listing publications you have authored), and even had typos. The worst was the online application for U of Midwestern State. I just couldn't get this application to load. I could sign in but I couldn't see anything else. When I contacted their help center, they said their application didn't work because I was on dial-up. Their solution: go find a faster internet connection. Do they really think I'd be using dial-up if I had another option? To the institution's credit, the department graduate application coordinator said I could turn in the now-obsolete paper application and they would extend the deadline for me considering my circumstances. In the end it was easier for me to talk to my mom on the phone while she read me the questions and I told her what to type.

I simply could not have applied to graduate school without my mom. She signed my name on everything that needed my signature (our handwriting is remarkably similar): GRE score reports, transcript requests, etc. She also mailed and faxed anything that needed a hard copy. For example, I sent her a pdf of the GRE score report form and each time I needed a scoresheet sent I would email her all of the information to fill out on the form and she'd sign my name and fax it in. Or I'd send her a Word document that just needed to be printed, signed, and mailed.

I contacted my three letter of recommendation writers at least two months before the first application was due and when I had a list of the schools I was applying to I sent them a spreadsheet to keep track of the due dates, format, and when they completed them. If they hadn't filled in the "date sent" cell yet then the whole line was highlighted red. I thought this was pretty clever :-)

I managed to get all of my application pieces in my the deadlines for the 6 schools, with the exception of payment for one school because while their online application was ok, their payment system was not. I emailed them right away to say I didn't think my payment went through and they wrote back asking me to EMAIL my credit card information to them! I did this reluctantly and didn't hear from them again so I assumed this worked. Nope. For some reason they decided a snail mail letter sent to me on the other side of the world in RFC, rather than email, was the best way to notify me that my application fee had not been paid. Thankfully I was finally able to call and clear up this mess.

Each school seems able to make up their own conditions for application fee waivers. I only qualified for a fee waiver at one school, University of California Someplace. The rest of the schools did their fee waiver system based on whether or not I had received a GRE fee waiver, which is dependent on you being a current student. UC Someplace had me fill out FAFSA.

Once my applications were submitted I notified the people from those schools who I wanted to work with so they would know to keep an eye out for my application. Then I just had to wait awhile.

Friday, June 22, 2007

My Application Experience: Phase 1

Last summer I quit my job and took off for a distant corner of the world for several months. I fully intended to complete my graduate school applications before packing away everything I own and leaving the country. In spite of my good intentions that didn't happen.

This left me in the less than ideal position of doing the entire application process from abroad. I had some ideas of people I wanted to work with and schools I wanted to apply to, but I hadn't really corresponded with anyone yet. I spent hours on snail-paced internet connections reading about professors' research, graduate programs, and application deadlines and procedures. I agonized over the emails of interest that I sent to people I was interested in working with. I tried desperately to read most of the papers they'd written (as much as I could without academic associations) and comment on them in my initial emails.

I greatly underestimated the amount of time and energy I would have to put into this first "contact" phase of the application process. I literally spent weeks contacting people. One of the first people I contacted was from Large Attractive City. Her response was enthusiastic and encouraging, except for that part about how she just took a new position at Middle of Nowhere University. My partner said we'd have to break up if I went to grad school there.

Some people never responded to my emails. I know you're busy people, but c'mon. Too busy to type a sentence? Send a form email of non-interest? I hope I'm never like that.

There was one person whose research I was really interested in who just didn't reply. I assumed he was a busy person and didn't take his non-reply personally and decided to just keep trying. I think I sent him 5+ emails over 3 months before he finally wrote back and told me to apply to his lab.

By November 2006 I'd decided to apply to 6 schools in various parts of the country: UC Somewhere, U of Someplace South, U of Midwestern State, U of New England State, U of East Coast State, and U of Big City. The people whose labs I decided to apply to were the ones who wrote back and encouraged my application. In the case of UC Somewhere I knew it was kind of a long shot (over 100 people applied to his lab) but I decided I didn't have much to lose since I could get an application fee waiver (the UC school was the only fee I got waived).

Unless I'm remembering things incorrectly already, once I had a list of schools I was applying to the process seemed to get easier in one sense. What I had to do and who I had to contact was much more straightforward. I had to follow the application instructions and get everything sent to the right place by the right time.

Piece of cake, right?