4 Things I Wish I Knew Before Applying to Graduate School

Person reviewing papers

By M. Catalina Enestrom

We all experience stress and uncertainty while applying for graduate school. As someone who has recently gone through the process, here are four tips I wish I had known before applying:
1.  Explore different areas of research
Psychology is a very broad field of research, even if you are only interested in personality and/or social psychology. As such, it is extremely important to begin exploring different areas as soon as possible. While completing your undergraduate degree, get involved in labs within your university to have greater knowledge of what it means to pursue research in that subfield; this will help with narrowing down your interests in preparation for graduate school. Further, gaining experience across various labs will help you build relationships with graduate students and PIs. 
2.  Make connections (preferably in the subfield you want to pursue)
When a PI accepts a graduate student, they are committing to working closely with this individual for 5-6 years; thus, they want to be certain that the student will be a good fit. Therefore, it is important to impress PIs beyond your GPA and GRE score, which means having good references. While any connection with a faculty member is great, building relationships with those who are in your research area of interest is even better. This will open the door to graduate school opportunities with your PI and their collaborators, who will value your PI as a reference. 
3.  It is never too early to start your applications
Most students begin preparing their applications the summer before they apply. Since summer is filled with distractions, it is important to make a schedule with deadlines for what you will need to submit. It also helps to find a friend who is preparing for graduate school so that you can keep each other on track. Further, be sure to create a document with the universities you plan to apply to. This document should include the deadline and application requirements for each school, which will help you better plan your reference letters and GRE test. 
4.  Prepare for GRE-related anxiety
One of the biggest hurdles of the application process is having to write the GRE, which is required by most universities. To tackle this, breaking down the different sections of the GRE and creating a study schedule is very helpful. Also, keep in mind that the scores you receive on the practice tests may not be representative of your final score on the GRE. For one, the actual test will be on a computer, not on paper, which may make the test-taking experience different for some applicants. Additionally, time seems to go by much faster when you are taking the GRE. Setting strict time restrictions for each section of your practice exam (e.g., 3 minutes less per section) may help you better manage the time limit during the GRE.
To summarize, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for applying to graduate school. However, these are tips I wish I had known when going through the application process myself. I hope they are helpful to you as you apply to graduate school. Good luck to all future applicants!