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8 Things I Wish I Knew Before Applying to Grad School

Thanks to having a few weeks off for winter break, I feel like I’ve finally had a chance to slow down and reflect on the lessons I’ve learned since starting my MA program. In terms of a two-year program, your first semester is kind of the graduate equivalent of your freshman year. Now, as I’m entering my second semester (or sophomore year, if you prefer that analogy) and have finished a quarter of my degree, I feel older and wiser and therefore want to take this opportunity to share some of this wisdom (or rather, lessons I learned the hard way) with you.

  1. There’s literally an office at NYU designed to help you find the right program. The Office of Graduate Marketing and Admissions Consulting (GMAC) at NYU exists specifically to help you in those early stages of admission, even before you’ve settled on a program. After working with them for a semester, I’ve learned so much about other application processes (because NYU has many different applications at the grad level), loans, tuition, registration, and more. When I started the search for grad schools I did all of the research for myself, and knowing what I know now it would have been much simpler to just visit GMAC.
  2. Just because you’re a grad student doesn’t mean the FAFSA isn’t your friend. Big mistake on my end. I (fortunately) had an outside grant leftover from undergrad that paid off my first semester and a half of my program, but knew I would need financial aid, fellowships/grants, or loans for the rest of my degree. What I didn’t know was that, in order to acquire this magic money, I would need to have a current FAFSA on file. Thankfully, it takes very little time to fill out and once it’s done it’s good for a year.
  3. 12 credits feels like 20. You’re basically completing more work than you did for your bachelor’s, but in half the time. Don’t get me wrong, I had a feeling this would be the case, but no amount of mental preparation could have prepared me for the amount of reading I had to do in the first week alone, much less the writing. I was a vocal performance major in undergrad and most of my work was done in the classroom or in a practice room. Although I had papers and reading assignments, they paled in comparison to what I did last semester. I was averaging between 400-500 pages of reading a week for four classes, and by the end of the semester I had submitted about 100 pages of academic writing.
  4. Online databases are your saving grace. Grad school = papers = bibliographies that require legitimate sources. Regardless of how you feel about the quality of information found on Wikipedia, it probably won’t count as a legitimate source for your term paper. Thankfully, NYU students have online access to some of the best academic journals and databases on the Internet, completely free of charge. All you need is to learn how to use the “research” tab on NYUHome and you’re golden.
  5. Learning how to format according to APA guidelines is also your saving grace. Say goodbye to the good ol’ days of MLA. Now you’ve graduated to all APA, all the time. This includes knowing how to format your title page, writing a concise abstract, citing your sources in-text without footnotes, and compiling a legitimate reference page, none of which I knew how to do back in September. Good news is, Purdue OWL has a very comprehensive breakdown of how to format your papers here that basically saved my life (and my GPA).
  6. Be sure to take time for yourself. You’re going to have a lot going on for school and even more if you (like many graduate students) are also balancing a job. It’s easier than ever to burn out, so it’s important to make a point to decompress, whether that means exercise, time with friends, meditation, a daily nap, or a binge session with Netflix. Sometimes it might seem like there isn’t enough time in the world, but those are the days where you need to step back and take a breath most of all.
  7. No one is going to spoonfeed you information. This was a little new to me. Granted, my bachelor’s required a ton of work, but if things ever got too tricky or complicated I always felt like there was a safety net of professors who would catch me before I fell. This past semester I was expected to do the heavy lifting on my own. Daunting as it was, it encouraged me to go out of my way to find information and form my own ideas about what I learned instead of just skimming what I was given. And although my professors would never tell me how to feel about something, they would point me in the right direction or suggest other material for me to look into in order to inform what we were studying.
  8. You will learn more in your first semester than you ever have. I’ve spent the vast majority of my life in classrooms being taught new things, but this break was the first time I looked back on an academic season and really felt like I had learned something significant. So much of grad school is learning how to apply subjects to one another and finding connections between subjects. I felt like I was finally gathering information and coming up with new, unique points of view based on my studies.