This fall I leapt into my senior year at West Virginia University as a general psychology and sport and exercise psychology double major. With graduation finally in my reach, I felt sure that I was going to be “living it up” my senior year. I was soon hit with the harsh realization that my fun-filled year would be crammed with graduate school admissions overload. The last few weeks of summer and the first few weeks of school were no longer lined with lazy Sundays at the creek and early-weekend football games. My life had turned into one huge lump of stress.
I went through undergraduate school thinking “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” in reference to the graduate school admission process. I figured that there was no need to stress out, because I seemed to be taking the correct steps toward success in my post-collegiate career. I was constantly studying, getting As and Bs, participating in campus activities, and even meeting regularly with advisors and mentors. In addition, I registered for an “Applying to Graduate School” course.
None of this, however, could prepare me for the arduous process I would soon face. The GREs were breathing down my neck, and the pressure to decide which career I wanted to pursue in psychology was hanging over my head. I couldn’t even decide what direction I wanted to go in, much less find an appropriate graduate program.
Time moved fast and showed no sympathy. I needed to know where I wanted to apply in order to send out my GRE scores. I also needed to ask for letters of recommendation and send in my applications by the deadlines. In addition, I became extremely concerned with my finances. I had to figure out how to transfer my financial aid and what programs would offer me assistantships and financial support, an issue many other students must address. I had to determine how to endure application fees and traveling expenses for future interviews.
On top of it all, I experienced an unfortunate family tragedy during the peak of my fall semester. The things you cannot prepare for are a good reason to get a head start on the things you can. Only if you are ahead of the game can you effectively cope with unforeseen events and accomplish your objectives.
In short: start preparing early. You will usually hear a knowledgeable professor every now and then reiterate the importance of becoming involved in your psychology department, getting to know your professors, participating in research, and planning ahead — take that advice. Putting off simple steps that make you a good candidate for graduate school will only cause more stress in the long run.
As soon as you are accepted into your undergraduate psychology program and make the decision to pursue graduate studies, take the right steps toward your future. Buy a GRE preparation book, develop a stronger relationship with a professor who can eventually write you a strong letter of recommendation, and examine the financial options that different graduate programs offer.* Every little bit counts, and it is extremely hard to fit every detail into one semester of your senior year.
Regardless of where you are in your collegiate career or how overwhelming things might seem, you will get through it. By starting early, you give yourself a better chance of getting through it sooner; then you might even be able to enjoy some of your senior year.
*For more on how to work with your professor on writing a recommendation, see this month’s “Teaching Tips” column.