Posted by: thediygeochemist | June 8, 2009

advice I’m glad I took: part 1

I’ve noticed over on the Grad Cafe that a new ‘generation’ of students is showing up–people just starting to think about taking the GRE, figuring out which schools to apply to, and so on. That must mean that it’s been a year since I was in those shoes myself. A year!! Has it really be that long?

Actually, yes. At this time last year, I had just returned from a business trip. Since I had driven to my destination instead of flying, I’d taken my oldest son along; as we sped down the interstate, I had him quiz me on GRE vocabulary words. Two days later I went in to take the GRE General test.

Anyway, this anniversary of sorts has prompted me to create a series of posts about advice I took to heart. In addition to the advice from an old chemist which I’ve posted about previously, I received several incredible tidbits from people around me which profoundly changed the way I approached grad school which I never got around to sharing here.

* * *

Advice Tidbit #1–courtesy of SL

SL (now my PI, then just a friendly professor) gave me tons of advice as I went through the decision process. I had trouble narrowing his wise sayings down to the one best (I’m determined not to quote anyone more than once throughout the series), but I think I’ve finally done it. Here it is:

Don’t assume you know how people are going to react to you.

In the admissions process, you get maybe five minutes to make an impression on someone, and you’re not even there to influence the process. It’s a scary thought.

Many people–myself included–assume that admissions officers’ first impressions are going to be exactly what *our* first impressions would be. For example, I thought people would say the following about me: “Well, she almost flunked out of BigNameU, but her grades were decent after that. Her GRE scores were good…but she hasn’t had any research experience, and she’s been out of the game for 15 years. Hmmm. Not sure I’m going to take a chance on this one.”

Because of this thought, my first list of schools to apply to didn’t include any that made the USNews top 30. I had three MS-only schools (I was pretty sure I could get into one of those), two PhD programs with worse than average reputations, and one in the top 40 that I didn’t think I could seriously get into.

SL said: “Good grief, UnlikelyGrad! You can’t assume that everyone will think as poorly of you as you do! [He knows I don’t have a particularly high level of self-esteem.] Would it really hurt to apply to better schools?”

So I tweaked my list. Out went the MS schools. In went some slightly better schools.

SL said: “Well, some of these are good schools, but none of them are excellent! Why not apply to some top-10 schools, like Stanford?” (Note: SL is a Stanford grad.)

When I told him that there was no way I could get in to schools like that, he was indignant. “Don’t assume you know how they’re going to react. You’re smart enough to go to a good school, you just need to convince them of that. Will you convince everyone? Of course not. But you might convince one or two, and that would be enough.”

After much soul-searching, I added another “good” school and two “top-notch” schools to my list. I was wait listed at two of these and eventually got into one (the best-ranked in the bunch, in the top 10). I ended up not accepting the offer from GoodU because interdisciplinary programs appealed to me more, but it sure is nice knowing that I could get in there, that I did get in there.

SL was right. Not everyone reacts the same way; you can’t assume you know how admissions officers will react. I’m glad I listened to him. (Note, though, that I’m also glad I had back-up plans.)


  1. […] that any newbies to my blog read my “advice I’m glad I took” series here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part […]

  2. this has been EXTREMELY helpful to me and is a much needed confidence boost. =] thanks unlikely grad!

  3. from an unlikely grad to another unlikely grad. you are thanked by a lot more people than the ones who thank you by leaving
    you a response 🙂

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