T minus X days to Grad School (and some unsolicited life lessons)

T minus X days to Grad School (and some unsolicited life lessons)

Senior year tends to differ widely between different folks. Some have finished nearly all their major requirements, while others will be working through their classes all the way until graduation. My friends and I all fall on different points along this spectrum, but we all have something in common: we’re ready for second and third term.

When all the seniors in one house gather together and the conversation turns to our futures after graduation, an almost palpable feeling of tension fills the air. The first term of senior year kicks off with the mad rush of job hunting, grad school applications, and fellowship drafting. As a chemistry major, my time is focused primarily on the latter two out of three categories: grad school and fellowships. After a summer spent deliberating, I’ve fully committed to applying, and from now until December 1st, the deadline to apply to most graduate programs, the Sword of Damocles will be looming overhead. Every day, I imagine crossing out the imaginary “N days till [deadline],” and rewriting “N-1 days till [deadline].” Then I scrub the image from my head, and proceed on with my day.

The timeline for applications looks something like this:

So maybe the timeline to apply to grad school isn’t that different compared to the timeline to apply to college, but at least this time around, you have a much better idea of where you actually want to go, what you actually want to do, and the essays are shorter. Also, it’s honestly much less of a time commitment than it was the previous time around. I would hardly say that my entire life, 24/7, is dedicated to grad school apps. Over the course of my time at Caltech, I’ve realized how important it is to figure out your priorities early on, and stick to them. Take this piece of wisdom from a senior: things like sleep, health, and fun should be high among your priorities. Even when you’re overloaded at 54 units, you can always find time to do what you enjoy, and in the long run, your sleep and health are more important than whether you got an A or a B in a single 9 unit class.

This is quickly becoming just an advice column, so I’ll lean into that. As I’ve been writing my grad school applications, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to think over what I learned at Caltech, so here’s what I would take away from the experience:

  • As per above: school is important but so is your health. Don’t jeopardize that. Life’s a marathon, not a race.
  • Failure is not permanent. Unlike in “Squid Game,” failure won’t be the end. You can always find the next opportunity. Experiments not working? Try other conditions. Propose an entirely different project if you have to. Poor grade in a class? Figure out how to improve in your next term. Go to office hours, ask your professors for feedback.
  • You’re here to learn. Don’t worry about appearing uneducated, because compared to your professors and the grad students, you probably are. It’s their job to change that. Ask the stupid questions. Interrupt for clarifications. The fear of looking stupid was paralyzing me for so long. Realizing that it wasn’t necessarily a me problem, but it could also just be that a professor was so familiar with a concept that they didn’t realize they needed to explain things, made my classes and research experiences go so much smoother.
  • In a similar vein, don’t be afraid to ask for help. In the academic sense, this applies to asking your friends, classmates, TAs, even the professor. If you find a class difficult, it’s not a reflection on you at all, that’s because it probably is. They’re meant to challenge you! And outside academics, it’s just as important. Having a bad day? Communicate that. At Caltech, there will always be people watching out for you. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve come back from lab or class and announced that I desperately needed ice cream or boba, and my roommates have declared on the spot that we’d go, regardless of how busy we all were.

That ends my senior citizen moment. Back to the original purpose of this blog post: yes, applying to grad school is stressful. But it’s also important to keep in mind that Caltech prepares its students well. I’m incredibly excited to just turn my applications in, and then never think about them again until the results start coming in. December 1st can’t come soon enough.