I bet that right now, there are about a million "What if??" questions running through every one of our brains... But the scariest one is "What if I don't get in?"
I'll speak for myself-- that seems to be all I can think about lately. A couple of days ago, I made myself write out a Plan B (which started off seriously: "look into MS programs, studying/traveling abroad" but then it became... slightly crazed: "move to hippie farm, join convent"). It helped my anxiety a lot... for a couple of hours... But what we all have to remember is that we'll be okay, no matter what the outcome of this admissions cycle! I'm sure that not all of you believe that "everything happens for a reason", but with grad school applications, I think everything does happen for a reason. If we don't get in to any grad programs this admissions cycle, we have many years ahead of us to pick ourselves back up, dust ourselves off, improve our applications, and try again.
Okay, so... me. This is my second time applying to grad school. Of the seven schools I applied to last fall, I was accepted to my two "safety schools" for PhD programs in biomedical sciences, but after some thoughtful deliberation, I decided not to attend either of those schools. Why? Because I wasn't sure I'd be happy at those places, and I knew that would hinder my success.
[Second-time applicant's tip #1: only apply to schools you want to attend. Applying to grad school isn't like applying to college; you shouldn't have a "safety school" unless you could see yourself feeling happy and fulfilled if you went there.]
[Second-time applicant's tip #2: Find MULTIPLE faculty members with whom you're interested in working at the schools to which you apply. You don't want to find yourself at a school where you're only interested in working with one faculty member and then they don't have the funding/ space to mentor you.]
Last spring I was terrified of turning down PhD offers because it meant that I would be staying in my job as a research tech for another year when I had been already been working there since my sophomore year of college and for the year since I graduated and I felt ready to move on. It also scared me because I knew that only applying to schools that I wanted to go to was a gamble; they were, by and large "better" schools, and there was always the possibility that I wouldn't get in anywhere in my reapplications. But I took a deep breath, and went with my gut feeling. I have the better part of a year to improve my application, I told myself, I'll get in somewhere... right?
Now I am so happy that I decided to take that second year off. Over the past year, my work in the lab has gone very well-- I presented my projects at one international conference and at several smaller conferences, I got some major work done on some projects that I wouldn't have been able to finish if I had gone to school in the fall, and I acquired more skills that will leave me with that much less to learn in grad school. Equally importantly, my additional year off has also given me the opportunity to reexamine my application. I met with a member of the admissions committee at my university who was kind enough to go over the shortcomings of my application, and find the places where I could have presented myself a bit better.
[Second-time applicant's tip #3: Always address the elephant in the room (bad grades, lack of research experience, etc). I had some extenuating circumstances that explained some poor academic performance, but last year I was too embarrassed to address the issue in my personal statement-- big mistake. Explain your situation gracefully and it may help you.]
All in all, I feel like I have significantly more control this time around-- I know what factors I want in a school, I know how I can improve my application (apply early, revise SOP, retake the GRE, replace one recommendation writer, apply to different schools, etc), and perhaps most importantly, I have that extra motivation to get there, which is clear in my applications. And it's all because I've had the better part of a year to think, plan, and execute.
So for all of us who are freaking out right now, remember: Not getting in (or taking an extra year to re-apply to schools you would prefer) is a blessing in disguise. If we aren't accepted this time around, our lives will most certainly NOT be over. That's especially true for those of you still in undergrad... I tell all of my undergrad friends not to go straight to grad school-- for the love of all that is good, take some time off! Grad school is long enough, and you don't have to be in a rush to get there. It's better to make such an important decision with slow and careful deliberation.
-> PM ME IF YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS ABOUT MY EXPERIENCE! I'll keep posting here, but if you want to know things like my GPA, etc, let me know!