Like 95% of undergraduates, I came into school not knowing what I wanted to do in life. Though I was admitted as a neuropsychology major, my plans quickly dissipated when I realized I would need to take multiple chemistry courses (a really obvious oversight on my end). My parents, a finance and ceramics major respectively, didn’t have much advice beyond ‘do what makes you happy, but make sure you can earn a living’. I’d be just as content to spend the rest of my life being paid to read The Cut and work out, but until they create a major in Influencing it seemed like I was doomed to actually plan for the future.

After a few meetings with my counselor and tipsy 1am major changes, I landed on my current major. After another year of contemplating future jobs, I found the way I was going to make a career out of the field I chose- grad school. However, I soon realized this wasn’t going to be a cake walk. A copy-pasted essay about how a volunteer stint at a nursing home inspired me to pursue a major in Risk Management with a minor in Latin wasn’t going to cut it this time around. Grad schools wanted to see someone who had experience in the field and a specific research focus, and I would be competing with other applicants that had worked their proverbial tail off for the last 4 years. Most grad schools also offered stipends for all the applicants they admitted, making the amount of accepted applicants eye-poppingly small. A school with over 100 applications might only have the funds to offer acceptance 3 or 4 of them. The other unlucky 96 of us just have to cast our nets wide and pray someone saw potential in us.


A litany of other obstacles (no friends or family with similar life experience, a non-STEM research focus, lack of school resources, limited funds) sent me adrift in my grad school search. After my initial crisis of faith (we all have them), I decided all the work was worth it and powered through my applications. Through my own trial and error I figured out what to do, and what to definitely not do, when it came to applying to grad school.

  1. Pin down grad schools you want to attend 2-3 months before the application deadline. This gives you plenty of time to ask for letters of recommendation (most schools require at least 3), talk to the faculty of the school, and figure out if the school is a good fit for you. Linguistics is a deceptively expansive field, so I honed in on schools that had a strong focus on the subfields I wanted to do work in, sociolinguistics and phonetics. Narrow down further by researching the kind of stipends the schools offer and the location of the school. There’s a big difference between a $12k salary in Duke, NC and Los Angeles, CA. Make sure to choose one or two ‘safety schools’ along with your top choices. Better to be settling for a less competitive program than to be totally high and dry.
  2. Figure out why you want to attend the grad school. This may seem obvious, but some just consider grad school the obvious next step in their career trajectory without stopping to ask why. Schools want to see passion, not resignation, come through your personal statement. Even if you’re not entirely sure what projects you want to do in grad school, if you can show enthusiasm for your major and dedication to succeeding in it, your chances of getting in and enjoying your time there are a bit better.
  3. Look for advice from mentors. This could be a professor you’ve worked with, someone whose research you admire, or just a grad student in your department. Talking to people like this is how I found out about most of the programs I applied to. They have a good knowledge of other schools that specialize in what you want to do in grad school, and sometimes even know people from the school that they can put you in contact with. It’s also nice just to verbalize your worries to someone who’s already gone through the same process.
  4. Don’t get discouraged. This is something I’ve had to remind myself of a lot lately. Rejections might seem incredibly personal, but I’ve realized the admissions teams don’t truly know me, they just know what I’ve presented to them on paper. It can be arbitrary too- some departments have a quota of admissions per subfield, and while one may get 50 applicants another may get 10. The most important thing I’ve learned in this process is to not let it get to you. Go on a run, eat too much comfort food, call your mom and start crying even though you thought you were okay with the result. The important thing is to collect yourself and keep trying.

Leah Dudley is a senior at UGA studying Linguistics with an emphasis in refugee research. She is a member of the service sorority, Gamma Sigma Sigma. She has studied under top professors at Oxford University and worked hands-on with refugees around the world. Her research has been presented at universities around the country, most recently UC Berkeley. 

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