Thought Experiment #45,730,944 » What I wish I had known before applying for grad school

Thought Experiment #45,730,944

A pseudophilosopher and a̶s̶p̶i̶r̶i̶n̶g̶ professional hippy's contribution to cyberspace

What I wish I had known before applying for grad school

Posted on October 3, 2016 in About, English, Ramblings

A few months ago, I wrote this post describing the path that made me apply for the Master’s program in which I’m studying now. At the end, I mentioned that the most important lesson I learned from the process is that I was not accepted because of my experience; I was accepted for being a node in a solidary network of brilliant and generous people that were willing to put a lot into my application. I still think that.

But it’s also true that my two rounds of applications, as well as being with others in similar positions, left me a thousand more lessons that make me skeptic when I see people just go around telling people from developing countries that they should consider studying abroad. Without more info, really; that’s how I experienced it when I was in my undergrad.

And well: I can’t really make strong judgements on social mobility processes, but I feel that, in order to apply, you need more than knowing that there is a world of education opportunities outside your home country. In my case, I really needed to walk along the path that I described in my previous post. I think it would have helped me more to know certain pragmatic things beforehand, and that’s why I’m writing this post.


Now: in my personal process, there were some things I did know beforehand – you need to have a general idea of the world of possibilities that could interest you (meaning: what programs/schemes there are, as this also applies to fellowships and things beyond strictly academic programs), and then you need to have a hierarchy of elements of that broad idea that suits your interest (meaning: knowing what your favorite option is, which options you couldn’t care any less about).

When I was wrapping up my undergrad, somebody sat me down and explained that, when I chose a postgrad program, I needed to put a lot of time into understanding all its elements. Understanding who made the decisions on admissions. Finding my ideal advisor, reading all their books and starting a conversation. Asking them smart questions. Around that time, I also read this post by one of the academics that have most influenced my view about my own interests, and I found it really useful.


That was my starting point. After that, I learned things that may be obvious to others, but that, for me, mostly entailed Chaos and Destruction…



Make a calendar

The first thing is it’s super important to put the entire process in your calendar. This means that I don’t advise trying to take it part by part with the hopes of not majorly fucking up for not having paid attention to the timeline at the beginning.

I say this because, well, I did majorly fuck something up. I knew I had to send my language test results on Jan 15, which meant I had to take the exam in December. Along with the rest of Mexicans in my situation. And well, of course I missed the registration in my city because it was fully booked: I remembered late in the process and, just for the sake of getting the damned thing, I paid a trip to another city to take this exam.

(This wasn’t my case, but I know many people who intended to study in the UK, and missed the deadline for the Chevening awards).

Once you have that damned calendar in  your hand, I guess the next strategic step is to admin your energy… Which I didn’t do in my first year either. I basically spent the first months running in circles “preparing” for (panicking about) the GRE, a test from hell that you have to take if you want to study in the United States. It was until I finally took the test in December that I overcame my mind block and started doing the other things… for my January application.

Don’t do that, buddies. 




(Taken from


May the sweet baby Jesus guide you through standardized tests

But let’s talk about the true nightmare embodied by the GRE and other standardized tests required by postgrad programs. This is what I learned:

* There are people that, just for the sake of avoiding that suffering, decide to apply only to programs outside the United States. I feel empathy.

* If you can’t just go for that choice, it’s important to know how previous students from the program in which you’re interested did with that requirement. Everybody told me that, since I was applying to MIT, I needed a super amazing grade in the math part. But guys… I’m in a media program. At the end, my terrible math grade got balanced out by my reasonably good scores in writing and verbal reasoning.

* The two best pieces of advice I received: do mock tests all the time (thank you, Olga) and take food and a cardigan with you on test day because it’s an eternal and intense day (thank you, Gabriela).

* There is a big industry around this thing. Everybody sells courses, handbooks, and everything (including the test) is super expensive. Maybe paying a course would have given me more peace, but I was still able to get the grade I needed without paying a single extra dollar.



(from Rich Cats of Instagram)


Save money for your applications

Applying to all these things is super expensive if you’re from a developing country. The things in which I spent:

* GRE (like 200 USD – I didn’t buy handbooks, apps, courses, anything like that, but they’re kind of expensive if you do… and remember the GRE sort of has an expiration date)

* IELTS (like 150 USD – on top of that, my totally unnecessary trip to a city in north Mexico to be able to take the test on time, which cost me like 250 USD on top of that. The certificate you get, by the way, is good only for two years)

* Application fees. The first year, I paid 75 USD for my MIT application; the second year, 75 USD for MIT again, and 3 more payments for universities in the UK (I  can’t remember how much I paid in each, but it was around 60 British pounds). And I know people who have applied to up to 12 programs at once…

* All of my applications were online, but the 12-application friend I have had to send a lot of them via international courier…

* I didn’t have to do this, but some programs require your translations to be certified (be careful: if you are allowed to translate your own things and simply have them stamped by your university, as was my case, do it with time and read the full requirements).

* I didn’t do this, but I know many who decide to spend on going to a conference or to the campus in which they’re interested in studying so that they can have a conversation with the people in the program.

In total, just in applications process stuff, I spent about 800 USD. For me, that meant two monthly paychecks at the time.




(I don’t know where I stole this from, but this is what my notes looked like)

The universe of written documents

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the true field of contention for all the programs to which I applied (basically in social sciences and humanities). IELTS and GRE were things to check off a list, but the personal statement, academic sample, portfolio, CV and recommendation letters that bless you are the most influential part.

There are tons of resources covering each of those documents, and it’s generally pointless to share recipes to try and emulate, but there are some things I did wish someone had told me before.


Personal statement

* I think that, when creating your application timeline, one of the first tasks you need to put on your planner is writing the first draft of your personal statement. It is a document that needs to mature, get lots of feedback; the earlier you start, the better.

* For me, writing my statement was an extremely hard but also powerful process that allowed me to articulate my interests and the next steps I needed to take, independently from my acceptance or rejection. I really did start seeing my life differently after the first statement. But, if that happens to you as well, you can’t let that divert you from the most important part: you need to write something that says why you want to be in the program and why they should accept you (which, by the way, is never to be answered by saying you are Mr or Mrs Success Personified).

* You can’t use the same statement in every application process, as it is in this letter that you need to show your understanding of the program/scheme, if you are a good fit for it, and also because even length requirements vary. If, like me, you had to apply more than once, you clearly need to reflect on the gained maturity and use it to shape your second statement. In my own case, this maturity became visible to the extent that I could narrow down my research interests and trace a clearer line of thought.

* I would have liked to be able to read more personal statements from my colleagues and from people who had been through these programs before, actually. Some years ago, Estefanía Vela shared the personal statement that got her accepted into Yale Law School. I found it profoundly beautiful and inspiring for my own process, and that’s why I decided to “open” three of my statements (the first, with which I applied in 2015 and which ignited a lot of change in my life; the second, with which I applied to the program in which I am studying now in 2016, after a year of maturing; and the third, with which I applied to a different program in the UK in 2016). I have added a few notes comparing them all, should anyone be able to benefit from them somehow.

Academic sample

* In your undergrad, do *one* worthwhile paper that can be relevant in your further applications so you don’t have to suffer as much as I did. Hah. For the first round, thinking none of my philosophy school papers would be relevant to this field (thinking back, I could have sent something from my philosophy of science classes), I decided to write an essay on online roll calls and activism for the construction of memory, but I rushed it and it was kind of crappy. For the second round, I used the final output of a research that I was hired to do that year.

* Ask academic friends for advice. They’re wise and they know the rules of the game much better than you ever will if you’re outside.


* To the extent that’s possible, try to do things that will help shape your CV to make your candidacy stronger. The main differences in my CV between both rounds, though I honestly have no idea if they influenced in my eventual acceptances at all, are that in year 2 I had worked for the UN, I had sent an article to a journal, and I spoke an extra language. If I had been super desperate, I would have tried to get other technical skills (in the areas of programming, data analysis).

* Adjust the format of your CV to the standard format of the country in which you are applying. I know people who sent their 5-page CV, still acceptable in Mexico, to countries where people stop reading after page 1.5.



* In some of my applications, a portfolio could be submitted, and I decided to send one even if I’m not a programmer or a designer. This seemed like a good way to talk about the variety of things that I have done without overwhelming my CV or my statement. I got the materials for this portfolio from the matrix of projects on which I had worked that I had made for my first personal statement (I described that process with more detail on the document linked on that section).


In general, all the documents (that depend on you)

* Ask everyone to read you. Or at least everyone you know that understands how that program, discipline or institution work.

* Ask someone to proofread you, regardless of whether you are writing in your native language or not.

* Let the documents mature as much as you can. Don’t ever let v1 be the only one.


Recommendation letters

* This is intuitive for everyone except me, obviously: ask for them in advance. Not on the week they’re due…

* You have to be strategic when following the rules of the game and use them in your favor. Think about the opinions that are most important to the people in the program (is it academic opinions? If so, what academics do they care about? Is it opinions from powerful people in other spheres?), and also think of who is willing to give you what.

* Be grateful. Grateful in feelings, grateful in actions. In my two application rounds, many people who are very busy devoted hours, truly hours, to write me custom letters based on what they thought would be the best way to support my candidacy. Not all of them let me read them, but some of them sent me copies so I could read them as well, and a couple of those letters make me cry still. Thank them, and thank this solidary universe by writing meticulous, genuine letters when someone requests them from you.




Technology sucks: never apply on the deadline

We know this from Absolutely Every Single Aspect of Life, but I obviously stayed up one night until it was 10 am in the UK so that I could ask what to do given that the payment system for applications was down. It was the application deadline for those seeking scholarships.



(I also forgot where I stole this one from)


Save (money and energy) for the moment you are accepted or rejected

There is nothing useful that can be said to help you face rejection from the program of your dreams. I myself spent a month crying, thought I would never do this again, and the general misery I lived in summer 2015 helped me open up my mind and look into other paths. The only useful reminder I can think of is that, just like in love, nobody dies because they were rejected. Life goes on (in fact, I had a great year of growth) and happiness can be attained again. You may be accepted in your next attempt (which was my case), or you may find that you want to change paths altogether.

In any case, we were talking about scholarships. If you’ve found the entire applications process to be expensive so far, prepare: the real deal comes once you’ve been accepted. Even if you manage to get a full scholarship and a stipend, as was my very blessed and fortunate case (I have the utmost respect to those who decide to hunt for programs and scholarships separately), it is in this moment that the world expects you to throw bills in all directions.

These are the black holes that continued to eat up my entire monthly salaries in seconds:

* Visa. 160 USD to apply, 200 USD SEVIS fee (the database where your institution adds your info so you can apply).

* The internal process within your institution through which you prove that you have enough funds, personal or institutional, to afford the whole thing. I thought that, with the blessed financing I had, this would be easy, but surprise: there was a gap between what the Institute estimates is the price of living here and what my program covers. And, to be added into the SEVIS, I had to prove that I had funds that covered that gap. With bank statements of certain types of accounts, all with certified translation. In the year that the value of the Mexican peso collapsed under that of the US dollar. :) :) :) :) :) :)

* The flight, babies. Unless you plan on walking nonstop with your things…


The black holes that ate up the money of my friends:

* The costs of applying to certain scholarships, again.

* Medical insurance. Especially if you’re going to the United States. May the sweet baby Jesus protect you if you’re on your own when trying to sort this out.

* Moving expenses. For someone with minimalist lives like me, airline allowances are enough, but I know people who had to pay other services.

Apart from money, I had to make a huge investment of time and energy to close certain processes in Mexico and start (even if not from scratch) in the United States. I was lucky to have had temporarily lived in Boston before, and, thanks to that, have some basic understandings of the area and having a network of support. I have utmost respect and solidarity for those who start from the square one.

I had a six-month window between my acceptance and the start of my program. I was working as an independent consultant, and I decided to start slowing down two months before I had to start, and fully stop working one month before, to do the transition the way I wanted.





Unpack what “closing up and moving” means

This part obviously depends entirely on each person. I thought I would share the vision I had initially… which I obviously was unable to execute the way I had intended. I’ve crossed out all the things I didn’t achieve.

* Leaving Mexico with one checked bag, one carry on, one small backpack and leaving behind only a small box of belongings at my mum’s. (The box turned out to be bigger than I planned, and I also took one more bag).

* Finding a room to rent near MIT for a reasonable price on Craigslist/MIT off campus housing/Facebook. (Alert: this required 2 weeks of full time work. I sent 30 emails; by miracle, my current roommate responded. Most people around here had to stick with on campus housing or pay a realtor.)

* See doctors and dentists in Mexico not to get into major debt in the US.

* Go to the hairdresser and all beauty services in Mexico not to overspend in the US in the first month.

* Ensure that all the things I left behind would reach the correct hands or be recycled (I opened this document, which was an efficient way of achieving the goal).

* Doing all the bureaucratic things well, on time, without getting pissed off. (Everything was rushed and I think I wanted to die at least five times.)

* Closing processes: finding new hands for the projects for which I cared the most, ensure successful transitions, close the ones that needed to end and actively stop hoarding the relationships that had made me uncomfortable the past years. (It sounds new-agey but having conversations, writing letters, and getting into the mindset of letting go was one of the most important things I did in my last weeks there. Don’t let those opportunities go, people.)

* Spend time doing cool things in my city with my people. (I had zero time to be a tourist in the final madness).

* Eat healthy, because I had no idea of what my routine would be in the US. (I spent my last days eating sopa de tortilla, chilaquiles, spicy chips. No regrets.)

*  Write this post before flying.

Leaving Mexico all energized, without running to the airport in the last minute like every single other time I travelled in the past seven years. (I closed my suitcase literally a minute before leaving for the airport, as always, and my last two weeks in the country were crazy, like fucking always.)

* Making it to Boston early enough to enjoy cultural life before the semester started. (I arrived a couple of weeks before, but I was VERY exhausted.)

* Making it to Boston early enough to source things for my new home, winter clothing and update my electronics before the semester began. (I had no energy. I also underestimated the degree of disorientation with which I would get through everything for the first month.)

* Go to NY before the semester started to hang out with friends and colleagues.

I don’t think my initial expectations were too unreasonable, but, as you can see, I couldn’t manage to do a good chunk of what I had set out to do. And bear in mind I had stopped accepting consultancy opportunities and different gigs a few weeks before. My utmost respect and solidarity to those who work up until their last day in the country.


OK. I won’t let this post keep getting longer. The idea was to share some things that I wish, as an NGO worker from a developing country, someone had told me before I jumped into all of this. Would I have done anything differently, had I known all this? I can think of a few episodes of pain that would have been prevented. Maybe some wouldn’t. But certainly the emotional labor of dealing with what you don’t know is tough. It is part of growing up, some say, but I don’t think it should be strictly necessary to take all these blows if you want to walk along this path.

I started school a month ago and, since then, I have had a few more reflections. What it is like to live on a(n international) student budget 4 years of financial independence later; what it is like to navigate your change in status with those who used to see you as a colleague and now see you as “just a student”, or with those who used to see you as a pal and now see you as “the one who’s studying with a full scholarship at an Ivy League”.

I keep trying to listen to myself, register some of those reflections. If anything useful comes out at the end of this semester or of the first year of the program, I will be sharing it here.

In any ase: I wrote this post to condense the things I want to tell my friends going through similar processes and who have asked me about my experience or asked for help. If you feel there is something I didn’t cover but that I can somehow help you with, reach out and I will happily reply. And if this post is in any way helpful in your process, please make the effort to share your lessons with your own people as well: after all, we are nodes in a solidary network of brilliant and generous people who were willing to put a lot into our applications, and now it is our turn to put a lot into the applications of those who come after us.

1 response

  1. Margarita Gonzalez (Oct 4, 2016, 3:54 pm)

    Thank you for writing and sharing such a thoughtful piece on the madness of applying for masters programs. I´m Mexican as well, (although I spent most of my life in California) and am currently applying for masters programs in Europe and the U.S. I´ve taken note of several of your recommendations, so thank you again for that! Hope you are enjoying yourself in Boston :)

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