Why graduate school applications feel so different

Oct. 10, 2018, 2:00 a.m.

Senior year brings a lot of new things into the mix: honors theses, job applications and graduate school applications to name a few. These all tie back to the impending sense of confusion of what the next year might hold. In many ways it bears similarity to senior year of high school, but I’ve already begun to see stark contrasts.

What struck me first occurred during my junior year as I prepared to take the MCAT. In high school the majority of my peers and I spent the summer before junior year in SAT prep classes. Although some pre-meds choose to form tight-knit friend groups with the shared mission of entering medical school, I opted to have my close friends come from diverse majors. My few pre-med friends chose to take gap years, which meant I spent hours studying by myself for the MCAT. Being alone pushed me to understand myself as a student and acknowledge my desire to pursue medicine. After all, I wasn’t doing what everyone around me was doing. Peer pressure couldn’t get me through this; I had to find an internal drive to get me through the hours of content review and practice exams.   

This feeling of traveling through the process alone can be rooted in the immense options for a Stanford student after college. In high school the options seemed pretty straightforward: working or pursuing additional education. Actually, that sounds quite similar to the present situation of most seniors. Even so, there are so many more options for jobs and schools out of college in comparison to high school. Stanford affords its students with their pick of jobs and schools across the country. My peers interview for different jobs and apply for different graduate school programs. In many senses, this helps decrease the competitive feeling since everyone applies for different things. On the other hand, as much as I want to be a part of the graduate school processes of my friends, it can be difficult because I struggle to relate to taking the GRE or filling out graduate school applications. The cycle differs greatly with different deadlines, making it hard to feel like I am walking side-by-side with my friends pursuing PhDs, fellowships or coterms.

Even within those applying for medical school right now, the choice of applying to schools differs as well. As a California resident, few, if any, medical schools give in-state preference, but that varies depending on the state. As a result, the choice of schools to which we apply also varies immensely. In high school almost everyone I knew ended up at a UC school or at our local community colleges. Now, I have no idea where anyone will end up.

Perhaps the most surprising part for me comes from having to justify my choices regarding my application to many people. It’s quite amusing to see people ask me about my decisions because there seem to be “safe” questions and then questions that are deemed inappropriate because they might be too “personal.” One of the safe questions seems to be “How many schools are you applying to?” At Stanford the usual student seems to apply to around 20-30 schools. In fact, my experience with pre-med advisers proves that they also encourage this number. However, in my hometown most of the people that I have spoken to apply to 40-50 medical schools. I definitely have a similar number as those in my hometown, and having to explain why I chose to apply to “so many” has proven to be an interesting experience. I often feel that I shouldn’t have to explain my decision to them, but I also understand their curiosity.

This brings me to the final distinct difference between applications in high school in comparison to college. In high school the high-achievers can be easily identified since the school is smaller, the leadership positions are more limited and the chances of being in the same classes are much higher. At least in my high school, people were also a lot more comfortable speaking more explicitly about their grades. In college, everyone assumes that other people are doing well, probably better than themselves, but an actual gauge of academic standing can be difficult to know. As a result, reassurances from peers that I’ll make it into medical school and others insisting that I don’t need to apply to so many schools intrigue me. I appreciate their belief in me, but it also highlights the difficulty in being a student who doesn’t necessarily meet the Stanford “norms” for applying to medical school.

As I and many other seniors continue our applications to pursue education after our undergraduate degrees, I am sure we would appreciate warm hugs from our friends, offers to look over our personal statements that we’ve stared at for countless hours, and invites to hang out and take our minds off the uncertain future of life after Stanford!


Contact Serena Lin at serenal ‘at’ stanford.edu.


Serena Lin is a senior, currently studying English and hoping to attend medical school after college. Her column focuses on relationships of all kinds and explores various perspectives when interacting with different groups of people.

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