In grad school applications, students see and fear the future

My first grad school application was due Dec. 1. While kind of nerve-wracking, I had been preparing for this. I met with a career counselor every two weeks, I made a spreadsheet of possible programs and I outlined why those schools are the right fit for me. I did all of this so that when I decided to begin compiling everything over Thanksgiving break, I was prepared. But I had forgotten a key detail. I had reached out to only one of my recommenders. And now my other two had only four days to write a letter for me. There was no real reason why I had committed this oversight — like I said, I was working hard on getting this all ready. But for whatever reason, when I emailed my one reference I did not contact the others. I was, for lack of a better word, screwed.
Luckily, the professors at Allegheny College are extremely attentive and were willing to not let me suffer alone in this endeavor. They whipped together letters while I went through four drafts of a personal statement in a matter of days. We turned it all in on time.
You would think that I had learned my lesson and that for my remaining applications I would be on the ball, anticipating all the moving parts and bringing them together with ease. You would, unfortunately, be wrong. I missed the deadline for one of my potential schools and gave my recommenders a week to get in a letter once again for a different one.
Anyone who knows me might be shocked by this consistent lack of attention. I am normally a pretty organized person when it comes to deadlines. I am hardly ever late to class and do not turn in late assignments without discussing an extension with my professor ahead of time. I keep a very precise schedule, as is often required in the theater world. But something about this incredibly important moment in my life made me forget everything I know about maintaining a balanced schedule. This is, however, not the first time I have let myself down with deadlines. The first time I applied to colleges, a staggering four years ago, I also put things off so long that a very important essay which was the final step in me qualifying for a full scholarship was written in an afternoon the week it was due. Needless to say, I did not get the money.
Every time I have something potentially life-altering on the horizon, my brain insists on ignoring it until it is too late. And while I am not a trained therapist, I believe that it is safe to say this is connected to a strong anxiety about change. The second I have to think about placing myself in a new situation that I cannot predict, I am off the rails. I am certain I am not the only student with these tendencies.
One of my references, who I respect very much and talked about my entire future with, asked me to consider why I think a master’s degree has to be the next step in my life. They asked if the real reason I was set on grad school was simply because school is what I know how to do. There are so many answers I have to this question, and I do not know if any are actually good ones. I am sure the fact that my mom’s own prolific college career has influenced me somewhat. Then there’s the idea that I thrive in academic settings. Maybe this desire to further my education is simply a desire to follow a path that is predictable.
But when I think about my future in any grand sense, I see an attachment to academia. That has been my goal for so long. The specific details of exactly what type of degree and what area of expertise I would pursue has shifted continuously; nevertheless, that is all I could see. There is a lot expected of a senior about to earn their bachelor’s degree in a few months. Not only are we now tethered to a particular field of study, but we are also expected to know what the next steps are in our narrow path.
Some are “lucky” enough to have a path mapped out for them — but are they really lucky? We must spend the rest of our lives living with the decisions we make in the next four months. Sure, there’s room for flexibility as we figure out exactly what makes us tick. But sometimes, those pivots cannot happen for a plethora of reasons: the money required to take a leap of faith, the stability of a certain career that is too hard to pass on, the dedication to support a loved one’s decision over your own.
I have no idea what life will look like after May 2023, and this is terrifying. And, yeah, it is too much pressure to put on a bunch of young adults who are encouraged to make a home at this institution and put down roots for four short years only for that entire life to be blown away, picked up and moved on in a less-than-24-hour turnaround after commencement. I do not even know what I want for dinner tonight. Do you think I know what state I want to move to in less than a year? But that is all the chorus of voices ask you. Over and over again, we get the question of what we will do with the work we have done the last four-ish years. It is never enough to say we will figure it out.
The truth of the matter is that I have applied to four different graduate programs and would most likely be happy in any one. I am confident in my scholastic abilities and am confident that these programs will further my knowledge and skill in my chosen field. While I have made the choice to pursue this path, there is the opportunity to apply to jobs at the same time and make a decision later on. The only problem with that is I will be stressing over this decision for the entire semester, all while trying to comp and enjoy what could be the last few months with people who are very important to me. There is no time for all of the things, but I somehow must manage.
My first grad school application was due Dec. 1. I somehow managed to turn in a complete package for the department, and on Jan. 12 I found out that I was accepted to The Ohio State University’s theater program. I know I can do it. And I am thrilled that OSU thinks so too. But even with that buoy, there is this nagging feeling that something is wrong. Am I making the right decision? Can I afford to do this? Would I even get a job somewhere if I apply? I guess I will find out.
In the hour-long conversation about my future, my professor asked me, “what would be something you’re willing to be brave about?” Right now, the only answer I have is to be brave enough to admit I do not know. That alone takes strength and courage to state. You are not alone if you also feel that way. We will figure it out together.