By Luisa Banchoff
A semester into my master’s degree, I was already asking myself the question: what’s next? My course was only one year, so the question came especially soon. Regardless of when we face the question, the answer for many of us is to start a new set of applications – whether for further degree programs, fellowships, or professional work. Most of the time, this application process will begin before the current academic year ends, which requires balancing coursework with applications and interviews.
I found myself in this situation, finishing up one master’s program while applying to another. On some days, it felt like two full-time jobs, but some key strategies helped keep me motivated on both my coursework and my applications.
1. Stop and Reflect
Before you start updating your CV and asking for letters of recommendation, it’s important to identify just exactly what you want to get out of the application process. The answers may shape where, when, and what opportunities you apply to. Ask yourself these questions:
- What are my existing time commitments and deadlines (coursework, a part-time job and/or other work, personal commitments, etc.)?
- How many hours can I commit to applications/interviews?
- How many applications can I realistically take on?
- What challenges do I foresee in taking on these applications, and how will I address them?
These questions may seem obvious to some of us, but for many (myself included), taking the time to answer them honestly feels daunting, especially with deadlines already on the horizon. But taking an hour or two to sit yourself down and think about these questions can save you lots of time later on; with a solid understanding of what you want and how much bandwidth you have for the application process, you’ll be setting yourself up to take on a realistic workload. A few weeks into the application process, you’ll likely be grateful that you took this step!
2. Make a Plan
Once you’ve decided where to apply, it’s time to start planning the way forward. The application process will likely take several months, and the number of tasks it involves – in addition to existing coursework – may feel overwhelming. By planning out individual tasks over the weeks, you’ll make life a lot easier for yourself.
At this point, you’ll probably already have a sense of application requirements and submission deadlines, but now is the time to double-check this information. (The last thing you want is to find out your application’s missing something right before you submit it!) Once you’ve done so, write all this information down in the same place. I recommend using a print calendar (or making your own), as it can be a handy visual for both short and long-term tasks and deadlines. And don’t forget to include your coursework deadlines – this will help you anticipate what your entire workload will look like each week.
3. Break It Down
Now that you’ve compiled an overview of your application and coursework deadlines, begin setting up internal deadlines that build toward these: for example, a date by which you want to have a draft of your application materials, a deadline for reaching out for references/letters of recommendations, and a scheduled time for interview prep. Breaking down larger tasks in this way will help you keep a daily focus without being overwhelmed by the big picture. Of course, if you later find that certain tasks are taking longer than expected, you can adjust these goals.
Once you’ve spread your overarching goals across the weeks, it’s time to break your tasks down even further into daily tasks. I find it most helpful to do this on Sunday evening or Monday morning when you’ll have a better sense of how much time you can commit in the coming week and what you need to prioritize in order to achieve your goal. And for those days when you have a lot of work, it can be helpful to spread your tasks out in hourly chunks using time-blocking or the Pomodoro technique. But no matter how you go about setting your plans into action, remember that there are things you can’t always plan for, and be kind to yourself even when you don’t achieve your daily goal.
Need help getting organized and managing tasks? Read Tech for Success: 15 Productivity Apps for Graduate School.
4. Don’t Go It Alone
Even if you have the perfect schedule worked out, you will likely have to give up some of your usual routines to make space for the extra workload, such as by cutting down on free time spent with friends and family. While you may be tempted to put these relationships on pause, they can actually be an invaluable resource as you navigate the application process. Consider asking people you trust for feedback on your application essays, for help brushing up your CV, or for a mock interview session. Doing this will not only strengthen your application, but it can also motivate you to get things done by a certain date in order to get feedback from others. Moreover, talking with others about why you’re applying to certain programs can deepen your self-understanding and boost your confidence in having these sorts of conversations, both of which will serve you well in interviews and beyond.
5. Celebrate Accomplishments Large and Small
It’s easy to get consumed by the juggling act of applications, interviews, coursework, and other life commitments. Whenever I finished one task on my applications, my mind was often already racing to the next. Looking back, I wish I’d taken more time to acknowledge all the work I was doing. While you should absolutely celebrate when you get accepted somewhere or turn in your final course assignment, why wait till then? Sometimes just finishing the first draft of an essay, pressing the “submit” button on an assignment, or nailing an interview question is worth a victory lap. This is especially true in given that the application process can take a long time, which requires stamina but also moments of rest and appreciation. So take days off, enjoy breaks doing the things you love, and share small victories with people around you so that they can celebrate you, too.
Embarking on a new application process is never easy, especially if you’re already juggling coursework responsibilities. While applications and interviews will require you to shuffle around your schedule and prioritize your tasks, the skills you’ll need to get through to the other side should be nothing new. After all, you’ve gone through this process before to get to your current studies! Let this be a vote of confidence as you embark on the next step. And remember: make a plan, stick to it, and celebrate how far it takes you.
If you enjoyed this article you may also be interested in reading Luisa Banchoff’s other articles on ProFellow. Click here to see her other articles.
Originally from Arlington, Virginia, Luisa is based in London, where she studies Screenwriting at the London Film School. After graduating Summa Cum Laude from Princeton University with a BA in Religion in 2017, she received a Princeton in Africa Fellowship to teach History at a secondary school in Gaborone, Botswana. Upon returning to the U.S., Luisa worked as a research and report writer for the World Faiths Development Dialogue, a not-for-profit organization at the intersection of religion and development. In 2020, she received a Rotary Global Grant Scholarship to study at the London School of Economics, where she earned her Master’s in Social Anthropology. Outside of her studies, she works as a research assistant and a volunteer coordinator for a local charitable organization.
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