In an evening in late December, I finally pushed the “Submit” button of the last of my applications for a Fall MPA (or, in one case, MBA/MPA) program. This single gesture capped months of preparation and hard work: from online research and informational interviews to selecting target schools, taking the GRE examination and writing or re-writing seemingly hundred drafts of many application essays.
Pushing that button brought strong and mixed feelings: there was great relief, but there was also an immediate sense of anxiety. The relief I expected. I had just completed a key and extremely time consuming stage of the application process. I was looking forward to having freer evenings and weekends, now that I did not have to worry about my next personal statement of interest or the many other requirements that are part of an application process. But the anxiety was somewhat surprising.
Of course, I expected some anxiety to know which of the schools I applied for (in no particular order: University of North Carolina, University of Oregon, Willamette University, Syracuse University, Harvard University, and the Baruch College at the City University of New York) will accept me, and – very importantly – with what financial package. However, I have confidence that I will receive at least one strong offer, and that any of my target schools would offer a good (even if distinctive) fit for me. What was unexpected was the sudden anxiety about how quickly I went from controlling my destiny (via a proactive application process) to seemingly having no say in it, as I know depend on the decision of the schools I applied for.
For better of worse, both relief and anxiety were short lived. I quickly realized that I was very wrong about no longer having an active role in the process, as well as about no longer needing to worry about personal statements and the like. Yes, school officials will decide whether they want me as a their student, and what kind of financial assistance they are willing to provide. And those decisions are, obviously, of paramount importance.
But the fate of my application process is still very much my responsibility in at least two ways. First, as working on my FAFSA quickly reminded me, being accepted in graduate school is just a step. Then comes the all-important question of whether I can afford the schools to which I am offered admission. I fully expect that some schools will offer me financial assistance, but statistically few if any will enable me to graduate without significant debt. Hence, it is up to me, as the candidate, to look for scholarships that will defray costs. Such scholarships will make my ultimate choice of school less dependent on financial considerations, and will allow for a cleaner financial slate (and therefore less constraints on job choices) upon graduation. Applying for external or specialized scholarships is as demanding and important a step as any in my journey towards graduate school.
Second, by talking with admissions experts and alumni of many MPA programs, I came to realize the importance of continuing to conduct information interviews and of reaching out to admissions offices for additional information and eventual campus visits. This is an on-going process, which most of my target schools actually welcome. Talking with knowledgeable admissions staff and others at the schools has been invaluable, giving me a much better sense of the contrasting cultures, strengths and weaknesses, and opportunities offered to student and alumni. As time and money allows, I plan to do selected campus visits throughout February.
Besides pursuing graduate school, I have dedicated myself to continued professional growth. Working at Linfield College has been a very good experience. I find it very easy to work with supervisors, staff and student representatives, and I am learning with them while also doing my share as a member of the team. The fact that the job is part-time gives me enough time to be strategic and thorough in my application to graduate school. During the brief period when I thought that the graduate school applications would become less time consuming, I even enrolled in a part-time Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) program. I wanted to learn more about the important world of emergency medical services, and I also saw in part-time EMT work opportunities to supplement income (in graduate school) or to volunteer (through life). I attended a few classes, liked the program, and might still return to the idea at a later time – but eventually recognized that campus visits would make me miss too many EMT classes this quarter.
Additionally, as Fall approaches, I have started considering what my focus should be while in graduate school. For this purpose alone, all the informational interviews that I have completed in recent months have been incredibly relevant. I have, in particular, begun to more fully understand how important it is to have a broad toolbox in order to succeed in local government work. This understanding will guide me through the remainder of the admissions process, and as I eventually decide on the school that I will study at.
If you are an alumni of one of the programs I have applied to, an alumni of a program you feel I overlooked, or someone with experience in public sector work, I would love to hear from you! A heartfelt “Thank You” to the many of you who already gave me the benefit of your advice.
PS: The first formal decision is now in: I am thrilled that I got accepted, with an attractive financial package, by one of my high-preference schools. Responses from the other five schools will trickle in for the next several weeks, which should make for a very interesting February!
PPS: I am completing this post from Washington D.C., where on Monday I will be one of the people in the crowd for President Obama’s inauguration. I plan to describe the experience in my next blog.