Students applying to graduate school face unprecedented challenges

Jennifer Errico

Safa Zia slammed her computer shut after her MCAT was postponed for the third time.
“It’s frustrating because I did everything I was supposed to do,” UT alumna Zia said. “I studied and scheduled my testing date months in advance so I wouldn’t be stressed.” 
Zia currently attends the University of North Texas in a one-year graduate program to complete her Master of Medical Sciences, providing her with a fast track to medical school. She is currently applying to 15 medical schools, but COVID-19 has complicated the process. The pandemic has stunted the graduate school application process, leaving students stressed and unsure about their futures.  
“Applications are very stressful under normal circumstances,” Zia said. “It would be nice to have in-person interactions with my counselors, advisers and peers who could give me guidance and understand (my) struggles.”  
Alex Arredondo, speech-language pathology senior, also worries about losing in-person connections, especially since her graduate program mostly consists of work with elementary school students. With the virtual program, she fears that she won’t gain the same knowledge and experience needed for the workforce.
Arredondo said she’s applying to both in-state and out-of-state universities such as New York University. She said she hasn’t toured all of the schools and is scared she’ll have a hard time adjusting to a new environment.
“I’m worried I’ll settle for the safe option right now,” Arredondo said. “Everything’s constantly changing, and I know I’d feel more comfortable going to a university in Texas that I’m familiar with. But I don’t want to miss out on any opportunities, like living in New York, because of my fears.”
Because Arredondo is graduating two years early, she worries she may seem inexperienced and underqualified for graduate school — especially since two of her summer internships were canceled.
“I had to cram all these internships and experiences into two years, while most people get four,” Arredondo said. “I have a good amount of things on my résumé, but what if it’s not enough?”
Both Zia and psychology senior Taylor Himes also experienced event and internship cancellations caused by COVID-19.
“Me and my friends planned on going to a psychology conference in the fall to enhance our résumés,” Himes said. “There’s no virtual conference offered, so that part of my résumé will just be blank.”
Himes is applying to eight different Ph.D. research-based programs where her relationship with her academic adviser will be crucial.
“I need to make sure what I’m interested in, they specialize in, so I can learn from them,” Himes said. “I also need to make sure we’ll get along because we’ll be working together for five years.”
Himes said as part of her application, she must undergo an interview process where usually she would fly to the college, stay with a graduate student currently in the department, attend a weekend seminar about the program and receive a tour of the university. However, this process will now be virtual.
“I’m worried because I won’t get to see how we interact together, but I plan on asking a lot of questions about how each adviser runs their program, so hopefully I’ll get a good feel,” Himes said. “I mean, if we can get along on Zoom, we’ll be able to in person.”
Zia and Himes said some universities have been helping make the application process less stressful. Himes said UT, for example, isn’t requiring the Graduate Record Examinations General Test right now for some departments.  
“My confidence has been stunted because of COVID-19,” Himes said. “There’s more variables to consider when applying that weren’t there before. In my mind, if just one school accepts me, I’ll be happy.”