Advice for applying to grad school and coming up with a backup plan.
July 16, 2013 11:32 AM   Subscribe

I need to figure out what I'll do if I don't get in.

So I graduated in December 2011, and since then I've been teaching piano lessons, volunteering, and doing temp office work when I can find it. I want to go back to school for something in a health care profession.

I have a bachelor of arts double major in liberal arts and music. My first three and a half years, I got decent grades, but in my last two semesters I had a major depression and, while I still managed to pass all my courses, I got a couple of grades in the 50s and 60s and I also withdrew from my honours program, which shows on my transcript. So I finished with a double major instead of an honours degree, and my average is about 80%.

I've been considering nursing for the past few years and was on the verge of applying for January when a health care professional at my doctor's office mentioned Occupational Therapy to me. She said it would be a good option for me because I could earn a master's degree in one year, instead of spending four more years in college and undergrad to get the nursing degree. I also think it would suit my personality more; I work better on a one-on-one basis with people, I am a good teacher (I teach piano), and as I am introverted I work better when I have the chance to get to know the people I am working with over time. As far as I know, Occupational therapists work with individual clients over long periods of time rather than with many clients for short periods, like nurses do. There don't seem to be very many prerequisites for the program, so I think it would be reasonable for me to apply this year.

The master's programs for Occupational therapy seem competitive and only accept about 60 to 90 students per year. I am worried that even though I meet the admission requirements of a 70% overall average, my last couple semesters in my undergrad will reflect very poorly on my academic ability. I know who I will ask for the letters of reference, that shouldn't be a problem, and I started volunteering in a psychiatric hospital this past month, which I intend to emphasize on my application. I still think that there will be many other candidates whose grades will make their applications more competitive than mine.

My plan for now is to apply to 3 schools so that I would start in 2014. I know that if I don't get in, then that's $300 down the drain. But I'm starting a fulltime job next week so I think it would be ok to spend that money. My worry is just that if I don't get in, then I'll be waiting 8-10 months on something that doesn't pan out, and I'll be no further ahead than I am now. I know I am still in my 20's and everything, but I really don't like the feeling that I am letting time pass without putting down any career foundations for my future self. So I really really need to come up with a solid backup plan and stick to it.

My backup plan at the moment would be that if, come May 2014, I haven't been accepted into any grad program for occupational therapy, I would go back to CEGEP (I live in Quebec) to do the DEC in nursing and then transition into the university degree in Nursing. The problem with this, is that it would take 4-5 years, AND I wouldn't end up with a higher level of education than I already have ( I already have a CEGEP diploma in Social Science and a university degree). I'm not dead set on getting a master's just for the sake of having it, and I'm open to the 5 year option starting at ground zero, I am just wondering if someone has a better idea for me as my backup plan. Other things I've considered : music teacher in public school (but I work better with individual students), marketing or communications for arts festivals/ non profits (totally different direction which doesn't have a lot of jobs available), music therapy ( seems cool but kind of a flaky profession?), or being an administrative assistant while teaching piano at night.


1) If the application deadline for grad school admission is January 15, 2014, when should I begin emailing my former professors to request reference letters?

2) Should I try to do a few online university courses right now so that my average goes a little higher before the application deadline of January 2014?

3) Given the possibility that I may not get in to grad school, what should I have in place as a backup plan? Should I try applying again the next year or should I just go with my original not-ideal plan of going back to CEGEP and then undergrad to become an RN? How do I deal with the feeling that I'm treading water ... not progressing or giving myself options, if I don't get into the program? How do I make sure not to waste the 8ish months that I would spend waiting to see if I get in?
posted by winterportage to Education (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I would apply to more than 3 programs. There may be waivers available for the applications fees if they are a hardship.

If you don't get in this year, I'd continue to volunteer & reapply. You'll have another year of experience and more time will have passed since undergrad (so your grades will be less important), which will make you a more attractive candidate. And, waiting one year plus a one-year program is still much shorter than a 4-5 year program, and you end up with a job that suits you better.
posted by insectosaurus at 11:42 AM on July 16, 2013

To specifically answer your question, I'd email your former professors now to reopen a dialogue with them. When was the last time you talked? I'm sure you're fabulous but they may not remember you well so they might not be in the best position to write a recommendation letter for you if you wait until, say, three months before the application deadline to ask them to write a letter for you. However, if you email them now and say, I'm thinking about grad school, this is the program that interests me, what do you think, you will re-connect with them plus get some answers to or feedback for some of your other questions. Win-win.

I wouldn't worry about your GPA. I mean, it's either such a competitive program that there's not much you can do about it period, or it's the kind of program where they realize that normal people don't do amazingly for all of their years of school. Plus it was a few years ago so they either think you're in a different place now or not. I'm not saying that to be discouraging but I imagine there are some graduate programs who straight up will not accept anyone who has ever gotten a C in anything ever. Those are not the programs for you. They're not the programs for most people.

You seem more interested in OT than nursing. I like OT. I used to work with OTs - very tangentially but it seemed like interesting stuff. Is there a reason why you can't apply to more than one OT program? Have you met anyone from this particular program? Maybe call their admissions department to see what you can do to present a really compelling application. Talk to professors to see what they're looking for in students. Find out what the professional associations are for OTs and check out their websites. Talk to current OTs, OT students and recent grads. If you do more reading and decide it's not what you want, then do something else but if you decide that's what you want, put your heart into it. Good luck.
posted by kat518 at 12:00 PM on July 16, 2013

Could your new full time job be your back-up plan? You don't say anything about it. You may be exposed to interesting people doing interesting work and find out that you really like it. You might find that you like a steady salary and paid time off. If you're at that point in your twenties where all you've really known is school and part-time work, you really owe it to yourself to do try out the day-job thing for awhile - before heading back to school to pay for specialized training for a job you may or may not like.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 12:21 PM on July 16, 2013

What happened with the Phone Company job?

Do you meet the requirements for the Occupational Therapy program, or will you need to take some pre-requisites? If so, some schools will take your grades on your pre-requisite courses and weigh them more heavily than things that don't really matter (your grade in Pre-Raphaelite painting.)

Also, perhaps you can volunteer doing music or art therapy somewhere, since that would show an aptitude in the realm you are now considering.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:48 PM on July 16, 2013

Best answer: Regarding reference letters, I would start asking a month or two before the applications OPEN - which is right around, well, now. The people who are writing your letters tend to be busy, and procrastinate. They might be less busy during the summer break... so, now. An anecdote: there was one professor at my uni who was known to write excellent reference letters for his better students, but he would take about a year to actually do so.

Also, make sure you get strong reference letters. For example, there's a good summary here:

As for course choices, unless you're certain it's what you want to do, starting again at ground zero is unlikely to be a good plan. I'd suggest that working full time for a year would not be a terrible plan, either - and also look into whether there are any other careers that interest you aside from OT.

Should you end up waiting an extra year, and still intend to go for a masters in OT, I suggest volunteering in an area that would have you working with OT's where possible. A good place to find this kind of opportunity is centres aimed at treating people with spinal cord damage - for example, paraplegics or those with multiple sclerosis. They are generally happy for volunteers (I have a family member who has volunteered in their OT department for about 15 years, with zero qualifications.)
posted by Ashlyth at 3:02 PM on July 16, 2013

The best way to hedge your bets regarding getting into school now would be to apply to a school that is less competitive and more likely to accept candidates with your academic average. I wouldn't worry too much about grades, honestly. Your volunteer experience combined with a well written and thought out essay will probably count more than an extra course or two would.

As far as a backup plan, music therapy is a totally legitimate and non-flaky career worth looking into! If you're interested in combining your musical background and experience with a helping profession, you might find it really rewarding. I don't know enough about the degree to speak to the specifics of the degree or career prospects, though.
posted by fox problems at 3:55 PM on July 16, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, these are very helpful answers. I never thought of just waiting another year and reapplying if I don't get in the first time. Thanks for pointing that out.

Re: What happened with the phone company job?
I took the good advice of askmefi and accepted the phone company job offer- I had to leave a message for the supervisor on a 1-800 number and wait for them to get back to me. In the meantime though, I got an email from my old work offering me a three month contract, and I decided to accept (better the devil you know).

Re: applying to more than 3 programs-- not sure if anyone is still reading, but how would that work for reference letters? Can I just ask a prof to send the same letter to each school?
posted by winterportage at 8:12 AM on July 18, 2013

Between application fees, sending transcripts, and sending GRE scores, I spent almost $800 applying to humanities Ph.D. programs in the 2011-2012 application cycle. I got into one program I applied to. This stuff is expensive.

What I did for my LoRs was send each professor a little information about why I was applying to each program, which faculty member(s) I especially wanted to work with at that institution, et cetera. I went to a really small liberal arts college, though, and was close to all of my letter-writers (and we had stayed in decent touch in the two years since I had graduated), so didn't need to provide as much personal/reminder information as other people sometimes do. I think that most of my recommenders wrote me letters for 4-5 programs each; I assume that most of the content in each letter was the same.
posted by naturalog at 4:39 PM on July 18, 2013

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