Lessons from the Road: What Driving Taught Me About Applying to Grad School

Keep the Car on the Road

I am applying for graduate school, which means that there is a whole lot of uncertainty as I try to pull applications together and wait for decisions from the schools.  The ambiguity can be enough to break me.  This morning, when I reflected on how to cope with all of the pressure, I realized that many of the same skills I use in driving apply to life.

Four Ways Applying to Graduate School Is Like Driving a Car

1.  Stay focused–keep your eyes on the road.  When my husband’s driving, he’ll see a barn that he likes, an owl perched on a telephone pole, or a funny looking tree.  Then, he points and demands I look as he drives past–still staring, while my eyes are glued to the road in fear that he won’t remember to look back before he hits a guardrail.  I have a similar problem when it comes to dealing with daily distractions.  It’s easy to be pulled by a million things that I want to do in life–I know that I should be exercising, writing, and spending time with my husband.  I also want to read books, play the piano, learn to speak Spanish and guitar, hobbies that make me feel grounded and happy.  But with all of these competing priorities, I have to first make sure that my eyes are on the road ahead–getting into graduate school.  That means preparing for the GRE, job shadowing, and doing my homework.  It’s all manageable if I don’t let myself get overwhelmed by everything else I could be doing.

2.  Make small adjustments to keep the car on the road.  Driving for long stretches rarely involves cranking the wheel.  Rather, it’s about making small adjustments to compensate for alignment and curves in the road.  The movements are minute, but they require skill and constant motion to make the difference between staying in your lane or crashing.  While it feels like I need to make huge amounts of effort to keep everything together, what it really takes is a million small adjustments that keep me on course–whether it’s realizing I need more time on a homework concept or checking in with my husband on dinner plans.

3.  If something surprises you, don’t panic.  This is an important one.  If a rabbit jumps out in front of the car, the worst thing you can do is swerve and hit a tree.  Things come up all the time that freak me out–worrying I won’t have enough observation hours, fretting over a test that was hard, or finding out that my pediatrician won’t sign off on my chicken pox history–despite the week I spent with the chickenpox when I was six.  If I panic, it could throw the whole timeline off course, and set me back professionally.  Instead, I have to slow down, maneuver past the challenge, and keep going.

4.  Know where you’re going, and how to get there.  My mother is the queen of wrong turns and bad directions.  We spent much of my childhood driving lost through the cornfields of Illinois, a place my mother has lived her entire life.  It wasn’t until GPS came along that she began to arrive at her destination without several tense calls to my father and stops to ask gas station attendants for directions.  Applying to grad school requires an ability to follow directions, and a focus on the end goal.  Though whether or not I’ll get into graduate school feels like a mystery, schools are actually fairly upfront about what they’re looking for:  knowledge of the field, good grades, high achievement, and strong personal skills.  This means that though it might feel like wearing my lucky underwear for the next three months might increase my hopes of being accepted, superstition will serve me less well than following the directions.  If I focus on demonstrating the qualities schools look for, I’ll have a much better chance of getting into grad school.

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About Wild Song

Me, stripped bare.
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