Spotting Burnout While Applying to Grad School

You search online for the term “grad school burnout.” Up pops hundreds of articles about how to recognize, avoid, and recover from burnout while in graduate school. You look for the posts on how to avoid burnout if you aren’t even in grad school yet. Nothing—except for this post, of course!

Most articles online seem to take it for granted that getting admitted to grad school is the easy part and that surviving the experience is the most challenging part. However, I strongly disagree.

After having worked with over a thousand applicants to top business, policy, and law schools as well as having attended Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School myself, my opinion is this:

Your risk of burnout is equal to if not higher when applying to a top business, policy, or law school than it is while you are attending.

Why do I believe that burnout risk is high while applying to an Ivy League grad school?

Because when you’re actually attending a professional school (as opposed to say, an intensive research-focused PhD program), you are consistently part of a cohort.

At business schools like Harvard and Stanford, you have intentionally been placed within communities within communities. You may feel lonely and isolated at times, but the reality is that you have plenty of people—your professors, your learning team mates, your on-campus neighbors, and your classmates—who will see you on a regular basis.

The members of your communities within the community can recognize a decline in your physical, mental, and/or spiritual health and wellbeing. However, in programs where you might be locked away in the library or in a lab for most of the day for months at a time, it might be easy to fall through the cracks and to have your steady decline overlooked by your colleagues.

This is not to say that burnout is not a risk for students attending top business, policy, and law schools. In fact, I think burnout is extremely common among law school students in particular. I’m just saying that applicants to highly competitive grad schools are at a high risk of burnout, and somebody—me—needs to say it!

First, I’ll discuss some reasons why burnout is a risk while applying to grad school and then cover some signs of burnout when applying to grad school.

Why burnout risk is high while applying to grad school:

Secrecy

Many times, you can’t tell your supervisor and workmates that you are applying to grad school, lest you put your upcoming promotion at risk. Many applicants worry that they’ll stop being assigned to key projects if they tell their boss they are considering leaving for grad school soon. The stress of having to look your coworkers and bosses in the face every day and not tell them about one of the most challenging, exciting, nerve-wracking and potentially life-changing experiences of your life can wear on you.

Isolation

The application process can be long, stressful, and discouraging. If you’re going through the process all alone, then you don’t have consistent people with whom you can learn, commiserate, troubleshoot, and celebrate during the long process. Online forums can provide a sense of community, but I find that most people post anonymously and sporadically on forums. Thus, the community and network you create virtually disappears if you don’t stay active on that particular forum.

Programs like Forte MBA Launch, Management Leadership for Tomorrow MBA Prep, and The Art of Applying’s Application Accelerator provide applicants with expert advice, individualized coaching, and a supportive community of like-minded high-potential professionals with whom you can trudge, skip, crawl, and victory lap through the application process.

There is no reason to go through the arduous process of applying to graduate school alone, yet so many Ivy League hopefuls choose this lonely misery every day.

Information Overload

There are nearly endless sources of information on how to apply to graduate school. In addition to the information on the school websites and blogs, there are also the blogs of admissions consulting companies as well as many active destinations such as as Poets & Quants, Beat the GMAT, GMAT Club, and The Grad Cafe. In addition to that, there are the personal blogs of current applicants and current grad students.

It’s an overwhelming frenzy of information, advice, and anecdotes—not to mention the challenge of figuring out what, if any, of the information is directly relevant to your particular challenges.

I could go on forever on the reasons why burnout is a risk while applying to grad school, but now let’s cover some signs of burnout while applying to grad school.

photo credit: Nathan Dumlao

Signs of burnout while applying to grad school

I generated this list based on the hundreds of applicants my team and I speak to every year about their application process during our free Breakthrough Calls.

If you’re experiencing at least three or more of the characteristics below, you are currently circling the drain of burnout or already figuratively or literally slumped in an exhausted heap on your kitchen floor.

Procrastination

You engage in extreme procrastination. You torture yourself with researching, daydreaming, and thinking about going to grad school for years—but never actually do it. You consume a copious amount of information on the process of applying to graduate school rather than taking action toward the goal.

Love-Hate Relationship with the Application Process

You vacillate between talking incessantly about your application process (to the annoyance of your friends and loved ones) or refusing to engage in conversation about it. You have a love-hate relationship with even talking about applying to grad school.

Obsessive Researching

You get in obsessive researching loops and fall down internet rabbit holes related to grad school. You sit down to look up one quick question and look up dazed and confused an hour later, wondering where the time went. This happens multiple times a day, and gets worse on weekends and at night right before bed.

Social Avoidance

You are hesitant or outright refuse to make social plans, so you can be free to study for the GMAT, GRE, or LSAT or work on your essays. When it’s time to study or write, you don’t actually do it. You veg out on motivational YouTube videos, hoping they’ll give you the spark you need to get started.

Strained Relationships

You feel guilty that you don’t spend enough time with your friends and family, because you spend so much time working on your application, and you feel resentful of the time and attention they request of you.

Jealousy and Envy

You find yourself online stalking people you went to college with who have been admitted to graduate school. You compare yourself to them, judge them, and bitterly wonder how their dumb ass got admitted to a top grad school—when you haven’t even applied yet.

Fatigue and Exhaustion

You stay up late and wake up early to study, research, and write. You overschedule yourself between work commitments and application-related activities such as networking calls with alumni of your target schools. You are a shell of yourself on weekends, a lump of tired in the bed. Or conversely, you drive yourself to keep going, going, going on nights and weekends when you desperately want to rest and relax.

Always “On”

No matter what you get done in your application process, you still feel behind. You can’t stop thinking about, worrying about, or working on your application. You feel guilty whenever you are spending time doing anything that is not directly related to your application process. You know that it’s completely unreasonable to force yourself to focus that much on your application process, but you can’t stop yourself from feeling guilty. You feel like everyone else is “working hard, playing hard,” and that you have to “work hard, work harder” to keep up.

What to do if you are experiencing burnout while applying to graduate school

No personal or professional goal is worth risking your mental, emotional, or physical health. If you’re experiencing burnout, you deserve to feel better—now, not when you finally achieve your long sought after goal.

Recovering from applicant burnout may involve using a combination of resources such as therapy, traditional Western medicine, healing modalities such as massage and acupuncture, exercise, rest, and engaging in more mindful and nourishing eating and sleeping habits.

What we at The Art of Applying offer in our Application Accelerator is a proven system for applying to top business schools, policy schools, and law schools.

Each of our clients has clear, simple steps to take, tasks to check off when completed, and a strategic plan for achieving their goals.

They have one trusted place in the vast internet landscape where they can keep all of their application materials, ask all their questions, and pour out all their hopes and fears.

We have mindset coaches on staff (they are not therapists) who help keep our clients out of overwhelm and frustration and in a place of encouraged action-taking.

We also provide a fun, supportive community for our clients so that no one person feels isolated and alone in the process. By working toward a common goal together, our clients provide encouragement and accountability for one another. Many of our clients become online friends and stay in contact even after the application process. This helps our clients expand their Ivy League network—as they strive together toward being admitted to Ivy League schools!

If applying to grad school is burning you out, let’s talk.

If you’re experiencing burnout while applying to graduate school, I encourage you to book a Breakthrough Call with my team so we can discuss what’s not working, if we can help, and how we can help.

You deserve to have your dreams come true—and to feel good while striving toward your dreams.

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