Things I Wish I Knew When I Applied to Graduate School

Long time, no see. A whole year. I know. Who am I saying that to? My blog? My subscribers? My friends? The blank page on my laptop, waiting to be filled with random thoughts and things so that I can post it on my blog and show my subscribers and my friends? Why am I rambling? What’s all this about? I guess to get the creative juices flowing. I don’t know. A lot has happened since I last wrote. (Quick recap: I graduated from college, I finished my BA thesis, I applied to and got rejected from a bunch of graduate schools, I moved!)

I am currently in New York. Well. New Jersey. But they are one letter away when you abbreviate, and plus everybody who lives within a 10-mile radius of NYC deserves the right to say they are in New York, or they are from New York. This post has been a long time coming. The video that might have led you here is in the same category. The life and the plans I project for myself always are a few steps ahead of me, the real me. I am too often playing catch-up to this ideal I create. It’s exhausting.

Anyway. This post is about all the things I learned last year when I applied to graduate schools. (And got rejections. PLUG). What can someone learn from rejections? You might ask. Rightfully so. I cannot give you a formula for how to get into graduate school. But even people who have gotten in cannot give you that. Because at the end of the day, like almost all of the rest of your life, there are countless factors you do not control, and why fool yourself into thinking you can read a magical blog post that will give you the key that can ensure your success?  

All I am going to write here is 1) logistical techniques that were useful, 2) things to keep in mind as you navigate the scary Leviathan that is academia. Get ready for some serious bullet point action.

Google Docs

This is where I kept everything. In addition to the information about your applications, you can keep track of which applications you finished, which ones you paid for, which ones need modifications etc.

  • School Name || Application Fee || Waiver Status || GRE School Code || Date and Time Application is Due

    • Link for logging into application

      • Username & Password

    • Link for department website

    • Link for admissions website

    • Required Documents

      • Writing Sample * (Remember that this is for a philosophy application, which is a humanities field. For STEM, arts, social sciences applications, you might need other works that show scholarship.)

        • Length Requirement / Limit

        • Does it need a cover page?

        • Can it have personally identifiable information on it?

        • Does it need an abstract?

      • # of Recommendation Letters

        • What is the request mechanism?

        • Are you allowed to use Interfolio?

        • How do your writers want reminders. Professors are busy. They are juggling a lot of things. The system generated email they get will be lost in their inbox – and most of them time you will have to remind them to submit their letters. This is on you.

      • Academic Statement of Purpose

      • Personal Statement * (Remember that this is not necessary for each school and schools have different requirements for it. Note these.)

      • Transcript (Official/Unofficial)

    • Other useful links or information (for example on whether…)

      • You should have a contact from the department’s faculty before applying or be familiar with some people’s research

      • You can apply early for more funding

      • You can apply for other scholarships through the school

Let me include an example here for my school. I am at CUNY GC, doing the MA program in Philosophy. If you wanted to apply to this program you could have it in your doc like so: 

  • CUNY Graduate Center || $75 || 11:59PM EST. January 1 || GRE 2113

    • Application

      • hereisausername / hereisapassword

    • Department Website

    • Admissions

    • Required documents

      • Writing Sample (4000-5000 words)

      • Statement of Purpose

      • Three Letters of Recommendation

      • Transcript

    • No fee waiver

    • Automatically considered for Dean’s Merit Scholarship

Somewhere in this Doc, you should have a tentative list of what classes you will be taking the next quarter/semester before you graduate. Schools will often ask this information. Make sure you have the class name, professor name, beginning and end dates of the semester/quarter, and class catalog number. It will be a pain to look it up each time. 

Online Applications

Most schools will let you apply online. The problem is, it’s not like the Common App where you can fill out personal information once and you are set. You have to fill it out each time, for each application. So…

  • Fill out the mundane stuff as early as possible. Addresses, contact information, educational history, volunteer work etc. This is stuff you don’t want to pile up in the last minute. This will allow you to populate your Google Doc with crucial information because sometimes, admissions pages don’t have the details that the actual online application has.

  •  Watch Out For:

    • Applications which don’t send recomendation letter requests until you complete the whole application

    • Applications which won’t let you fill out parts out of order

    • Applications in different time zones and with different deadlines

    •  Application fee waivers

      • Some programs will allow you to get a fee waiver for the application. E-mail the admissions office or the department head if you don’t see this information on their website. 

      • Be careful of deadlines. If you are applying for fee waivers, they might want you to submit your application early. 

      • Or get a piece of paper from your finaid office.

      • Or fill out a form, print it, sign it, scan it, and upload it back online. 


The GRE is a scam and says very little about whether you can actually start and finish a PhD. True. But you still have to take it. It’s $205 right now. I am sorry.

  • Take lots of practice tests.

  • Download some vocabulary studying apps. I used two apps by Magoosh. You can also buy flashcards. Or make them. The apps work because they are on your phone so they are with you all the time, and you can just do the exercises on your commute, or in any sort of situation where you have to wait.

  • Read sample essays. READ THEM. Lots of them. You’ll see that they aren’t expecting much literary merit. Just clarity, and a formula you can easily follow once you are familiar with enough sample essays..

  • If you don’t want to pay $205 – and you qualify for FAFSA, make sure you mail in a fee waiver. It will cut the cost in half. Which is still a lot. But we gotta do what we gotta do until grad programs get rid of the GRE requirement. (Shout out to programs that don’t require the GRE!)

    • Remember to mail this IN ADVANCE. You cannot leave it to the last minute. This means you have to go to the post office. Buy stamps. Physically send in a letter. They make this stuff cumbersome because they want you to pay the full price. It costs less than 2 dollars to buy stamps. Maybe 2-3 $ for the bus that gets you there. It costs $105 dollars more to pay for a full GRE registration price. You choose. 

    • Remember to memorize the school codes for the the 4 schools you for sure want to apply to. After you take the test you can send your scores for FREE to these schools. You will not have this chance when you come back home and realize as soon as you left the test center room, you now have to pay $107 for sending those four scores. ($27$ per school. Yep.)

Grad School Folder

I had a folder on my desktop (which is synced to the cloud for easy access) for all my applications. Here are the sub-folders and contents.

  • Folders

    • Scholarship Applications

    • Resumes

    • Schools

      • Each school gets its own folder because the documents required will be different. And you will have customized some of the personal statements, cut down or expanded your writing sample for length requirements.

    • Fee Waivers & Financial Information

  • Files

    • GRE Report

    • Recent Transcript (Official and Unofficial)

    • ID scans


If anybody tells you, “I got here on my own” or “I pulled myself up by the bootstraps” or “I earned this myself” know that they are lying. There is no “on my own” in success (especially of this proportion). You need and rely on a large network of people and resources.

  • BA Advisor / Research PI * {Shout out to my BA advisor by the way. Ben Callard will be the name I speak of when I become a philosophy professor of my own. IA.}

    • Don’t hesitate to reach out for feedback on both the content of the application and also where to apply and faculty to research etc. They know you best and they will often know where you can get good mentorship later on and which programs have professors who focus on the things you like. 

    • Ben once told me, “It’s not your responsibility to manage your professors’ time.” I was anxious about taking up too much time and reaching out to professors, but he is right. You have to just ask, and if they can’t meet with you or give you feedback, they can tell you themselves. Otherwise, you lose all the shots you don’t take!

  • Other professors you like and have a relationship with

    • One pleasant thing you find out is that everyone wants you to succeed. So try to schedule short meetings to ask professors about programs, ask about their graduate school life, about what could help you make the most of this process and what’s to come.

  • TA’s / Graduate Students

    •  Teaching Assistants definitely do not get paid to read your writing sample or meet with you out of office hours to discuss your application. They are usually there to help you with classwork. If you approach them, remember to respect their time and not act entitled.

  • Friends

    • Who are outside of your field can assess your work for clarity both stylistically and thematically

    • Within your field probably have a broader background to pull from when offering you critique. Share your resources, collaborate.

  • Family / Support Network

    •  You need emotional, spiritual, and mental, support through this long process. Always ask for help when you need it in whatever part of your life and don’t be afraid to cry. Normalize crying. But also normalize small victories. As I recently told a friend, to lead a fulfilling life, one must learn to be happy with the small things.

      • I guess if I were to philosophize, I would say that no amount of joy is too small, no favor, too inconsequential, and no level of happiness too lacking. The point is, be grateful.

You Finished Applying, Now What?

  • Self-Care & Self-Congrats

    •  Go out and order yourself a c/mocktail, organize a party, buy a puzzle, or do whatever you need to do make yourself happy. I called my parents, and then my roommates and I went out to eat and enjoy ourselves.

  • Thank You Cards & Gifts

    •  Your professors, writers, and TA’s – write them Thank You cards and if you can afford it, get them thank you gifts. This is regardless of the result of the application process. Pay it forward. If you act entitled to people’s time and energy and don’t show gratitude, the next person who asks for help won’t be able to get it. Academia is already cutthroat as it is, try to create chains of collaboration and appreciation.

Waiting for Results

  • Yeah, I know, it sucks.

  • Make sure you know how the results will be dispersed.

    • Do you have to check online for alerts?

    •  Will you get emails?

    • Letters in the mail?

  • Good news?

    • YAY! You are a champ! Congratulations. Make sure you share the happy news with your writers, and anybody else who was instrumental in getting you there.

  • Lukewarm news?

    • Waitlisted? So the waiting continues. But guess what. Getting waitlisted means – as my friend Eri once reassured me while I picked at my cuticles in Crerar library while waiting to hear back from a waitlist – that you were a good fit for their program they just didn’t have the space or resources for you at that moment. You did that!

  • Not good news?

    • Well. Define “good” right?

      • As an aside: Failure isn’t necessarily bad, but even if it is in your worldview and mine, so what? We are human. We are allowed (in fact designed / destined / meant) to fail. And learn and grow and get up and keep moving. 

    • If you believe in it, there is divine wisdom in every act of creation, one of which is the fact that you got rejections. (PLUG, again!)

    • If you don’t believe in that, I can say something like “the universe loves you and doesn’t have a personal agenda against you” to appeal to your sensibilities perhaps. 

    • Regardless. There is nothing you can do now to change the outcome. So why dwell in sadness or disappointment? I am not saying, don’t feel these things. You can’t control that. Unless you are a Stoic Sage. I am just saying. You’re probably in your early 20’s, you don’t need to buy real estate and pay mortgage for a big mansion that is situated right in the middle of Sadville. 

    • Just like you got through this process this one time, you can do it again, way more easily, and way more confidently next time around [if you choose to].

With September around the corner, I wish you all luck and fortitude. May God guide all of us in our journeys and lead our paths to the best possible destinations. 

 If this blog post is any help to you before/during this stressful and taxing process, please pray for me! All positive prayers are appreciated. If you don’t know what to say, here are some templates:

  • Dear God, please make Nur Banu a successful academic who is useful to the people. 

  • Dear God, please give Nur Banu’s family, her parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and her sweet little brother long and healthy lives that are spent in your service.

  • Dear God, please place Nur Banu among the people you love.

    • Also, you are the Most Generous of the Generous, please give Nur Banu the richest, hottest, most loving, most kind, and most intelligent husband. (‘:

If you cannot commit to any of these prayers, just say, Dear God, please do by Nur Banu what will be the best for her. I’ll take it!

Also let me drop my Venmo username because your girl is a graduate student too. @banubelle if you wanna hit me up with some generous donations and channel God’s Beautiful Name of “Kareem.” Or you know, you can share, subscribe, drop a like, etc . Online currency works too. If I become an influencer, I’ll have ad revenue, and that’s kind of like Venmo’ing me. Indirectly.

Thanks for reading, if you think I should include anything else, let me know. I can add it on here, and credit you. Much love ~

Abraham's Idols | Then and Now

The Wooden Idols

Prophet Abraham is perhaps one of the most well-known patriarchs in history. In the Quranic account, Abraham’s father is an idol-maker. One day, while the townspeople are at a festival, Abraham goes into the temple housing the city’s idols, and breaks all of them but one. Then, he hangs the axe he used around the neck of that single idol and waits until the townspeople return. When they get back, they are shocked and infuriated (of course). Who broke all the idols? What happened here? They immediately question Abraham – but Abraham says, don’t ask me. Ask that big one with the axe around its neck. He might be your culprit. 

all art on this post by Mahi (@mahimade on IG)

all art on this post by Mahi (@mahimade on IG)

The townspeople get angrier with Abraham, are you mocking us? These things can’t move. He couldn’t have broken the other idols! 

Abraham scoffs – if they are so powerless, why are you worshipping them? If they can’t even move or protect themselves, why do you ask them to protect you and provide for you?

The Fire

After a while, the people in Abraham’s town grow sick of him. He questions their way of life, rejects the traditions of their forefathers, and preaches about one, single Creator, disturbing the people’s stability. They complain to the king, and king Nimrod orders that Abraham should be thrown in a big fire and burned alive. 


A fire is built, a fire so big that some accounts claim that Abraham had to be catapulted into the fire because people couldn’t get close to it. Abraham is thrown into the fire, and Abraham’s Maker says, "O Fire! be thou cool, and (a means of) safety for Abraham!" 

So Abraham walks out of the fire, untouched, unburned, glowing. 


The Sacrifice

Abraham grows old – really old. He is gifted with children, after all this time. And then he has a dream, which he interprets to mean he needs to sacrifice one of his sons, like they did with lambs and goats in those ancient times. Right as he’s about to do it, he is commanded not to, again by his Maker. Why would an all-wise, infinitely just, and benevolent Maker, command a messenger to sacrifice his son? How does that make sense?

The Here, The Now

Abraham is the primordial human being in the universal surrender to his Creator. Or so it is said. What am I to do with such a man, and such a story – now, in 2018? And only a week or so before Eid al-Adha, the festival of the sacrifice.

I never fully grasped Abraham’s story. I probably still don’t. I guess that’s to be expected when the story is told by the Maker of Abraham, who is also the Maker of me, who is also the Maker of all that is before and after me. And me, just a tiny human being.

However, I did reach a much clearer understanding of Abraham’s story a couple of months ago. Abraham’s story is a reminder in three parts of the kind of idolatry we all engage in every day. His story is long, and his journey arduous, as a man, as a created being, and as a prophet. He questions what created him, and what is sustaining him. He doubts the idols of his father and of his neighbors – those seem all too easy now. 

Of course, I say, nobody believes statues carved and molded by human hands can actually provide protection and sustenance and happiness and whatever else people need. Of course, they can’t detect the shrines built in their names or the altars they are put on. This is the kind of idolatry that nobody engages in anymore. 

But Abraham’s story is timeless (as the Narrator of the story), and that’s the miracle of it. Because once I delve into the fire, I realize – I engage in that kind of idolatry all the damn time. The punishment of Abraham is to be burned alive. And nobody doubts that he will die. The fire is blazing hot and hungry. It will swallow Abraham up and he will die a painful death. The king and the townspeople, they trust that, they take pleasure in knowing what will happen, and how the whole punishment will play out. 

But Abraham’s Maker has other plans. Abraham’s Maker is also the Maker of the fire, and that Maker humiliates the king and the townspeople in the most subtle and strange way. The fire is commanded so, and does not (and cannot) burn Abraham. The fire has no choice but to be cool, but to be safety for Abraham. 

Where is the idol worship in that?

Believing that the fire is the source of its own existence, and its own heat, and its own burning, and the continuation of its properties… that’s a deeper level of idolatry than any of us care to explore. I had made fire into a little god in its own world, without realizing the absurdity of such a scenario, of such a belief. 

I mean, ask yourself: is fire even aware of its own existence to retain its own properties? Does fire have a sense of self? How can fire have power over itself, when its heat and light depend on its environment? 

Wouldn’t the fire have to be the maker of itself, and of Abraham, and of the air around him, and the earth beneath him, and the universe surrounding him, to be able to burn him – to be able to kill him? 

If yes, then my idolatry (shirk) is paramount. It’s so ingrained in causality and the material world that I don’t know if there is an easy way to get out of it. 

And what of the sacrificial son? How is that idolatry?

Abraham’s readiness for the sacrifice and the son’s acceptance of the sacrifice are both lessons to be learned and internalized. From the perspective of Abraham, I learn about the most intimate kind of idolatry. (From the perspective of his son, you can check out this view that really resonates with me). 

For Abraham, a father after all those years, the love he must feel for his child is obviously immense. How does he deal with having to kill the very thing he loves so dearly? In this scene, Abraham demonstrates (and I learn with him) that even those pure and wholesome feelings I have are not from me. I am not the source of my own love and care and patience and kindness. 

If I were, I would have them all the time. I would choose to never hurt anyone and never act out of anger or frustration. I would love people SO much that they wouldn’t know what to do. But I am not the source of my own love, just as Abraham is not the source of his own love. 

I am a channel through which the Beautiful Names of my Maker come through. I demonstrate love (Al-Wadud) and compassion (Ar-Rahman) and kindness (Al-Latif). And like Abraham, I strive. I am infinitely honored to manifest these Names, and I am always working so I don’t get comfortable and think they are mine. I have no way of producing my own kindness – but I am grateful that I am not under the illusion. And I am grateful that I get to be kind.

I told someone about this blogpost and they said, it’s like that mystic that surrendered so fully, he could walk on water. He realized that all the small and big things he took for gods were not, and well, what else does he need? 

I'll end with something Hafiz wrote, 

Understanding the physics of God, 
His indivisible Nature, 

Makes every universe and atom confess:

I am just a helpless puppet that cannot dance
Without the movement of His hand. 

With love,