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Classroom at the Rock. Photo by Chris Alburger

Do you love window shopping and trying on clothes to see how they fit? Or do you get overwhelmed when there are too many choices? Well, at Harvard Divinity School, the first week of the semester is Shopping Period: where you get to go to all the classes that sound interesting and try them on to see which ones you like best—and, yeah, it can be overwhelming.

Some of my classmates love Shopping, and some of them hate it. Why? Because you might fall in love with a class you were only curious about and decide to take it, or find out a class you were excited about isn’t all you thought it would be and decide not to take it. So if you’re someone who likes to have a plan, it can be anxiety-provoking. There are way too many good options and a lot of factors to take into consideration beyond how much you want to take a particular class, such as your degree requirements, your schedule, the professor’s teaching style, and the amount of reading and writing the course will require. This is also when students are trying to get into their dream classes, some of which have limited enrollment. Some people know exactly what they want to do and others are just exploring various interests, so some people are anxious to find out if they’ll get into the classes they want and others are anxious because they’re not sure what they’re going to do. On the one hand, Shopping Period gives you an opportunity to do what you really want, but, on the other, you might have to make some hard choices between good options or it might throw your plans out of whack.

The same goes for choosing a graduate school. You have a lot of options to explore, as a prospective student. There are a lot of divinity schools, seminaries, and professional degree programs out there. So it’s important to go through a “shopping period” of your own and think about every aspect of the schools that interest you, to see which ones fit best. Just like there are a lot of reasons why you might decide to take a class, or decide not to, there are a lot of factors to consider in applying to graduate school, including faculty, financial aid, location, and loved ones. While it might be overwhelming or anxiety-producing sometimes during this “shopping period,” it might help you discover your passion and the programs that are the best fit for you. You might even have to make a hard choice between several great schools because they fit you so well, in different ways. Thinking about what your goals are and learning as much as you can about your options will help you make the best choices in where you apply and what you eventually decide to do.

My classmates and I were each drawn to this particular school for a variety of reasons: I had a set of reasons for wanting to be at HDS, and each of my colleagues had their own set of reasons. Most of us applied to other schools or at least thought about other options, and each option had pros and cons. A number of my colleagues and prospective students have told me they thought of other schools not just for religious studies, but other fields such as public health, education, or public policy. Looking at graduate schools and writing a statement of purpose is an opportunity to explore your calling: what are you meant to do, and what institution would help you do it best? Is HDS a good fit for you? What do you value about it? How would HDS help you reach your goals? I encourage you to look into it, and see how it feels.

It really helps to learn as much as you can, in making a big decision like this. So I’d recommend reading everything about our programs on our website and coming to visit if you can or even sitting in on a class. Last semester, during Shopping Period, I ended up taking a class I didn’t think I would take and not taking a class I thought I would. The subject of the one class was so compelling for me, I just had to do it. Whereas the professor teaching the other class was so hard for me to understand, I couldn’t imagine myself being there. Going to the classes and checking them out to see which ones were the best fit for me—my academic interests, my learning style, my study habits, and my educational goals—was what made all the difference. Likewise, I looked into a lot of graduate schools and, after doing a lot of research and visiting, felt like HDS was the best fit for me. Just like going to classes during Shopping Period helps me figure out what I want to take, learning as much as you can about the schools that interest you and which ones are the best fit for you will make you a better candidate and happier with whatever you decide to do.

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