This is a fine article by Tamara Powell on the lead time involved in applying to graduate schools. It's critical to start the process four to six months in advance of the application deadlines if you're starting from scratch. Powell suggests mailing in your applications in December or January and this is usually good advice but also keep in mind the additional time required for mail carriers to deliver your materials as well as schools whose deadlines are especially early (e.g. November).
So, you’re applying to grad school next year—congrats! This is an exciting time, but it’s also a busy one. And even though next fall might seem like a long way away, there’s a lot that needs to be accomplished in the months leading up to your first class.
To help you get organized, stay on track, and have the best chances for getting into your dream school, we’ve put together a month-by-month guide to the grad school application process. Here’s what you need to know and do, starting now.
Study for and Take Standardized Tests
August is the ideal time to take the standardized tests necessary for admissions because you’ll have time to retake them in the fall if you’re unhappy with your scores.
So, you’ll want to start preparing in July (if not earlier). Different techniques work for different people, so think about what kind of study experience you want. The Princeton Review and other standardized test prep organizations frequently offer classes for the LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, and GRE, and many applicants find this structured, classroom-type environment helpful in staying on track.
If you prefer to study on your own, or you’re on a tight budget, you can also borrow review books from your local or university libraries. Or, look into private tutors, who can be immensely helpful (if you’re willing to cough up the dough).
Research Financial Aid
Now is a good time to get a head start on researching financial aid. Start by creating a budget, outlining how much money you’ll need for tuition, housing, books, fees, and living expenses. You can typically find sample budget breakdowns on program websites, but you should adjust them up or down based on your own needs.
Then, make a list of possible funding sources. Most degrees will cost you out of pocket, but some programs offer fellowships and scholarships or work-study opportunities. Learn what federal student aid is available to you, and also research field-specific grants or alumni scholarship opportunities you can apply for.
Select Schools to Apply To
Now is the time to narrow down the programs you’d like to apply to. You don’t have to visit each school at this point, but you should do extensive online research about prospective programs—scoping out things like curriculum, reputation, cost, faculty expertise, support services, and alumni networks. Also comb through their applications and necessary requirements.
Each school you apply to will likely require one or more essays (and they’re not all the same topics!). That said, it can be helpful to prepare an overarching personal statement, which you can modify for each school. Then, make a list of the other essay questions you’ll need to answer for each program, and get started writing. Writer’s block is pretty common when you’re writing about yourself, so leave plenty of time for this process.
Once you have some solid drafts prepared, get a second (or third) set of eyes on your work. Ask your college career counselor or someone you think writes well to read your essays and provide feedback. And leave yourself time for revisions!
Request Letters of Recommendation
Decide which faculty members, employers, or other people you will ask for letters of recommendation. Once you’ve narrowed down your list, send emails to request meetings with each person—whether it’s in person or over the phone, you’ll want to discuss your grad school plans and goals before they start writing.
Depending on how well you know your recommender, he or she may ask you to write a “sample letter.” Many faculty members are pressed for time and find it easier to adjust letters than to write them. If so, don’t panic! Take advantage of a great opportunity to talk yourself up.
Also be prepared to provide each recommender with a copy of your transcript, your statement of purpose, your resume or CV, and each program’s recommendation form.
Visit your college registrar’s office and order official transcripts to be sent to each program you are applying to. If you’re still in college, you can request that your transcripts be held until fall semester grades are posted, particularly if you think they’ll give your application a boost.
Begin Application Documents
Start filling out online application documents and any supplemental materials required. You won’t need to hit send for another month, but it’s good to get a head start.
Make a timeline of due dates and make sure that your earliest applications are ready. Create a folder (electronic or paper) for each school and make sure that you keep necessary materials for each program separate. You definitely don’t want to send your UCLA statement to Stanford!
Send in Applications
Proofread all of your admissions materials and make sure that you’ve filled out every last field on your application form. Then, send them off—fingers crossed!
Make sure that you receive a confirmation statement from each school within two weeks. Contact the admissions office if you do not receive an email, postcard, or letter assuring you they have your application.
Then, let the waiting game begin.
Prepare for Admissions Interviews
Schools typically begin contacting students for interviews (if this is a part of their admissions process) about 2-4 weeks after application deadlines. At this point, you’ll want to rank the schools that have invited you and accept invitations in order of priority.
For each program you’ll be interviewing with, set up a new folder with everything you’ll need for your visit. Make a list of questions you have for faculty and staff, and prepare answers to questions you think they may ask. You’ll also want to book flights and make travel arrangements.
Secure Financial Aid or Develop a Funding Plan
Determine if you will receive any fellowship or scholarship money and from which departments. If you aren’t offered funding through the school, you’ll need to start on your Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application by assembling required documents, such as bank statements, W-2s, investment records, and federal income tax returns. If you are married, in a domestic partnership, or a dependent you will also need your spouse’s, partner’s, or parents’ tax return.
For each campus you visit, create an itinerary with the program coordinator. Meet with faculty, especially potential advisors or mentors, and ask thoughtful questions. Try to sit in on a few classes and meet with current students, too—anything that might help you picture yourself as a student there. Also plan to spend time checking out the surrounding city—your grad school experience goes far beyond the classroom, so make time to think about if you could live in this location!
Make a Decision
Everyone has a different approach for making important decisions, so stick to your method! Perhaps you make pro/con lists or spreadsheets to calculate the weight of different factors, or, hey, even flip a coin. Go through your process, rank your schools, and make your decision!