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Graduate school application timeline

Make a plan for applying to graduate programs on time

by Jami Barnett, Ph.D. ConsumerAffairs Research Team
Woman with laptop and paperwork

Applying to graduate school

Getting into a graduate program, medical school or law school requires a lot of preparation–both for entrance exams and timely application. Whether you’re still working on your bachelor’s degree or you’ve been out of school for awhile, the thought of going through college applications again probably sounds stressful, or at least tedious.

The key to making the process manageable is to start choosing and applying to graduate programs early, giving yourself plenty of time. This timeline suggests you start about seven months before the applications are due. Many applications have due dates in November and December, which means you should start as soon as March.

Group of students studying

March, April and May

Choose schools

During the spring semester of your junior year in undergrad, you’ll need to consider where you want to attend graduate school.

Use a spreadsheet to keep track of important information about each school you’re considering, namely the application deadline and the names of professors you’d like to work with.

Learn about course requirements

Many graduate programs require that you pass specific classes in undergrad. For example, medical schools will want to see high-level math and science courses. If you haven’t taken all the classes required for admission to the schools you want to attend, enroll in those over the summer or during the following academic year.

Contact potential professors

If you want to work with a specific professor at a school on your application list, contact that professor and, if possible, set up a time to meet with them well before submitting applications. You can ask them about the program and the resources available to someone interested in their subject area. Building a relationship with professors at these schools can help you decide whether their programs are a good fit for you.

Prepare for the entrance exams

Spring is a great time to take a practice test for whichever exam the school requires with your application, like the GRE, GMAT, LSAT or MCAT. Depending on how well you do, you can decide whether or not you need to take a prep course or simply study on your own. If you decide to take a prep course, sign up for one in the spring.

Student taking exam

June, July and August

Take entrance exams

Research the exam you’ll need to take, and schedule a test date early so you can retake the test in the fall if you aren’t happy with your scores. Some exams, like the general GRE, are offered at a wide variety of test centers with flexible date options. Others, like the LSAT, are only offered a few times each year.

Draft personal statement

Most graduate schools require you to submit a personal statement with your application. These usually discuss your educational and career goals, but the requirements will vary based on the type of program you’re applying to. Start writing a statement over the summer so you can get feedback from your professors in the fall.

Polish writing samples

Depending on the kind of program you’re applying to, you may have to submit a writing sample. Find out how long the writing sample needs to be for each of the schools you’re applying to by visiting their admission office web pages. Then, edit a piece of writing you’re proud of, or write something new to meet the length requirement. Ideally, the writing sample will be related to the field you plan to study. Once the semester starts, ask one of your professors for feedback on your writing sample.

Remember, graduate schools receive thousands of applications, so it’s important to follow the guidelines for each application. Don’t submit a 30-page writing sample if a school requests a 10-page sample. The admissions committee won’t take the time to read so much extra material, and they might even be annoyed with a candidate who assumes they’ll do so.

Person writing in notebook

September

Find references

You’ll need letters of recommendation from professors or other people who know you well. The exact kind of person who should write a recommendation for you, like a professor or a work supervisor, will vary depending on your desired program.

For example, applying for a purely academic graduate program, like a specialization in physics, may only require letters from professors. However, an MBA program may ask for recommendations from people you’ve worked with in your field. Ask these individuals to write the recommendations at least four weeks before the application due date.

Narrow application list

To save yourself time and money, eliminate any schools you have doubts about. Don’t hesitate to apply to a school because you think it’s a long shot; however, seriously reconsider your application to a school if you aren’t sure you’d actually want to attend.

For example, while researching schools, you might learn the professor you hoped to work with is retiring. If there’s not a concrete reason for attending a certain school, it may not be worth applying. You don’t want to spend years in a graduate program that doesn’t truly appeal to you.

Research funding options

Once you’ve narrowed down your list, do some more research about each school and program to see whether they offer any financial packages to graduate students. For instance, some schools offer graduate assistantships that cover your tuition or pay you a stipend in exchange for research work or teaching a class. Talk to your advisors about paying for your graduate degree and the best kind of funding options in your field.

Finalize personal statements

Your personal statement can make you a stronger candidate for admission if it clearly articulates why you want to attend that specific school. You should have already drafted a generic personal statement, but take the final few weeks before you submit applications to tailor your statements for each school you’re applying to.

Talk about how the faculty, archives or research at that particular school will be important for your education. Make sure to proofread these carefully, and ask one or more of your professors for feedback on them.

Request transcripts

You will need to send official transcripts from every college you’ve attended to every school you’re applying to. Make sure to request these a few weeks before your applications are due. You will likely need to have your college’s registrar’s office mail transcripts directly to the graduate programs you’re considering.

Man taking exam

October

Take or retake entrance exams

If you haven’t yet taken the entrance exams required by the programs you’re applying to, October is probably the last time to do so before applications are due.

If you weren’t happy with your previous scores, you can retake the exam during this month to see if you can improve. Score reporting varies by test, but schools usually see all your scores on graduate school entrance exams. In other words, you can’t wait to see if you do well when you retake a test and then only send a report for the highest score. It’s not necessarily bad for a graduate admission committee to see that you took a test multiple times, but it is something to be aware of.

File FAFSA

The federal government does not offer grants to graduate students. However, you’ll need to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) if you want to take out any loans during the following academic year. FAFSA can be filed as early as October 1 for the next academic year (October 1, 2018 for the 2019/2020 academic year, for example).

Woman on laptop

November and December

Submit program applications

After all the planning and hard work, you’ll finally be ready to submit your applications in November or December! Transcripts and letters of recommendation are usually sent directly to the school, but some programs may require everything for your application to arrive at once. Carefully follow each program’s directions. You can usually find these on the graduate school’s website. If you have questions, contact the graduate school admission office or the department secretary in the program you’re applying to.

Woman reading letter

February and beyond

Receive acceptance/rejection letters

Schools may start sending out acceptance and rejection letters as early as mid-February. There’s no way to know when you’ll hear whether or not you got in. Remember, each graduate committee will be reviewing hundreds or thousands of applications. Be patient! Waiting is one of the hardest parts.

Choose school

If you’re accepted to a graduate program, you have until April 15th to accept or decline any financial aid the school offers you. Don’t hesitate to call or email the department chair with questions about your financial award before you accept an offer. Talk to your own academic advisor about the schools that accepted you and their offers to decide which option is best for you.

Apply for other opportunities

Just because you apply and are accepted to graduate school doesn’t mean you have to go. Between deciding to apply one year, and actually being accepted the following year, a lot can change. Or, you could end up not being accepted at all. Have a backup plan, apply for jobs and consider other opportunities like the Peace Corps. You may find you’re more excited about getting a job or going abroad with a volunteer organization than you are about graduate school.

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by Jami Barnett, Ph.D. ConsumerAffairs Research Team

Jami Barnett, Ph.D., is an experienced researcher, and she believes consumers have a right to clear and honest information about products. In her role at ConsumerAffairs, she thoroughly researches products and companies by interviewing experts, reviewing research studies, reading governmental regulations and investigating customer service responses. Her work gives consumers the information they need to make smart purchasing decisions.