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Timeline for Applying to Graduate School

You need to begin preparing to apply at least a year before you expect to enter a graduate program. For most, this means the spring of junior year or summer before senior year. The timetable below is approximate—it’s best used as a guide to adapt to your situation.

Generally, most start graduate school in the fall. Application deadlines for a fall start date usually occur in January and February. However, as you build your timetable, you need to pay very close attention to deadlines and try to complete applications well before the due date.

First-Sophomore Year
Spring of junior year—summer before senior year
  • Decide on the type of graduate program that is consistent with your career goals. If you are unsure which programs are right for you, talk with program faculty members and/or schedule an appointment with your career coach.
  • Meet with knowledgeable faculty members to discuss goals for your graduate and professional careers to learn about potential programs. This is also a good time to ask whether they might write a reference for you.
  • Prioritize your values and criteria regarding the selection of the graduate program that will be consistent with your career goals. Create a list of your top five or 10 values and criteria.
  • Identify an initial list of 10 to 15 prospective graduate schools based on your career goals and values. Use the Peterson’s Grad School Search Tool or other resources located in the Center for Career Development & Academic Exploration to help generate this list.
  • Contact each prospective graduate school and request course catalogs, applications, financial aid information, and other literature (not found online) that is relevant to your decision-making process. It may be necessary to contact BOTH a graduate admissions office AND a specific department of a university to receive all relevant information.
  • Sign up for entrance exams (e.g., GRE, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT) required by your program of choice. Be aware of deadlines and the frequency of testing dates. Consider preparing for the test and taking it now to allow time for retesting if necessary.
  • Some professional programs use a centralized service for applications—law and medicine, for example—so if the program you are applying to uses a centralized service, begin gathering the information required by that service.
  • Begin looking into financial aid, such as loans, scholarships, fellowships, and graduate assistantships.
  • Begin writing a rough draft of your personal statement or essay. Polish it as much as possible, keeping in mind that you will tailor a final version for each program you are applying to.
  • Take entrance exams if you haven’t done so already.
  • Review the literature for all the prospective graduate schools you have identified and begin your elimination process by comparing the programs across at least these five areas:
  1. The nature and structure of the program—course requirements, internship requirements, thesis requirements, electives, various tracks, or specialties
  2. The specialties and areas of research of faculty members who teach within the graduate program or department
  3. How your career objectives line up with where the graduates of this program find work
  4. Financial aid options (what you need to do to pursue graduate assistantships and other forms of financial aid)
  5. What the university, and more specifically, the graduate program values in candidates; for example, GPA, standardized test scores, personal statement or essay, the interview, letters of recommendation, related experience
  • Consider initiating an exploratory discussion by phone or in-person with the department chairperson or a faculty member at each of your prospective universities.
  • Introduce yourself and ask the contact whether he or she would be able to schedule a time to talk with you about their program. Don’t assume that they have 20 to 30 minutes to speak to you right then.
  • During the informal phone discussion, you should ask questions related to each of the five areas listed above. This discussion serves three purposes: First, it enables you to continue the elimination process while exploring the programs in greater depth. Second, you develop a contact and build rapport with a faculty member or the department chairperson. Third, initiating this discussion and asking quality questions can make a good first impression.
  • Generate a final list of universities to which you want to apply. The Center for Career Development & Academic Exploration recommends applying the “Rule of 6”—choose two “reach,” two “middle-of-the-pack,” and two “safe bets.”
  • Adjust your timeline based on the deadlines of your selected programs. Be aware of any early action deadlines that offer priority consideration.
  • All entrance exams should be completed by this time.
  • Finalize versions of your personal statement to address each program’s specific requirements.
  • Order transcripts from all of your post-secondary institutions.
  • Complete application forms.
  • Meet with your recommendation contacts again to discuss your program choices and give them the information they will need to write the recommendations.
  • Fill out the FAFSA to qualify for federal aid. You’ll fill out the same form for grad school that you did for college. FAFSA is now available in October!
  • Submit all applications even if they are not yet due. Many schools pay special attention to early applications and may have priority/early action deadlines. Also, those programs that roll admissions could fill their seats before the stated application deadline. Review your online application status or call to check that all materials were received.
  • Research any deadlines to apply for graduate assistantships offered by your program or other departments on campus.
  • Contact the schools on your final list and plan a visit to meet with faculty members and current students in the program. These visits can help you make the best decision for yourself and also increase your chances of being admitted into the program. You should continue to ask more specific questions within each of the five areas of exploration listed above.
  • IMPORTANT: If you plan to speak to a faculty member or staff, be sure to have first done your research on the program and maybe some of the faculty’s published work!
  • You should start to receive admission offers around April. Compare offers based on your top values.
  • Assess your financial aid package. If it doesn’t quite meet your needs, look into alternative loan programs. Remember that each loan program sets its own terms, so compare terms carefully.
  • Make a decision—call other programs to decline or withdraw.
  • Write thank you letters to those who helped you during this process.