Going to graduate school is a lot like getting a dog: it’s a big, hairy commitment, and the right timing is critical to minimize chaos and make the transition as smooth as possible. But how do you know when it’s the right time in your life? When do you apply for grad school?
In this guide, we’ll help you know when to apply for grad school. We’ll go over the best time in your life to consider going to graduate school and what steps you’ll need to complete throughout the application process. We’ll also discuss when you’ll actually need to put in your application and how far in advance of deadlines you should try to submit.
When to Apply to Grad School: Is It the Right Time?
When do you apply for grad school? How do you know it’s the right time? Should you go right after undergrad? A few years into your career? Or even later?
Here are some things to consider to help you decide when to apply to graduate school based on where you currently are in your life:
Expectations in Your Field
The best time in your life to apply to graduate school depends a lot on your field. For some fields, it’s very normal for students to apply to graduate school as seniors in college and go straight to a master’s or PhD. For others, work experience of some kind is expected. If you’re still in college and considering applying to graduate school, first figure out if your field of interest expects any kind of postgraduate professional experience. (Obviously, if you’ve already graduated, this is a moot point since no one has yet invented a time machine.)
If you find that your field does require work experience, what kind do they require? Does it need to be specifically relevant to your field of interest, or do they just want applicants to have some professional experience? If you have the right level and kind of work experience, it’s appropriate to think about applying to graduate programs!
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Here’s the second thing to consider about when to apply to grad school: are you able to submit a strong application to your programs of interest right now? Application expectations vary by program, but some general ingredients for a solid application include a strong undergraduate GPA, compelling recommendations, a good GRE score, and a great personal statement. Some programs may also expect other things, including academic publications, research, or teaching experience.
If you have all the elements that your programs of interest expect, you’re well-positioned to apply to graduate school!
However, if you know there are holes in your application, it may be better to wait and work on improving your profile before applying again.
There are some things you can do to strengthen your application in the meantime:
- Volunteer: If what you’re missing is teaching experience, all is not lost. There are tons of community programs that use volunteer teachers or teaching assistants, including ESL programs and high school mentoring. See what’s available near you!
- Become a research assistant: If you have a full-time job, you probably can’t quit it just to become a very underpaid and overworked full-time research assistant (or maybe you can! Depends on your circumstances). However, what you can do is offer to help professors with research projects on a volunteer basis. Look at universities in your area (or even not in your area—some projects can be worked on remotely) and see if there are any professors working on research that interest you. Contact them and see if they could use any free help!
- Cultivate mentors: Work on cultivating mentors who can write strong references for you. Whether this entails strengthening relationships with supervisors, going to alumni events, joining professional organizations, or getting back in touch with professors, having a genuine connection with people who can write you strong recommendations is a great way to improve your application for the next admissions cycle.
- Take classes: Obviously, you can’t go back in time and raise your undergraduate GPA, but you might consider taking some night courses to help demonstrate to admissions committees that you can be a strong graduate school student.
Personal Life and Relationships
Graduate school involves major life change. This is extra true if you’re already working full-time; shifting back into student mode is a major shift. You may have to move, you’ll have a completely different schedule, and it will probably cause a dramatic adjustment in your finances (more on this last point below). It will also have a big impact on your significant relationships, especially if you have a partner and/or children. Are you and those close to you ready for a big life shift? Change can be really exciting, but it’s important to be ready for it!
Cost and Finances
Graduate school is expensive. Even if you get a fellowship or other funding, you will most likely either need to borrow some amount of money, live very frugally, or a combination of both. It’s best if you go in with at least some savings, particularly if you are moving, to help you with setup costs. Universities also often don’t disburse funds until a couple of weeks into term, making it doubly critical that you have a little nest egg to pay for expenses until that happens.
If you have some savings and you feel you can afford the expense of graduate study at this point, you’re ready to apply from a financial perspective.
Grad School Application Timeline
Once you decide that it’s the right time in your life to apply, there are a lot of things you’ll need to accomplish. You’ll probably need to decide on schools, take the GRE, gather recommendations, request transcripts, write application essays, and anything else your programs of interest may require. Most graduate school deadlines are in December or January, but you should actually start thinking about your application much earlier than that. I recommend getting started on the preliminaries (like identifying programs you want to apply to) about a year before your applications are due. So if I’m applying in December 2018 for fall 2019 admission, the time to start working on the application process is Jan 2018!
Here’s a graduate school application timeline, starting about 12 months before any application deadlines. I’ve assumed your first deadline is in December and started the grad school application timeline in the previous January, but you can adjust as needed for your own deadlines.
Also, these are just general guidelines. Most of these tasks can be rearranged per your needs. For example, if you’re a student, you may find it easier to do most of your GRE studying during the summer and then take your GRE in August.
Spend a few months figuring out what programs you want to apply for. Consider what factors are important: are there specific faculty you want to work with? Preferences in location? Price? Are you hoping for a specific type of curriculum? Do you want to spend more time in the classroom, or more time in a research setting? Is it important to you to attend a prestigious school?
There are a lot of ways you can find schools of interest. You can look at program rankings on US News and Forbes. You can ask professors who are familiar with your interests if they are aware of any programs that might suit. Looking at forums on Reddit and the Grad Cafe with students and professionals in your field can give you ideas. There are also several grad school search programs you can use to look for programs in a particular discipline, like Peterson’s and the Princeton Review. You can search by institution type (i.e. public/private), location, size, and a few other criteria.
If you think you might be interested in a particular program, get more information! You can start by checking out the program website, but program administrators are also usually happy to talk to prospective students via e-mail or phone. Try to find current students to talk to, and if you’re seriously interested, consider visiting! (Some students prefer to visit only when they’ve been admitted to schools, which is also a fine strategy.)
It’s fine to tweak your list a little as time goes on, but you do want to have most of your list figured out by spring. This will help you to be as prepared as possible to complete all of the tasks specific to each school.
Make a Chart/Tracking System for Your Tasks
One of the most critical things you can do when trying to follow a good grad school application timeline is to make a clear, easy-to follow chart. This chart should list each of the programs you are applying to, all of the tasks you need to complete for each school, goal dates for completing each task, and the current status of each task. This will act both as your detailed plan and as a master tracking system. If you refer to your chart often and make sure to keep it up-to-date, it will keep you on track throughout the application process.
It’s possible that all the information for your applications won’t be up by March. This is fine; you can use application requirements for the previous year as a guide and update the chart more thoroughly as more information becomes available.
Here’s an example of the kind of chart you might use for your tracking:
|Narnia School of Engineering
|Middle Earth University
|regular GRE + GRE math subject test
|test taken; scores sent
|both tests taken; scores sent
|test taken; score sent
|Recommender #1 status:
|Recommender #2 status:
|received by school 10/15
|received by school 10/18
|received by school 10/21
|Recommender #3 status:
|Personal Statement Requirements
|500 words open-ended
|300 words prompt
|400 words open-ended
|Received by Narnia 10/15
|Total Application Deadline
Register for GRE
If you need to take the GRE, it’s best to register well in advance of when you want to take the exam to make sure that you’ll get the test center and date you want. I advise registering for a June or July GRE. You’ll have two-three months to prepare and have time to retake the GRE one more time before deadlines if you aren’t happy with your initial score.
Prepare For GRE
For the spring and early summer, focus on GRE prep. You’ll want to make a specific study plan based on where you are now (your baseline) and what score you want to get (your goal score). You’ll need to learn the underlying content that the GRE is testing. Additionally, you’ll need to complete lots of practice questions and tests to feel comfortable with the test format and to hone your strategy. I advise setting aside specific, scheduled time blocks every week to study to help you stay on track.
It’s time to take the GRE! To increase your chances of GRE success, get a good night’s sleep the night before the exam and eat a healthy breakfast! Also make sure you bring everything you need to the testing center.
After you complete your test on test day, you will receive your preliminary Verbal and Quantitative section scores. Your final score report, available online 10-15 days after the test, might be slightly different from this preliminary score. But it’s usually the same. You’ll also receive your Analytical Writing score in your final score report.
After you see your preliminary scores, you’ll be able to send four score reports for no additional fee to the graduate programs of your choice. If you’re happy with your preliminary scores on test day, send the reports! You’ll be able to look up all of the necessary school codes at the test center; the process is very straightforward. If you want to send additional reports beyond the four, you’ll have to wait to send those until you get your final report and also pay a fee.
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Once you send the scores, schools will open an application file for you. There’s no need to notify them beyond actually sending the scores.
If you’re not happy with your scores, you can hold off and take the GRE again in a couple of months, after more preparation.
By mid to late summer, most programs will have posted application information for the coming fall. This means that essay prompts should be available!
Summer is a good time to start working on grad school essays and personal statements because you should have some time to really focus in on your essays before you have to start worrying about all the other administrative hoopla that go with applications. Try to complete robust outlines for all of your essays during this time, and get a jump on a few of your drafts.
Ask for recommendations
In early September, it’s time to get in touch with your recommenders. This is a good time because it’s well before any deadlines and people won’t already be overcommitted to writing recommendation letters for other people. Even the most dedicated professor can only take on so many recommendations in a given term!
It’s best to ask in person if location permits; otherwise, an e-mail is fine. Be sure to ask if they can write you a strong recommendation. A lukewarm one will really not help your application!
If they agree, give them all the necessary information for writing recommendations for you. This means a clear, easy to read chart or list of all deadlines and how to submit, your resume, and any additional information you think will help them write you a strong recommendation. You might include personal statement drafts or work you did for their class (if it’s a professor).
Also, don’t be afraid to remind your recommenders further down the line. Some recommenders even request it; most appreciate it.
It’s time to request transcripts from anywhere you’ve already taken college- or graduate-level coursework! For some applications, you may be able to scan and upload an official copy of your transcript, but for most, you’ll need to have an official copy sent directly to the school. Requesting early means that you’ll have time to deal with any administrative errors or issues that come up in the transcript-request process.
Start Application Forms
This is a good time to start working on all those application forms! Lots of the information you enter will be fairly tedious—typing out your college coursework, and test scores, and listing addresses. But you’ll also probably need to write about your work, research, and teaching experience, as well as extracurriculars, honors, and publications. You may also need to include a resume or CV; this is a good time to make sure that it’s polished and up-to-date.
Keep Working on Essays
Be sure to keep working on those essays. Try to have all your drafts done by the end of October so that you can turn them over to some trusted sources for feedback and suggestions for revision.
Take GRE Again and send scores (if necessary)
If you weren’t happy with your first set of GRE scores, this is the time to take the test again!
Make sure recommendations and transcripts are on track
Check school application portals to make sure that transcripts and recommendations have been received. If not, follow up with your previous institutions to make sure nothing has gone awry and check in with your recommenders!
After you’ve had some other people look over your essays, it’s time to make the final revisions. When you’re happy with the substance, make sure to double-check that there are no typos or errors.
Finish Application Forms
If you haven’t already, finish out all of your application forms.
Submit your applications
Wrap up any loose ends, review your application one last time for any errors, and submit!
How Early Should I Apply for Graduate School?
How early should you submit your application? In general, earlier submission is better, just so long as your application is at its best! But how important early submission is depends on the program type:
For rolling admissions, the earlier, the better. Applications are reviewed as they arrive, so more space—and more funding—will be available for earlier applicants. Try to plan to have your application fully done and polished soon after the program starts accepting applications.
If admissions goes in rounds, it’s definitely to your advantage admissions-wise to have your application in by the first round deadline. This may be as early as September. In that case, you’d need to shift your timeline back to have everything ready in time.
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If there’s any kind of priority deadline for admissions or funding, you want to meet that deadline. It will help your chances of admission, or funding, or both, depending on what the priority deadline itself means. Treat the priority deadline as a hard deadline.
Just One Deadline
if there’s just one deadline, and admissions aren’t rolling, it’s not as important that you get your application in early just so long as all your materials are in by the deadline. However, you definitely don’t want to leave everything to the last minute. If you have some kind of technical or logistical error you want some wiggle room to fix it!
Key Takeaways: When Do You Apply for Grad School?
In this article, we went over when to apply for grad school, a graduate school application timeline, and how early you should try to get your application in.
When to Apply for Grad School:
What time in your life is right? Here are factors to consider.
- Your field: Some fields expect work experience. In others, it’s very common to go straight from undergrad to a master’s or PhD program.
- Application strength: Will you be able to put forth a strong application in the next application cycle, or do your credentials need some work?
- Personal life and relationships: Are you at a place in your life where you (and those close to you) can accommodate a major life change?
- Cost and finances: Graduate school is expensive! It’s best to have some savings tucked away even if you get fully funded by your program.
Grad School Application Timeline:
Assuming the majority of your deadlines are in December or January, here’s a 12-month timeline for getting everything done:
- January-March: Research schools and narrow down programs of interest.
- March: Make some kind of chart/tracking system for your graduate school tasks; register for the GRE.
- April-May: Prepare for the GRE.
- June-July: Take the GRE and send your scores.
- July-August: Start your application essays and personal statements.
- September: Ask for recommendations.
- October: Request transcripts, start application forms, and keep working on essays.
- November: Double check that recommendations and transcripts are on track, finish essays, and finish application forms.
- December: Wrap up any application loose ends, proofread, and send!
When to Apply to Grad School
How early should you get your application in? This depends mostly on what kind of deadline/application process your programs of interest have.
- Rolling admissions: Get in a complete, polished application as early as you can manage.
- Rounds: Aim for the first round deadline if you can. This could be as early as September!
- Priority deadlines: Treat priority deadlines as hard deadlines and reap the benefits.
- Just a regular deadline: You don’t need to stress as much about getting your application in early, but it’s best to leave yourself a little bit of wiggle room in case you run into any issues.
For more information on graduate school, see our expert guide to Master’s and PhD programs.
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