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How to Apply to Grad School: Application Timeline & Tips

If you're thinking of applying for a graduate degree program, there are a lot of steps involved. As you probably remember from your undergraduate days, choosing a school and getting together all of the application and financial aid materials is typically a several months-long process.

It's worth noting, however, that because many non-traditional students attend graduate school, programs have become more flexible regarding admissions deadlines and semester start dates. For instance, some online degree programs or accelerated programs run year round, offering incoming students several entry points.

No matter which type of program or school you choose, or when you start the process, you should still anticipate a timeline lasting at least a few months. If you're following more of a traditional school path, expect to be prepping for about a year.

Start your journey at "Month 1" below, and follow along as we reveal the most important calendar items on your way to graduate school, along with strategies to ace each one.

Month 1: Usually in June

  • Start Researching Schools and Programs


    Choosing a graduate degree program is not a decision you should make in haste. You should begin by doing some self-assessment. Ask yourself: What type of program is right for you, and what is your end goal? How much time do you have to dedicate to your studies? Would you prefer earning some or all of your credits online?

    From there, you can begin matching your preferences to programs in your geographic area (although with online programs you're not limited by geography), and then compare their offerings. You can start by looking at graduate school rankings to familiarize yourself with some of the top programs in your field of study.

    Don't stop there, however. Delve deeper and look into other factors such as cost, school and program reputation, and program structure. You can also ask people in your industry for their recommendations.

Month 2: Usually in July

  • Narrow Down Your List of Schools and Programs


    By the time you think through all of the considerations above, you should have a list of potential schools. Your next goal is to narrow it down even further to just a few. You might be able to rule out some schools simply because of location or the time commitment involved. Also, look at the admissions requirements to cross off programs that seem too selective or have requirements that are above your level.

    Finally, reach out to your graduate schools of interest via email or social media to ask any lingering questions you might have.

  • Look Into Scholarships for Graduate School


    At the same time you're researching programs, you should begin looking into how to pay for graduate school. Scholarships and grants, which do not have to be repaid, can help make graduate school more affordable, while loans can help finance the rest. Many institutions offer scholarships to some of their students, and outside organizations and professional associations have awards as well.

    Research each of your potential schools to find out about their scholarship offerings, and search online for graduate school scholarships for which you might qualify. Keep a running list, and note each one's deadline and requirements so you can work on applications accordingly.

Month 3: Usually in August

  • Map out an Application Game Plan


    Now that you have a pretty good idea of which schools you want to apply to, compile a list of all admissions requirements, and mark deadlines on your calendar (either on paper or digitally – it's up to you).

    This will help you stay organized as you gather all of the materials you will need in the coming months.

  • Start studying for the GRE or GMAT


    If you have to take the GRE or GMAT as part of a school’s application requirements, it's never too early to start studying. Read up on what each graduate school exam entails, and pick up or download a study guide or two to familiarize yourself with the types of questions you will encounter. Then, take a practice exam so you can see which areas you need to focus on. You might also consider taking an online or in-person prep course.

Month 4: Usually in September

  • Get Serious About Test Prep and Register for an Exam


    Some prospective students take the GRE or GMAT well in advance of their graduate school applications, but for those who haven't, September is a good time. That's because you want to build in enough time to retake the exam if you need to improve your score before your application deadlines, which are likely in December and January.

    Luckily, the exams are given year-round, unlike in years' past when it was only a few times per year. However, you will have to wait in between exam sessions if you want to retest. For instance, with the GRE, you must wait 21 days. For the GMAT, the wait period is 16 days. Therefore, if you want the chance to retest right before your applications are due, you can test again in November. Scores usually take about 15 days to reach your choice schools.

Month 5: Usually in October

  • Schedule campus visits


    To truly get a sense of what a particular school has to offer, especially if you're considering a brick-and-mortar or hybrid program, you should try to tour the campus. This gives you the opportunity to see classes in session, check out the library and labs, and even meet with professors in your intended field of study.

    You may choose to go to a group open house, or you can request a private tour, which will allow for more exploration.

  • Complete FAFSA


    Beginning with the 2017 academic year, students can complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid as early as October 1, 2016 (before that, students had to wait until January 1st). This change also means that students will be able to retrieve financial data for the form directly from the IRS. Although you don't necessarily have to rush to get this application in before Halloween, getting it in early will mean one more thing off your plate.

Month 6: Usually in November

  • Get Going on That Application Paperwork


    Remember your list of application requirements? It's time to pull it out and start checking off items, staring with these three elements:

    1. Request your official transcript from your undergraduate college. This could take some time, so you don't want to wait until the last minute and delay completing your application.

    2. Ask references if they will write you a recommendation letter. Depending on your choice schools, you may be asked to supply two to three letters to supplement your application. Reach out to a former professor, an industry mentor or employer, or other people who can vouch for your passion, work ethic and knowledge. Again, you want to provide your letter writers with ample time to put together a great recommendation for you. It's also helpful if you provide them with some information about the program you're applying to and bullet points to remind them of your accomplishments.

    3. Start working on application essays and statements of purpose. It would be wonderful if every school had the same essay requirements, but chances are you won't get that lucky. From specific questions to general statements about why you want to attend a particular school, it's likely that you'll have to tailor your essays for each application, and that will take time. Admissions officers don't like to read anything that comes across as generic. They want you to convey what makes you a strong candidate for their particular school and program.

  • Retake the GRE or GMAT and Send the Scores to the Schools


    Depending on how you fared when you previously took the exams, you might want to give it another shot. Each school's admissions requirements will likely list their preferred minimum GRE or GMAT score, so you want to achieve at least that score in order to have a good chance of acceptance.

Month 7 & 8: Usually in December & January

  • Submit all applications


    This is it – the moment you've been working toward. Get all of your completed applications in by their due dates or even a few days early if possible. Refer back to your original checklist to make sure all elements have been included. Verify that your recommendation letters have been sent, and if not, gently remind your recommenders.

    Most colleges and universities have a feature that allows applicants to log on and track their application status. Be sure to do that or get in touch with the admissions office directly to confirm that everything has been received.

Month 8 & 9: Usually in January & February

  • Revisit the scholarship and financial aid search


    Now that your applications are in, you can catch your breath. However, it's also a good time to revisit the financing of your grad school education. If you had previously found scholarships that were a good fit, you can work on those applications.

    You can also look into additional financing options. For example, check if your employer offers tuition reimbursement, ask if your schools of choice offer credit for prior learning (and what that entails), and look into private student loans if needed.

Month 11: Usually in April

  • Open those envelopes


    Although some admissions letters may come sooner, April is when the majority of decision letters are sent out. Hopefully, you'll receive an offer from one or more of your choice schools.

  • Review Financial Aid Award Letters


    Soon after you receive your graduate school acceptance letters, you'll typically receive a financial aid award letter from each institution, which outlines how much aid you are entitled to and how much money you're responsible for out of pocket. As you will see, these awards will vary by school, and sometimes those universities with a higher sticker price might turn out to be less expensive for you.

    If you have your heart set on a particular school, but are disappointed by the amount of financial aid offered, you can try to negotiate with the financial aid office. It's possible, although not guaranteed, that they may be willing to work with you on a better offer.

  • Revisit Campuses


    Depending on how many offers you received, you might still be torn on a final decision. Scheduling another round of campus tours or speaking with the program directors of prospective online programs can help you ultimately decide which school is the right fit for you.

Month 12: Usually in May

  • The Big Decision


    May 1st is the traditional college decision day, and the same is true for graduate school admissions (except for programs with rolling admissions). By this date, you'll need to send in your application responses to both the school you wish to attend and the ones that you do not.

Once you choose your school, you're officially a graduate student. Congratulations, you've come a long way! Now the real adventure will begin.

Sources

Graduate School Application Timeline, The Princeton Review, http://www.princetonreview.com/grad-school-advice/application-timeline

Timeline for Applying to Graduate School, FastWeb, http://www.fastweb.com/college-search/articles/timeline-for-applying-to-graduate-school

Timeline for Applying to Graduate School, Purdue University, https://www.purdue.edu/gradschool/documents/students/prospective/timeline-for-web.pdf

FAFSA Changes for 2017–18, Federal Student Aid, U.S. Department of Education, https://financialaidtoolkit.ed.gov/tk/announcement-detail.jsp?id=2017-18-fafsa-changes