If you're planning on applying to grad school, you're probably wondering what the basic steps are and what your timeline should be. The single best piece of advice in this process is...do everything early!
While the graduate school process is a long one and you may feel you have plenty of time to write essays, get recommendations, or take your tests, you will find that the time passes incredibly quickly. You don't want these deadlines sneaking up on you and to be biting your nails as you wait for that last professor to finish a recommendation or as you try to cram last minute for the GRE.
You basically have to start at least a full year in advance! (This does depend on the program you're applying for and the requirements you will need to fulfill.) Especially if you are looking at graduate school as a way to change careers or are entering a program that is different from your undergraduate background, you may find that there are prerequisite courses necessary in order to gain admittance to the programs you are considering. You also want plenty of time to gather information on the various programs and to evaluate the relative benefits of different schools before you start applying to them.
Late fall would therefore be a good time to start considering your options if you want to start in fall of the following year. This will give you time to really consider what you want out of your graduate school education, to gather information from various sources on the best programs and schools, and to gather information directly from schools on what they can offer you.
Talk to people and gather information
One of the best ways to gather information is to talk to people. Talk to experts in the field, talk to your professors, talk to people who attended the schools or programs you are considering. The most valuable thing you can do right now is gather all the information you can about different schools and programs as well as the benefits of attaining a graduate school education and how to do so. You need to determine why you want to go to school, what you want to study, what you want from a program, how you're going to accomplish and pay for all of this, and many other things. Gathering information from a variety of sources is therefore your first step to getting the answers you need.
You can begin contacting schools and getting the applications you need now. Where you apply is based on a variety of factors. The schools you choose to apply to should provide programs that match your interests and can give you the necessary environment to pursue your graduate studies. Other than that, you need to consider things such as location, cost, etc. Apply to enough schools so you will have options depending on which you get accepted to. You generally will want at least one safe school that you are confident you can get into as well as at least one school that presents a real challenge in terms of competitiveness.
Almost all graduate programs require some type of test whether it be the GRE, LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, etc. Now is a great time to get some test prep materials and start studying for these tests. You may be surprised at how much of your high school mathematics you've forgotten!
While it's a bit early to be asking for recommendations now, it is a great time to be building relationships with your professors if you are still in school. You are much more likely to get a positive recommendation if your professors know you and can speak from personal experience rather than solely reciting a list of your accomplishments. If you have the opportunity to be an assistant to one of your professors during your senior year, capitalize on it. Either way, take the opportunity to talk to your professors about your interest in graduate school. You may be surprised to discover how receptive they will be. They were in your shoes at some point and will typically be more than happy to help you with any advice or assistance they can offer.
Right now is also a great time to begin drafting the personal statement you will need for your application essays. For some people, writing their personal essay is the most difficult part of the process and starting early helps alleviate the stress when the deadlines are still far away. You can visit GradSchools.com for more information on the details of application essay writing.
One benefit of writing your application essays is that you get to think through your reasons for pursuing a graduate education and what qualifies you to do so. Frequently, students will learn something about themselves through this highly introspective process that they say helps them in better defining their graduate school and personal goals. Such clarity can be a great benefit when you are considering where to apply so starting early with your essays is helpful on multiple levels.