This article is the third of a series on what to do in the 12 months leading up to submitting your graduate school application(s).
As previously discussed, graduate school is not something to take lightly. It involves a major investment personally, intellectually, socially, emotionally, and financially. Be sure to allow yourself enough time to do your “due diligence” and get all of the information you want and need to make an informed, thoughtful decision.
6 months before applying to grad school
- If you haven’t already, it’s time to really get to know your grad school options. One of the best ways of doing so is via campus visits. Even if you are planning on pursuing your studies entirely online, you can still get a great sense of an institution—what they value, what classes and professors are like, how they treat students—by going there in person. (More on what to do if you cannot visit below.) Most colleges and universities provide opportunities to visit at any time during the academic year. Visitors can often attend classes, take a campus tour, meet current students, and talk with someone in the admission office. If an admission interview is required as part of the graduate application process, you can try to schedule the interview during the visit as well. Make sure to evaluate your visit on your grad search spreadsheet as soon as possible after you get home too, so your experiences and impressions will be fresh in your mind.
- Another way to get to know your potential graduate programs is to go to admission information sessions (or open houses or receptions). These may be held on the grad school’s campus or possibly closer to where you live, as many institutions recruit in areas they have identified as strong or developing markets. This provides a great way to get to know the graduate program better, especially if you are not able to travel there for a visit.
- I recommend visiting all of your grad school options in person before applying if at all possible. If you are unable to visit them all in person, divide your time in such a way between campus visits and local admission presentations that you are able to get experience with all of your graduate program options.
Pro tip! At this stage of the game, it’s also good to check in with yourself and remember: perception is reality. It’s where you end up, not where you start. In the grad school search, reputation, rankings, and reality are very different things. When it comes to reputation, while an institution may be well known or considered prestigious, this does not mean it has to be on your final list of grad school options or that it has the best program for you. And, as mentioned in earlier blog posts, grad school rankings are useful—but as auxiliary guidelines, not as the ultimate arbiters of which schools are worth your time and money. Make sure you take a close look at the methodology behind any grad school rankings you use. You will see that some methodologies are sound while others are lacking. If an institution is highly ranked but the methodology is questionable or less than transparent, you need to interpret that accordingly. Also, take a look at several rankings by the same organization/publication over time. If there is a sizeable difference between one ranking and the next, it may be that methodology is taking a back burner to profitability. It is unlikely that a swath of institutions would move up or down significantly in only one or two years.
5 months before applying to grad school
- Start making plans to take whatever standardized test(s) you will need as part of the application process. On your research spreadsheet, you should have a column for application requirements. You should start familiarizing yourself with both the logistics of taking the tests required, as well as actually doing some practice test taking.
- There are many resources available to assist you in preparing for your standardized test(s). Most major booksellers have a college/grad school prep section. Also, as most graduate school applicants are asked to take the GRE, GMAT, LSAT or MCAT, you can look straight to the source: Educational Testing Service (GRE), Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAT), Law School Admission Council (LSAT), and Association of American Medical Colleges (MCAT).
- Keep in mind the lesson you likely learned as an undergraduate applicant: some people are better test takers than others. Should you not score as well on your test as you had hoped, you can take it a second or even a third time—with proper and extensive test preparation that targets your weaker areas. This does not make you look less competitive in the application process; rather, in most cases, it demonstrates that you are trying your best to perform well on the test.
4 months before applying to grad school
- Narrow your list of graduate program options down to those you know you will apply to. Take a close look at your research spreadsheet. Which of your options have the highest evaluations, based on all of your research, campus visits you made, and/or admission presentations you attended? You have been working on your graduate program search for eight months now, and you should have a good idea of where you would like to apply.
- Obviously, there is no limit to the number of schools to which you can apply, but you likely need no more than five or six final options. And remember that you will need time to complete each application to an exemplary standard. You need to know how many you can tackle, doing an outstanding job on each one (more advice for polishing those applications to come).
- Be careful about applying to only one institution. If you are absolutely certain that this is by far the only grad school option for you, you must also prepare yourself for whatever admission decision you receive.
- It is important for you to keep all of the research you have gathered on your options until you have made your decision about which grad school you will attend and have actually enrolled there. Should your plans change in some way and you decide to hold off on your graduate studies for another year or longer, or if you decide to leave the institution, you will not be starting from scratch when you resume the grad school research process.