If you’re considering graduate school, you may feel slightly overwhelmed right around now. A flood of new university rankings and standardized testing dates has been bombarding your browser, educational blogs are putting out information at a lightning pace, and the days aren’t moving any slower.
Before getting overwhelmed by the updated timelines or lists of hundreds of prospective school rankings, take a deep breath. Here are some suggestions for breaking the upcoming year into manageable, season-sized chunks.
Winter through early spring
U.S.News & World Report suggests that you make a starter list of 10–20 schools in January, but if this doesn’t work with your personal timeline, don’t panic. Start by simply considering exactly what you’re looking to get out of a graduate program and build your list from there. Search for graduate programs online and develop your own list. Then you can compare your list to school rankings. As you learn more about these institutions and compare them to your initial list of criteria, you can cross off programs that don’t work as you go. Do you have responsibilities or desires that make a certain location a deal-breaker? Cross it off. Are you unwilling to make the financial commitment to a full-time program? Mark down part-time, online, or extension programs. Ask for advice from people you work with or those who are established in the profession you are interested in. By February, you should have a fairly good list.
Late spring through early summer
March through June should be your thorough research period. During this time, continue to narrow down your list by exploring each school’s programs and requirements. Reach out to the admission office, academic program offices, and even faculty by phone or e-mail to ask questions about what makes their institution different from others. Look into financial aid options. Reach out to current students or alumni—either those you know, those listed on the website who have similar research interests, or those who the admission office puts you in touch with. You can gauge the academic environment by speaking with school administrators and professors, and students and alumni can give you realistic feedback. If school visits are realistic in your situation, plan them as early as possible to ensure that you can visit schools while they are still in session.
Summer through early fall
By June, be sure you have checked the requirements of all the schools on your list. Standardized test requirements will take up most of your time, and the GRE and GRE Subject Tests (and their ilk) may only be given on specific days in your area, so be sure you pick a date and sign up well ahead of time. Begin studying in early summer so that you will be ready to take the tests by September. This will allow you time to learn the material while allowing the opportunity for a retest.
In September, finalize your list. Make a spreadsheet (or several, if you’re as unorganized as I am) with information regarding school requirements, fees, and deadlines. Begin to brainstorm ideas for your personal statement, and if applying to doctoral programs, do more thorough research on faculty members whose work you can mention in your statement.
Once you’ve organized yourself for success, the actual process of applying is easy. In September and October, finish your personal statement, leaving enough time for faculty members or those in your field to read and edit it. By October, finish your standardized testing requirements and send scores to your prospective schools.
Begin your applications in early November; if you apply to about 10 schools, as most students do, this will allow you plenty of time to finish early. Set aside an hour or so every few days to fill in biographical information, brainstorm short essay responses, and send transcripts and résumés. Once you’ve submitted your applications, check your school websites for information on financial aid processes and be sure you complete all necessary paperwork.
By breaking down the process into small, easy steps, finally taking the step toward graduate school becomes a much less daunting task. Once you’ve submitted everything, relax: you’ve passed the first hurdle to achieving your professional and educational goals!