Last Updated: Oct 5, 2020
By far, the biggest mistake prospective graduate students make is not doing adequate research and preparation before submitting their applications. You need to give yourself enough time to do your due diligence, get all the information you need, and complete the required application materials to a high degree of quality. Usually “enough time” is about a year.
Here you’ll find the months leading up to your application deadlines broken down by discreet tasks. (They correspond to a December application deadline, but this may differ for you.) Some tasks are more discretionary than others; you could certainly visit campuses or start your preliminary grad school research earlier or later if you wanted. But if you follow this plan, you’ll spread your work out in a manageable way. By the end of the year, you’ll feel fully prepared and confident in sending your grad school applications—with time to spare.
12 months out (December)
- Create a crib sheet of your grad school wants and needs you can refer to as you research potential programs. (Not sure what you’re looking for? Go here. Also take a look at the criteria at the end of this article.)
- Do an online search for graduate programs in your intended field of study.
- Make an alphabetical list of all your options and put them on a spreadsheet.
- Go online and do some initial research on all the institutions on your list. Those schools that are clearly not a fit for you could most likely be eliminated. But be careful not to narrow your options too much. There’s more in-depth research to be done to find the right school and program for you.
Pro tip: Try not to let others’—or your own—preconceived notions about a given grad school impact your research at this point. Everyone has their own needs, expectations, and experiences. This is your education, not someone else’s. You want to get as much information as possible so you can decide which graduate program is the best for you.
11 months out (January)
- Take a closer look at your grad school options. Further expand the spreadsheet you created last month to compare each of the schools on your list by the same set of criteria. (Again, see the end of this article for suggestions.)
Pro tip: This is a good time to request information from each institution on your list, which doubles as an opportunity to find out just how responsive—or not—the graduate admission offices are.
10 months out (February)
- Work on completing your research spreadsheet. As you go along, you are sure to eliminate some if not many programs. That’s okay. Ideally, you will have at least five options left; you may have more or less, as your choices will depend on the type of graduate program you seek.
- After reviewing your research, you may find it helpful to do a general rank order of your options (or divide them into ranked tiers).
Pro tip: Don’t feel compelled to have a “short list” at this point. You’re still months away from applying to grad school, and you will have several opportunities to narrow down your options before then.
9 months out (March)
- Start preparing for any graduate standardized tests required by your institutions. Familiarize yourself with logistics and take some practice tests. (Check out all this graduate admission test prep help.)
- Go on some initial campus visits if you can. It’s one thing to review a website, read printed materials, and even communicate with admission staff, but it’s quite another to actually visit a campus in person!
8 months out (April)
- Time to do some additional niche research on your options. Really get to know them and their potential to help you reach your goals. Read student reviews, research alumni and their accomplishments, check out rankings (see pro tip below!), and more. One area that may be of interest is the type of press they receive, which will likely yield news clips not found on an institution’s website, which obviously accentuate positive coverage. You could also read their institutional and student-run publications or research how your graduate institutions are ranked against their contemporaries.
Pro tip: Look closely at the methodology behind any grad school rankings you use, and take these (highly marketable and profitable) lists with a grain of salt. Rather than taking one ranking as gospel, look for trends: e.g., if an institution has been consistently ranked in the top 20.
7 months out (May)
- Contact a current student or recent graduate from the institutions on your list to get an insider’s perspective. If you don’t know anyone personally, ask the graduate admission staff or alumni office if they can help. (Online forums and student reviews may also help you gain this perspective.)
- Do a second evaluation/ranking of your options, considering everything you’ve learned thus far. But try not to eliminate schools just yet…
Pro tip: Try to ask every grad school representative the same questions so you have consistent information when updating your spreadsheet.
6 months out (June)
- Go on campus visits if you haven’t already. 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. Try to visit all of your grad school options in person before applying if possible.
- If you are unable to visit, be sure to take virtual campus tours and redouble your efforts to familiarize yourself with the school in other ways (alumni interviews, online forums and reviews, etc.).
- Another way to get to know your potential graduate programs is to attend graduate admission information sessions (or open houses or receptions). These may be held on campus or possibly closer to where you live.
- If an admission interview is required as part of the application process, try to schedule it during your visit.
Pro tip: Evaluate your visits on your spreadsheet as soon as you get home, so your experiences and impressions are fresh in your mind.
5 months out (July)
- Register for any standardized test(s) needed for admission, if you haven’t already. Give yourself time for retakes, if necessary.
- Start thinking about whom you will ask to write your letters of recommendation.
Pro tip: If you’re not happy with your test scores, you can take them a second or possibly even a third time. This doesn’t make you look less competitive in the application process; it often demonstrates that you are trying your best.
4 months out (August)
- It’s finally time to make your grad school short list! You have been working on your graduate program search for months now, and you should have a good idea of where you would like to apply. Take a close look at your spreadsheet and which programs most closely match your needs and wants, based on all of your research.
- There is no limit to the number of grad schools you can apply to, but you’ll likely need no more than five or six final choices. Remember that you’ll need time to complete each application to an exemplary standard.
- Be careful about applying to only one graduate institution. If you are absolutely certain that it is by far the only grad school for you, you must prepare yourself for whatever admission decision you receive.
- Even as you home in on your final few choices and eliminate options, it’s helpful to keep all of your research. This way, should you decide to hold off on grad school or if you decide to leave the institution, you won’t be starting from scratch when you resume the research process.
3 months out (September)
- Make sure you have all required application materials for your intended graduate programs—and that you are certain of all deadlines.
- Start your statements of purpose/application essays. (Need help? Check out How to Write Your Grad School Application Essay.)
- Ask your recommendation writers. If you are applying to several grad schools, be sure to have more than one or two individuals selected. Remember, they will need time to work on their letters, including tailoring them to your intended graduate programs. A rule of thumb: one person could probably do two or three recommendations. Once you have some viable candidates in mind, contact them, and if they agree to recommend you, give them all necessary application details, a run-down of your intended programs, and a copy of your résumé. (Here are more recommendation tips.)
- Make sure you’re tracking everything you need specifically for the application process, including deadlines, required materials, recommendation writer(s), admission office contact, decision deadlines, etc. You can add these data points to your exisiting spreadsheet or create a new one.
2 months out (October)
- Fill out your grad school applications. Set aside time each day or every other day to do this. That way you’ll get a little done each time and lessen your chances of feeling overwhelmed, rushing, or making mistakes.
- Work on or complete one application essay each time you work on your graduate applications. This also helps spread things out.
- Follow up with your recommenders to make sure they’re ready to submit their letters/forms and have everything they need.
- Request transcript(s) from any undergraduate institution(s) you attended. Most colleges and universities are quite familiar with this part of the grad school application process and have efficient procedures in place.
1 month out (November)
- Fine-tune your applications. Go over each of the section to be sure you have accurately and completely answered all questions. Check for mistakes. Thoroughly proofread your essays. Then have another person do the same.
- Prepare your application fees, and make sure you have the money to cover them all. (Declined credit cards and bounced checks do not make good first impressions.)
- Enjoy the unique sensation of accomplishment and terror of finally sending everything in!
If you follow this timeline, you should be ready to submit your grad school applications in advance of your deadlines. And the bigger the buffer you can give yourself, the better, because you want to have plenty of time to follow up on your materials (whether via an online portal or by phone or e-mail). You’ll also have time to resubmit things if something goes awry—not that it will, since you’ve put a year’s worth of time and effort into this process!
Grad school comparison criteria
You will be the final arbiter of what grad school criteria are most important to you, but this is a good place to start! Some of the columns in your comparison spreadsheet will say “yes,” “no,” or “maybe”; some will be dates or amounts; and some will be more evaluative, i.e., scale of 1–5, with 1 being terrible and 5 being outstanding. You’ll need to decide what works best for you.
- Program reputation
- Research opportunities
- Mentoring opportunities
- Class formats
- School and program accreditation
- Length of program (full vs. part time)
- Student-faculty ratio
- Average class size
- Application deadlines
- Admission requirements: test scores
- Admission requirements: GPA
- Admission requirements: interview
- Other admission requirements
- Possibility of waitlist
- Responsiveness and friendliness of admission staff
- Tuition cost for one year
- Total cost for one year
- Projected total program cost
- Financial aid availability
- Application fees
- Location/distance from home if commuting
- Number of students enrolled in the entire institution
- Number of students enrolled in your program
- Condition of facilities
- Housing options (should you be relocating)
- Extracurricular opportunities
- Career services/employment placement statistics
- Overall school rank (according to various organizations, such as U.S. News & World Report)
- Program rank (according to various organizations)
- Perception during campus visits or admission events you attended
- Interaction with current students/alumni
- Interaction with faculty
- Usefulness of website/materials/brochures
Still looking for the perfect graduate program? Find it with the CollegeXpress Grad School Search tool!