This article is the second of a series on what to do in the 12 months leading up to submitting your graduate school application(s).
As was previously suggested, 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.
9 months before applying to grad school
Start thinking about making some campus visits. It is one thing to review a website, read printed materials, and communicate with admission staff on the phone or via e-mail. It is quite another thing to actually visit a campus in person. Most institutions offer a variety of campus visit programming, usually described on their website. Here is a helpful tip: if you can afford to visit an institution more than once, make your first visit unannounced. How you are treated as a “complete stranger” can be very revealing, and you may get a better feeling for what the institution is really like. If, however, you do not have the time and/or funds to do more than one visit, you may want to wait for your visit until you have started the grad school application process. In addition, you may not have the financial resources to make a campus visit at all. If so, be sure to take the virtual campus tour that is offered on most admission office websites and redouble your efforts to familiarize yourself with the school in other ways (alumni interviews, online forums and reviews, etc.).
- Start preparing for any graduate standardized tests required as part of the application process. Depending on the program, most graduate school admission committees will require the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, or MCAT. International applicants will also likely be required to take a test to demonstrate their level of English language proficiency. There are quite a few materials available to help you prepare for these tests, including those from the Educational Testing Service, the Graduate Management Admission Council, the Law School Admission Council, and the Association of American Medical Colleges. These organizations have test prep materials available on their websites. Other organizations such as Barron’s, Kaplan, Peterson’s, and The Princeton Review offer test preparation classes. In addition, you can go to your local bookstore and find a host of printed materials and study guides.
8 months before applying to grad school
Now is the time to do some additional niche research on your options. One area that may be of interest is the type of press your potential graduate program receive. There are at least two ways to find this: one is to go the website and look for any news, current event, or press links. A second way is to simply search online for press coverage. Conducting this type of search will likely yield more news clips than would be found on an institution’s website—particularly those not specifically curated by the institution, which obviously accentuate positive press coverage. Another way to learn about your grad school options is to read their institutional and student-run publications. In some cases you may have to ask for access, and in other cases you can view them freely online. This allows you to review both external (press) and internal (institutional/student) perspectives (faculty, research, etc.), which you will not find in admission or other promotional information.
Also research how your graduate institutions are ranked against their contemporaries. Various organizations provide annual or biannual rankings that can be useful. However, remember that rankings and reputation are two different things! Organizations that publish (highly marketable) rankings may try to provide reliable information, but those actually doing the data gathering, analysis, and dissemination of the rankings may have biases of their own. Often times they have never stepped foot on campus. Also, rankings provide a source of revenue for the organizations doing them. Not to mention that by the time you finally enroll in graduate school, the ranking of your options will may have changed, and it will likely change while you are enrolled and yet again after you graduate. So you need to be very careful how much you allow a ranking to influence your final decision about where to apply to graduate school. You may be better off looking for trends; for example, has a particular institution been consistently ranked in the top 20?
7 months before applying to grad school
- Contact current students at the institutions on your list. If you know someone who is attending, contact them and ask some questions. If not, ask the graduate admission staff (or perhaps alumni office) if they can put you in touch with a current student or recent graduate or two. Many admission offices have student volunteers who are willing to talk with prospective students. Try to ask the same questions for each of your options too, so you have consistent information when updating your spreadsheet.
- At this point do a second evaluation of your options, considering what you have discovered from external and internal press, rankings, and conversations with students. Remember, you are not ready to make your short list yet. You can, however, change your spreadsheet evaluations at any time. It also may be that something you learn from the press or rankings about an option that was eliminated earlier from your list may cause you to place that option back on.