This blog is the second of a series on what to do in the 12 months leading up to submitting your grad 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 the information you want and need.
9 months before applying
- Start thinking about making some campus visits. It’s one thing to review a website, read printed materials, and communicate with admission office staff on the phone or via email, but it’s quite another to actually visit a campus in person. Most institutions offer a variety of campus visit programming, usually described on their website.
Pro tip: If you can afford to visit an institution more than once, make your first visit unannounced. This will help you get a feeling for what the institution is really like. How you’re treated as a stranger can be very revealing. If, however, you don’t have the time and/or funds to do more than one visit, you may want to wait to go until you have started the 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 websites.
- Start preparing for any 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. In addition, an international applicant will most likely be required to take a test to demonstrate their level of proficiency in the English language.
There are quite a few materials available to help you prepare for these tests. You’ll most likely learn about these materials 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 preparation materials available on their websites. Other organizations, such as Barrons, 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
- Now is the time to do some additional research on your options. One area that may be of interest is the type of press your prospective grad schools receive. There are at least two ways to find this out: one is to go to the website and look for a link that might read: “(institution name) in the news,” or “press coverage of (institution name).” A second way is use a search engine and look for press coverage. Conducting this type of search will yield more news clips than would be found on an institution’s website, as institutional websites tend to accentuate only positive media coverage.
- Another way to learn about your options is to read the school’s institutional and student-run newspapers. In some cases, you may have to ask for access to these, and in other cases, you can view them freely on the website. This allows you to review both external (press) and internal (institutional/student) perspectives (faculty, research, etc.), which you won’t find in admission or other promotional information.
- Find out if there are rankings of institutions offering the graduate program you are seeking. Various organizations provide annual or biannual rankings that can be useful to you. However, remember: rankings and reputation are two different things. Organizations that do rankings may try to provide reliable information, but those actually doing the data gathering, analysis, and dissemination of the rankings have biases of their own. Oftentimes they have never stepped foot on campus. Also, rankings provide a source of revenue for the organizations participating in them. One ranking differs from the next. And by the time you enroll in graduate school, the ranking of your options will most likely have changed. It will change again while you are enrolled and yet again after you graduate. So you need to be careful about how much you allow a ranking to influence your final decision about where to apply to grad school. You may be better off looking for trends, like if a particular institution has been consistently ranked in the top 20.
7 months before applying
- 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 admission staff if they can put you in touch with a current student or two. Many admission offices have student volunteers who are willing to talk with prospective students. If you can ask the same questions for each of your options, you will have more information to include on your research 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. Something you learn from the press or rankings about an option you already eliminated from your list may cause you to place that option back on.