12-Month Checklist for Applying to Grad School: 6-4 Months Out

Trying to find the right graduate program? This series will walk you through the 12 months leading up to your grad school application submissions.

This blog 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 the information you want and need.  

6 months before applying

  • Make a few campus visits. You can visit unannounced, as we mentioned earlier. Institutions offer a variety of ways to visit campus. You can usually find more information on their website in the section dealing with applying. Most institutions provide opportunities to visit at any time during the academic year. Visitors can 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 application process, have the interview as part of your visit. Some institutions also have special campus visit programs, which include sessions on the admission process, financial aid, housing, student life, career services, and more. Most often these special programs take place in the fall.
  • Another way to have a “campus visit” is to find out if admission information sessions (also called receptions) are being held close to where you live. Many institutions recruit in areas they have identified as strong or developing markets. This provides a great way to get to know the institution better, especially if you are not able to travel there for a visit.
  • If possible, divide things in such a way that between campus visits and local admission presentations, you will be able to “visit” all of your options before applying.
  • Make sure to evaluate your visit on your research spreadsheet as soon as possible after it’s completed when your experiences and impressions will be fresh in your mind.
  • Remember: reputation, rankings, and reality are very different things. When it comes to reputation, while an institution may be well known or considered highly prestigious, this does not mean it has to be on your final list of options or that it has the best program for you. As mentioned earlier, rankings are useful, but remember that those publishing them are looking to sell what they publish. Also be sure to take a close look at the methodology behind the rankings. You’ll see that some methodologies are sound while others are lacking. If an institution is ranked highly but the methodology is not credible, you need to interpret that accordingly. 
  • 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’s likely that good methodology is taking a back burner to selling copies of the ranking. It’s very unlikely that one institution would move up or down several places in only one or two years. Finally, it’s what is real for you that’s most important, because it’s your time, energy, and financial resources that are being spent.   

5 months before applying

  • Start making plans to take whatever standardized test(s) you will need as part of the application process.  On your research spreadsheet you 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 test(s).  Most major bookstores have a college/grad school prep section that offers help. 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).
  • Some applicants are better test takers than others. Should you not score as well on your test as you had hoped, take it a second or even a third time. 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 

  • Narrow your list of options down to those to which you will submit an application.  You have been working on your search for eight months now and you have a very good idea of where you would like to apply.
  • 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 admissions presentations you attended?
  • Obviously, there is no limit to the number of schools to which you can apply.  But remember that you will need time to complete the applications.  You need to know how many you can tackle, doing a good job on each one.
  • Be careful about applying to only one institution.  If you are absolutely certain that this is by far the only option, be absolutely sure to prepare yourself for whatever decision you receive.
  • It is important for you to keep all of the information you have gathered on all of your options until you have made your decision about where you will attend and have actually enrolled there.  Should 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 research process. 

Stay tuned for tips for the final three months before applying. In addition, feel free to check out my website (gradschoolroadmap.com) or join me on Twitter (@GradSchoolGuide). For a free 30-minute consultation, please contact me at dmartin@gradschoolroadmap.com.

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About Donald C. Martin

Dr. Donald C. Martin is an expert in the fields of enrollment management, student affairs, and higher education administration. From 1980–2008 he managed divisions including admission, financial aid, student development, registration/advising, and career, disabled, and international services. He has been employed by some of the best colleges and universities in the United States: Columbia University (Teachers College), University of Chicago (Booth School of Business), Northwestern University (Medill School of Journalism), and Wheaton College (IL). Along with a team of dedicated professionals, Dr. Martin grew both the applicant pool and the enrollment yield at each institution he served. In addition, students’ ratings of their experience at those institutions improved dramatically during his tenure.

Having visited over 60 countries on every continent, Dr. Martin has worked with thousands of prospective and current students of varying nationalities, backgrounds, beliefs, interests, and goals. His book, Road Map for Graduate Study: A Guide for Prospective Graduate Students, was released in May of 2008. A supplement for international students was released in 2009.

Dr. Martin continues his work with students and educational organizations worldwide, speaking on college and university campuses, and also at graduate school fairs, forums, and education conferences. His focus is on the value of education and negotiating the graduate school experience from start to finish, dispelling the myths that hold many back from earning a graduate degree and financing their graduate education. In addition, he provides one-on-one coaching services for graduate/business school applicants.

For further information please contact dmartin@gradschoolroadmap.com.


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