A 12-Month Timeline for Applying to Grad School

If you are considering returning to school in the next year, this timeline for applying to grad school will help you keep track of tasks and deadlines. Whether you are a current undergraduate, a working professional, or a service program member thinking about graduate school after your term of service ends, use a timeline to keep ahead of the application process and maintain a healthier work/life balance.  

12 months before enrollment

// 3 months before application deadline

The beginning stages

  • Define your professional goals and determine what you should study.
  • Research institutions and programs of interest.
    • You can:
      • Contact experts in your field of interest, your undergraduate professors, and those who attended or are attending the schools and programs that interest you. Learn what it’s really like to do the type of work you are interested in, and what programs and degrees most appropriately relate to that field. You can request that they meet you for informational interviews.
        • Send thank you notes (either email or hand-written notes) within two days of each informational interview.
      • Pick a professor from each program of the schools that most appeal to you and whose interests most closely match your own; research and familiarize yourself with their work.
        • Jot down important points from your research to use later in writing your application.
        • Consider your statement of purpose and potential recommendation letter writers as you do this research.
    • Research and decide what your specific area of concentration will be within your field.
    • Visit potential schools, if possible.
  • Request published materials from the schools you’re considering: grad school catalogs, handbooks/bulletins, and admissions and financial aid applications.
    • Look carefully at admissions requirements, especially for programs that differ from your undergraduate background. In some cases these requisites may significantly affect your timeline to return to school. Language fluency, required courses, or professional experience minimums are the kinds of requisites that can take longer to complete.
    • Check with admissions staff to see if you can complete the school’s requisites after acceptance into the program but before enrollment.
    • Note application deadlines—these dates are firm and non-negotiable.
    • Request information on health insurance, especially if you will be an international student.
  • Research required graduate admissions tests. Depending on your prospective school, your test score could provide a cut-off point for admissions committees in selecting candidates. Find out what the median entrance scores are for your school’s student population so you know what to strive for.
    • Register for exams, keeping in mind how long the scoring process will take.
    • Prepare for exams.
      • Take a diagnostic test to measure your strengths and weaknesses.
      • Enroll in a course or study independently.
  • Start thinking about financing your education. Your timeline could be impacted if you are dependent on outside sources to fund your schooling, and if that funding falls through. Know the limits of debt you are prepared to take on. Be sure to consider alternatives and have a back-up financing plan if you want to stay on track. Diversify possible funding options to ensure that you can cover expenses.
    • Save up for standardized testing and application fees.
      • Many of these fees can be waived. Contact the test centers and graduate admissions offices to see if you are eligible.
    • Research assistantships and fellowships in your field of study.
    • Look into scholarships and loan programs.
    • Keep track of all required materials and deadlines.

Studying abroad?

If you plan to complete your degree abroad:

  • Start now! Dates, deadlines and restrictions will vary depending on the country you are looking to study in.
  • Research the necessary travel documents.
  • Note important dates for applying for and acquiring appropriate documents.
  • You may need to have your transcripts translated. This can be time-consuming, so make sure to look into a translation service early and inquire about the process.
  • Know your submission deadlines and plan ahead for the amount of time it will take if you submit your applications through the mail. International mail takes longer and costs more.

11 months before enrollment

// 2 months before application deadline

Assembling application materials

  • Read about Admissions and the application to understand the different parts that make up a grad school application.
  • Continue your research into institutions and programs and finalize the list of schools to which you are applying.
    • Draw up your own timeline of the application process and deadlines. Make sure you account for all factors, and stick to what you lay out for yourself.
    • Establish contacts with your potential schools.
      • Current students and department staff are often happy to speak with prospective students. And while graduate faculty may be too busy to get back to many students, introducing yourself in a brief email could start a dialogue (ask a straightforward question, like “Will you be teaching next year?”); at the very least this gets your name out to those who will eventually review your application.
    • Find out if your prospective schools have scheduled visits to your region, or if they are participating in grad school fairs nearby.
      • Go and visit the schools if they are not coming to your area
      • Set up informational interviews with professors and financial aid officers.
  • Draft your statement of purpose and application essays.
    • Focus on the information obtained from your school research in order to explain why this is a good fit for both you and the program.
    • Ask friends, colleagues, or a career services professional to give feedback and edits on early drafts.
    • Read up on sharing your story with the admissions team.
  • Letters of recommendation.
    • Contact the people you’d like to have write your recommendations. Tell them your current interests and future plans; ask them for advice on programs, schools, and career opportunities. This is your opportunity to refresh their memory of who you are and what you are interested in.
    • Formally request your letters from potential recommenders one or two months before the application deadline. See more on recommendation letters in the next section.
  • Take your admissions exams.
  • Request official transcripts.
  • Fill out the application form.
    • Pay close attention to instructions; not all applications are the same.
    • Find out if you can submit your application online. Many schools are opting for internet applications, which can reduce or eliminate application and postage fees.
    • Understand submission policies. Some schools require that transcripts and recommendation letters be sent directly from the institution/recommender. If so, those materials will be submitted separately from the rest of your application.
  • Continue to gather information on financial aid resources.
    • Contact your potential schools for information on their own scholarships, teaching, and research assistantships.
    • Develop a list of funding opportunities for which you can apply, and keep track of due dates and deadlines.

10 months before enrollment

// 1 month before application deadline

Finalizing the writing components

  • Letters of recommendation.
    • Formally request your letters from your potential recommenders either through writing or in person. Discuss your interests, strengths, and goals, and review the schools’ requisites and deadlines.
    • If possible, give your recommenders a deadline that is two weeks in advance of any application deadline to ensure the letters are mailed and processed in time.
    • Give them appropriate forms, the latest version of your personal statement, responses to specific questions from a school’s application, and stamped-and-addressed envelopes.
  • Personal statement.
    • Polish your application essays and tailor your personal statement for each school as necessary.
    • If possible, have someone in the field as well as a few good friends proofread it for you and make any final suggestions.
  • Complete all application forms.
  • Start to conceptualize a contingency plan as back-up to going to grad school in the next year. You are investing a lot of time and effort into your plan of returning to school. As part of your investment, you want to be prepared for the chance that you are not accepted into a grad program this time around. It’s a good idea to look into alternatives to grad school or ways to continue your education while waiting for the application period to come around again. Back to text.
  • Continue financial planning.

9 months before enrollment

// Submission of application

Meeting submission deadlines

  • Submit your applications.
    • Pull together all required materials: application forms, transcripts, essays, test scores, and recommendations.
    • Submit your application two weeks in advance of the school’s deadline; this will make your application stand out from the rest.
    • Keep two copies of every document for your records.
  • Follow up.
    • Confirm with all schools that your file is complete. Call well before the deadline in case you need to re-submit any documents.
  • Financing.
    • Prepare financial statements for individual school applications.
    • If you are following fall enrollment, the FAFSA deadline should be fast-approaching. Complete the form now so you can send it in as soon as possible after January 1.
    • Continue to apply for financial aid and scholarships, keeping all your application materials organized.

The waiting and decision period

  • Wait it out.
    • Try to take a break from things and come down from the stress of the past several months. You have a lot of work ahead of you with grad school, so think of this time as your summer vacation and take advantage of it best you can.
    • You can follow up with your prospective schools before the notification deadline, to discuss the status of your application.
    • Finish outlining your contingency plan in case you are not accepted by your target grad school(s).
  • Make your decision
    • Compare the offers your receive—understand that many different aspects will fall into consideration. Ranking? Cost? Duration? Personal preferences?
    • Look into appealing your aid package if the amount of money offered to you does not meet your needs.
      • Look into alternative loan programs if your final aid package still does not meet your needs. While you look into further funding, be thinking about what your next steps will be if you are not able to come up with an ideal financing plan. Have a back-up plan to supporting yourself. This could mean deferring enrollment so you have more time to save up for grad school the next time around.
  • Tie up loose ends
    • Notify all admissions offices of your decision.
    • Send thank you notes to those who wrote your letters of recommendation and anyone else that assisted you along the way. Inform them of your plans. This keeps the door open for future communications as well as future references.

Waiting for the news

The two months or so following your application submission can be difficult, as school response times may differ. If you have not heard back from a school seven days after the notification deadline, it is OK to follow up with the admissions staff and inquire about any alterations in their own timeline.

And finally: Congratulate yourself on a job well done and the admirable effort you put forward!