The process in applying for a graduate or professional degree like all things in life requires a strategy for tackling it. Ideally, you should begin this process two to three years before submitting applications, but its never too late to start! Honestly, my process began a year before, but the earlier the better. Below is a five-step timeline that will help guide you through the process.
As a visual person, my first step was to write out all the key components of the application process. Whether you use a timeline, a concept map, a flow chart, or a simple list, it will provide you a starting point in the process. Now, its time to fill in the gaps.
Choose Your Schools/Do Your Research/List Their Requirements
Begin doing this as early as possible as it will influence your academic and personal trajectory for this entire process. Read up on each programs prerequisites, program deadlines, and required application materials. While doing this, you should also begin making a list of professors, advisors, and professionals from whom you will be seeking recommendations. You should also be creating a list of professors that you would be interested in working with at the programs to which you are thinking of applying.
GRE/LSAT/MCAT Prep and Take
Sign up for this and put a date on paper as soon as possible. This will give you the motivation to begin studying. Many people take these tests multiple times to improve their score, so make sure you account for this in your timeline. Additionally, you should coordinate your timeline with the application deadlines for the various programs that you have chosen to apply to. Most programs will not look at an application packet that is missing test scores since they play such a crucial role in setting admission standards. Using the GRE (since that’s what I took), I planned a four-month study strategy before taking the exam, but some test types may require more time to prepare, so be cognizant.
Prepare Your Packet
Some of preparing your packet of application materials will be occurring simultaneously to the above steps, but this is the time to really hone these materials. You should be going through a variety of drafts of these materials whether it be a resume, a personal statement, or what. For letters of recommendation, ask as early as possible. Prepare for this the same way you would prepare for applying for a job. Make good impressions, make sure the recommender remembers who you are, dress nicely, and bring the necessary paperwork for them to write you a strong letter (Resume, writing sample, etc.).
Revise, Revise, Revise, and Submit
Finish these rough drafts at least a month or two before program deadlines so that you can get them to others to read and critique them. Make sure to pick individuals that will reliably respond to your requests for revision. While a parent is always a useful person to run a draft by, a professor or academic advisor that deals with applicants frequently is always better. On a side note, do not fear extensive edits. Remember that the people you choose to look over these materials are simply trying to make you a better candidate. Do not take it personal! Criticism and feedback are an essential part of any graduate school experience, so it is better to get used to it now! Now that you have all the pieces of the puzzle put together in some semblance of order, its time to submit.
Interviews, Visits, and the Waiting Game
The late Fall and early Spring (depending on what type of admissions you did) is when you will begin to hear back from programs. For the more ambitious students, this is also time when you can begin to investigate outside funding opportunities such as fellowships or grants. For students in professional programs, this is the time to be applying for internships or jobs for the summer to strengthen your resume or skills (and possibly make a little extra money) before leaving for school. Many programs will also schedule interviews or recruitment weekends during this time. These are all means to meet with faculty, interact with current students, and find out about campus life and experiences in the program. Do not blow off planning for these events, technically you are still a candidate for admission, and first impressions matter! Admission decisions can make or break on a bad interview or meeting!