When it comes to preparing for graduate school, many students feel stressed. They wonder: “Should I take the GRE or the GMAT?”; “When do I need to start preparing my applications?”; “Are my grades strong enough to get me into my target programs?"
I constantly receive messages and emails from graduate applicants expressing the stress and confusion they experience trying to navigate US admissions. In response, I am sharing the general graduate application timeline I have been using with my clients and students for a decade. I hope that it will help alleviate some students’ anxiety surrounding their upcoming applications - as Alexander Graham Bell famously said: Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.
Freshman year - Summer before Junior year
1. Be an active participant on your campus - You must develop yourself beyond your grades. One of the best ways to do this is to get involved on campus - whether through career-oriented organizations and competitions - or through extracurricular activities you are passionate about. So many students focus exclusively on their grades, which puts them at a detriment when competing against students who have spent years leading an organization or winning competitions.
2. Add depth to your academics - So many students think that securing good grades in their college courses will be enough to get them into their top-choice programs. However, if you’re aiming for a PhD or a competitive school, you must go above-and-beyond by developing your career-oriented skills. Depending on your field of study, participate in research projects on your campus and/or abroad, or use your summers to intern in your industry.
3. Take TOEFL and IELTS practice tests - Some people perform better on TOEFL, while others do better on IELTS. Try them both out and see which one you score higher on, then begin preparing for that one. You should expect to take your first official test in the spring of your Junior year, but if you take it earlier, that’s great too. It will be very helpful to have the test out of the way by the summer before your Senior year.
4. The same goes for your academic standardized test: GRE/GMAT/LSAT
5. Start your resume - In addition to career-related roles and responsibilities, include extracurricular involvement, awards, relevant coursework, skills, and interests. Putting your resume together early will help you spot areas of weakness, which you can then address while you still have time.
6. Read - Reading will help you improve your test scores and essay writing.
Fall of Junior Year
1. Continue with the points under “Freshman year - Summer before Junior year” as necessary.
2. Keep your grades up - If you received poor grades as a Freshman or Sophomore, it is particularly important that you raise them now. Admissions committees consider upper-classman grades to be an important predictive measure of future academic success.
3. Ramp up your standardized test preparation - Again, it is ideal for you to be done with all your tests by the summer of your Junior year so you can focus on other application materials.
Spring of Junior year
1. Initiate the application process - Your first application will take between 100-200 hours to complete, not including standardized test preparation. By starting early, you set yourself up for success.
2. Write down your short-term and long-term goals - Where do you see yourself in one year? Five years? Upon retirement? Knowing what you want from your life will not only guide you to the right graduate program, but your answers to these questions - being motivating factors behind your decision to attend graduate school - will be discussed at length throughout your application. Start thinking about them early.
3. Take your standardized tests - If you did not take your standardized tests in the winter, you will need to do so in the spring. Taking the test at this point will do two things: 1) Help you develop an accurate yet comprehensive graduate program list, as you will have an idea of your target school competitiveness, and 2) Give you time to retest over the summer if you receive poor scores.
4. Start your program list - It’s okay if you have tons of programs on your list. As you start to research schools, and you as you start to explore your personal interests and goals, you will naturally narrow your list down.
5. Think about program fit - It’s common for students to gravitate toward “Name Brand” schools, but there is a lot more to consider:
a. Finances - Will you need aid to attend school in the United States? If so, will you qualify?
b. Location - Really think about where you want to live for 2-6 years; it will impact your happiness more than you (probably) realize now. Do you want urban or rural? Mountains, beaches, or cornfields? Do you want to stay in an environment that is already familiar to you, or do you want to push your boundaries?
c. Program culture - Some programs are highly individualized and competitive while others focus on cooperative learning, for example.
d. Grades and test scores - Which programs “fit” your academic statistics? I advise my clients to be above the 50% mark for match and safety programs.
6. Start demonstrating interest - Schools want to know that you want them. Show them you’re interested by visiting them (even if it’s just online), sign up for information and information sessions, follow them on social media, and connect with current students and professors. Many schools track applicant interest, so your efforts will (likely) be noticed.
7. Ask teachers for letters of recommendation (LORs) - I know it’s uncommon for recommenders in China to write LORs for their students, but you should at least try. Letters that come directly from the source will be more authentic. If your recommenders don’t want to write in English, that is fine too; you will simply need to have the LORs professionally translated, then submit both copies. As a last resort, you can write them yourself and have your recommender sign them.
Summer Before Senior Year
1. Start your application essays - You should begin by free-writing -- every. single. day. Write about yourself. Write about your experiences, goals, and personal values. Explore yourself through your writing, and get comfortable with your voice. This will help you down the road when you write your application personal statements/statements of purpose in a more structured way.
2. Narrow down your program list to 6-15 options - Make sure at least one of the schools on your list is a definite. Don’t take this lightly; it’s the most important school on your list.
3. Continue visiting schools and demonstrating interest - This is very important because it not only shows your commitment to the programs but will help you write more convincing application essays (in particular, the Why University X portion).
4. If necessary, send your transcripts to WES for verification.
5. Update your resume.
6. Begin writing Personal Statement (PS) or Statement of Purpose (SOP) - This essay is extremely important. It allows admissions committees to know you on a personal level - as more than a set of grades and test scores.
Fall of Senior Year
1. Make a graduate program spreadsheet - Keep yourself organized by recording the application requirements and due dates for all the programs you plan on applying to. Include chance of admission, notes, and opinions as well.
2. Contact recommenders - Share your due dates with your recommenders, and explain what they can expect with regards to submitting letters on your behalf. Write each recommender a thank you note for their time.
3. Complete your essays.
4. Submit round one applications - For most programs, the earlier you submit, the better your chances of admission. You should plan to have at least three of your applications done by round-one deadlines.
Winter of Senior Year
1. Submit the rest of your applications - For all the school applications you were unable to submit early, make sure they are in by the final due date. There is no leniency for late applications; if you miss the due date, your application will not be reviewed.
2. Continue to interview as requested.
3. Breathe - All you have to do now is wait. You will probably check your email constantly, discuss admissions results on various forums, and, basically, freak yourself out. This is normal but try to avoid it. Until admissions results are fully released, things are out of your control.
4. Write Letters of Continued Interest (LOCIs) for any programs that waitlist you.
Spring of Senior Year
1. Make your program decision - Inform all of the schools you were admitted to but don’t wish to enroll in that you will be attending a different institution. This will allow them to start moving waitlisted students into their admit pile (the sooner they can do this, the sooner another stressed-out senior student is going to receive some good news). Put your deposit down for the program you will enter in the fall.
2. Prepare your travel documents - Make sure your passport is current, contact your school regarding your I-20, compile your financial statements, and prepare for your visa interview. Don’t worry; it should be easy, but you’ll feel more confident if everything is ready and organized early.