The Grad School Application Process: An Overview
Embarking on a master’s degree is a major life decision and a significant commitment when it comes to time and finances. And once you have made up your mind, you need to make sure you position yourself in the best possible way to be accepted into your desired program. For example, you need to give yourself time to get all the following things done before applications are due:
- decide which schools and programs you want to apply for
- find out each school’s requirements
- create/update your resume
- write the Statement of Purpose and other personal statements
- collect grad school recommendation letters
- take standardized exams if necessary
- fill out grad school applications
- secure funding/scholarships
The right timing is critical to make the process as smooth as possible and also to ensure you get everything submitted before the deadline—a late or incomplete application can get you on the waiting list or off the list entirely. This article will help you decide when to apply for grad school programs and how to break the mountain of tasks into manageable parts. We will also provide you with a timeline and steps to complete for a successful application.
When should you apply for grad school?
Whether you should apply to grad school straight from your undergraduate degree or whether you should return to school after a few years into your career depends on your field as well as on where you currently are in your life. Here are some factors to consider when to apply to graduate school:
Degree and career considerations
- Do you even need a graduate degree for your career? In some fields, progressing without a degree will be difficult/impossible (e.g., in law, research careers, the medical field), but in others, degrees are way less important than actual work experience.
- Does your field/school/program require work experience (e.g., many MBA programs do), or do people usually apply for a master’s program as seniors in college (as is typical for medical schools)?
- If experience is required, what kind of work will help you get accepted into a program? Does it have to be specifically relevant to your field, or does the selection committee just want to see that you have some professional experience?
- Do you want to go back to school to make a career change? Do you have the required education/degree to apply for your desired program?
Personal and financial considerations
Graduate school is not cheap. Even if you receive some funding, you need to take an honest look at your finances and make sure you either have savings and can afford the expense of graduate study at this point of your life, can keep working part-time (which depends on your school as well as on your current job/profession), or have a realistic plan that can, for example, involve taking out government loans and paying them back later—make sure you take your career prospects and expected earnings after graduation into account for that. You might also have to downgrade your lifestyle or factor a move into your calculation.
Note that even if you have a scholarship, you might not see actual money until some time into your first term, which means you need to have the means to get yourself settled at your new location first.
Your personal life situation
Graduate school always involves significant life changes, even more so if you have already been working for several years and decide to go back to school later in your career. You might have to move across the country (or even across the world), you have to organize your life around a totally different schedule, and you will probably need to adjust your lifestyle and finances. Depending on your family/relationship situation, you might also have to consider other people in your life and whether they are ready for you to make such a big decision. If you are not free to just move anywhere and start from scratch, then make sure you factor that into your selection of schools/programs to apply for.
Grad School Application Timeline: A Month-By-Month Plan
As a rule of thumb, it’s best to start applying to grad schools as early as possible—it will help you get everything done on time and in the way you want it to be done so that there are no doubts or regrets if you are not chosen for your preferred program. Some graduate schools offer rolling admissions, which means applications are evaluated as they arrive (and the earlier you get yours in, the better), while others consider all applications at once after the final deadline. In general, we recommend starting the process at least one year before submitting your application.
What follows is a very typical timeline that you can stick to to make sure you get everything done on time. We assumed the first deadline to be in December 2023, for the fall admission the following year, and the time to start working on your application process, in that case, would be January 2023. Make sure you adjust your timeline in case your deadline is earlier or later and see the text below the table for details and specifics of the listed tasks. Remember that you can always get in touch with one of our professional editors to help you navigate the admissions editing process if you still find it confusing and to make sure all parts of your application are complete and error-free.
Applying to grad school timeline
|Month||What tasks to complete|
|January||Identify programs you want to apply for|
|February||Figure out if you need to take standardized tests, register, start studying|
|March||Make a list of programs, maybe a chart to track requirements/dates|
Start asking for recommendation letters
|April||Start taking standardized tests|
|May||Follow up on recommendation letters|
|June||Start looking into funding sources|
|July||Request transcripts from schools you have attended/graduated from|
Retake standardized tests if necessary
|August||Draft your statement of purpose/personal statement|
|September||Edit your personal statement, ask for feedback|
|October||Retake tests if necessary|
Send reminders for letters/feedback/transcripts
Start filling in application forms
|November||Finalize your statement of purpose|
Make sure you have all the documents you need
January: Choose graduate programs
Consider what factors are important for you and then start researching schools that fit your criteria: do you want to work with a specific expert in your field? Do you have a preference for a specific location? Do the program costs matter to you? Are you interested in a specific type of curriculum or education style/setting? Do you want to graduate from a prestigious school or one that is especially recognized in your field?
If you are lost at this point, have a look at program rankings, or ask current or former professors/supervisors/professionals in your field what programs they might recommend or prefer to hire graduates from. Then check out the school/program website or contact the administrators directly if you need more information. Finding current students to talk to can also give you a better idea of whether to apply to a specific program, for example on forums like The GradCafe. And if you are seriously interested, consider visiting a school in person.
Schools usually provide statistics about required test scores, grades, and the type of work or research experience students need to be accepted into a program. Make sure you apply for programs that fit your background and education/experience.
February: Standardized tests
Sign up and prepare for the standardized test you need to apply to your schools of choice. Note that different programs require different tests, so make sure you check the website of the program you intend to apply to. Many colleges require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) for admission, but different graduate programs may require other tests. Have a look at the list below and make sure you are on top of all the requirements as well as the test dates—and also consider that some of these are administered at test centers while others can be taken online.
|GRE General||Verbal and math skills tests, essay writing|
|GRE Subject||Psychology, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, or literature|
|MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test)||Biology, chemistry, psychology, verbal reasoning|
|GMAT (Graduate Management Admissions Test)||Verbal and math skills|
|LSAT (Law School Admissions Test)||Logical and verbal reasoning, reading comprehension|
March: Create a chart to track your tasks
When you apply to more than one school (which you very probably do), it’s easy to get lost in all the information you need to collect, especially when timelines and requirements differ. Your chart should therefore list each school/program you plan to apply to, all of the things you need to get done for each application, and deadlines for completing each task. If you make sure your chart is always updated and lists the current status of each task, it will help you stay on track throughout the application process.
Here is an example of a simple tracking chart:
|School 1||School 2||School 3|
|Standardized tests||general GRE||general + math||general GRE|
|Test dates||7/30||7/30; 8/2||7/30|
|Status||taken, submitted||taken, submitted||taken, submitted|
|Transcripts||arrived 9/21||requested 9/10||requested 9/10|
|Personal statement||prompted, 300 words||free, 450 words||free, 400 words|
|Status||drafted 8/2||start on 8/10||drafted 8/6|
|Recommendations||need 2||need 2||need 3|
March: Get recommendation letters
Choosing who to ask to write a graduate school recommendation letter for you (professors, supervisors, advisors..?) can be a bit overwhelming, and many applicants procrastinate on this task or undervalue such letters. But this is a huge mistake, as they are one of the most important factors that college admissions officers consider when selecting students for their programs. In general, graduate recommendation letters should come from people who know you well enough and respect you enough to say amazing things about you as a student and researcher, and who hold positions at school/work well above your own.
At least one letter of recommendation should be submitted from a past or current professor or academic advisor. After all, the knowledge your recommenders have of you and the positive things they say about your work ethics will help admissions teams see why you are a good candidate. If you are currently enrolled in an undergraduate program, the best people to ask for recommendation letters are your professors. If you have left school a long time ago, you can also ask employers or co-workers. Have a look at this Wordvice article on graduate recommendation letter templates and examples if you need help with this part of your application. (FYI, Wordvice offers recommendation letter editing and cover letter editing for your admissions documents.)
April: Standardized tests/practice tests
Even if you are still far from the application deadline, you might want to take a practice test (or two) to get used to the format and setting of the exam you need for your application. Practice tests early in the application process can help you adjust your studying and, obviously, retake a test if you score too low. There is no penalty for taking a test multiple times, and you can submit your best score at the end, so don’t worry if you struggle the first time. Just factor the test fee you pay each time into your plan and don’t waste money on additional tests just because you were lazy or unorganized.
May: Follow up on recommendation letters
If you haven’t already received your recommendation letters at this point, get in touch with the professors/supervisors you asked to write them and follow up on the process. Maybe they need more input from you, but because they were busy (who isn’t), your letter landed on the “will do later” pile and they haven’t gotten around to asking you to fill them in. Or maybe they forgot about the timeline. Or maybe they in fact expect you to remind them because even the most dedicated professor does not have enough time and energy to keep every student’s timeline in mind. Just be respectful and offer to send/resend any necessary information or even a template if your recommender is swamped with work and struggling to find the time to help you.
June: Funding sources
Now is the time to have a look at your finances, maybe outline a budget with all the monthly expenses you will have to cover while pursuing your degree and decide whether you need extra funding. Check the websites of the schools you are applying to for options, and then add extra essays or tests to take and potentially earlier deadlines to your chart/timeline. There are also independent institutions like the National Science Foundation (NSF) that offer scholarships, such as the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program. FastWeb.com is a good place to start locating merit-based funding aid, and this Forbes article also walks you through many of the available graduate school scholarships, grants, and fellowship programs.
July: Request school transcripts/retake standardized tests
Time to request transcripts for your application, from every university you have ever attended, even if it was only for a semester and even if it was abroad. Some schools may allow you to submit a scan, but for most, an official copy needs to be sent directly to the school administration office. Starting this process early means that you have enough time to deal with any issues that come up before the submission deadline.
If you did not score as high as needed/expected on the standardized exams you took, then try again now, so you still have some months left for an additional attempt.
August–September: Your personal statement
Time to put together your statement of purpose (or “SOP letter”), a short essay that discusses your professional and academic interests and background. The SOP is a key component of applications to most graduate schools, MBA programs, and Ph.D. programs in the US, UK, Australia, Canada, and other countries with an English-language curriculum. The SOP (or personal statement) needs to provide admissions officers with a window into who you are as a person that goes beyond your grades and the information outlined in your CV.
You will need to draft, edit, and perfect your statement, and it is always a good idea to ask other people for feedback. This can be your friends, family, current and former supervisors and professors, and obviously the people you asked for recommendation letters. Give yourself and the people you ask for help time for this process so that you are happy with the result and are sure it reflects who you are and what you hope to achieve with your degree before it is time to submit your application.
October: Retake tests if necessary, send reminders, fill in forms
This will be your last chance to make up for any test scores that you are not happy with. Now is also still time to send reminders for missing letters, feedback, or transcripts that had to be re-requested due to administrative errors, and a good time to start working on the application forms you have to fill in (which will involve a lot of tedious typing out of college coursework, test scores, and addresses). You might also have to provide details on your work, research, and teaching experience as well as extracurriculars and publications. If you need a resume or CV, now is the time to make sure that it is up-to-date and polished and showcases your skills and experience. Wordvice offers professional CV & Resume Editing Services if you are in doubt about yours or need a second set of eyes to perfect it.
November: Finalize statement of purpose, and application forms
Finalize your SOP, based on the feedback you received, and make last changes if necessary. It is also always a good idea to have it checked by a professional editor, for example by requesting our Statement of Purpose editing services, to make sure it is well written and error-free.
Then make sure you have all the other documents you need, finish filling in all the forms, and then put your application to the side and take a break (how long depends on how much time you have left), so that you can have a look at everything once more with fresh eyes before you have to press that “Apply” button.
December: Send it off!
Upload everything and submit! Also, make sure you have paid all application fees before you close those tabs and return to your normal life.
Results will usually come back during this time period, and many graduate schools also schedule specific “visit days” from February to April, where you can meet current students as well as faculty members in person and ask them whatever questions you might have. If the schools you applied for do not offer such organized visits, you can still go on a trip yourself and have a look at the campus and the facilities and hang out with students before you make any decision.
Frequently Asked Questions About Applying to Grad School
Should I apply to grad school at this time in my life?
That depends on your field as well as on where you currently are in your life. In some fields, such as law, medicine, or research in general, you need a graduate degree to progress. In others, degrees are way less important than actual work experience. There are also degree programs (e.g., many MBA programs) for which you need specific work experience, so applying to grad school as a senior in college will not be successful.
You also need to consider your current life situation, whether you have the financial means to go back to school when you have already been working for some time, and whether other people are dependent on you or won’t be able to follow you if you need to move for the program you want to get into. Graduate school is a big commitment when it comes to time and money, and you should apply when you can make sure that you will be able to focus on your studies for the entire time of the program.
When should I start applying to grad school?
To give yourself enough time to get everything done on time and in the way you want it to be done (so there are no doubts and regrets if you are not chosen for a specific program), we recommend you start preparing your application about a year before it will be due. Another good rule of thumb is to start about 18 months before classes would start. Also consider that some graduate schools and programs offer rolling admission on a space-available basis while others have hard deadlines (usually in December or January for US American schools).
I don’t know where to apply to grad school—where do I even start?
Reflect on what factors (prestige, costs, location, curriculum…) are important for you and then start researching schools that fit your criteria. Have a look at program rankings. Ask professors/supervisors/professionals in your field what programs they might recommend. Then check out the school/program website or contact the administrators directly if you need more information. Find current students to talk to (for example on TheGradCafe.com) to get a better idea about a specific program. Consider visiting schools in person.
When are grad school deadlines for 2022-2023?
Deadlines for the fall semester vary, but most schools expect applications by December or January. Stanford, for example, opened applications on September 15, with the deadline for master’s programs closing on January 6, 2023. Deadlines for master’s programs at Duke’s graduate school range from the beginning of January to mid-March, while deadlines for graduate degrees at Yale start on December 1 and end on January 2 for some degrees. Examples of schools with rolling admissions are the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Minnesota, and Michigan State University.
Preparing Your Grad School Application Essays
To wrap it up, admissions requirements can vary by program, but you will most likely have to submit the following with your application: GRE or other standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, an up-to-date CV/resume tailored to the specific program you are applying for, filled in application forms, and, last but not least, a statement of purpose or personal statement that tells a powerful, convincing story, impresses the admission officers and increases your chances of getting accepted into your school of choice. If you need help with any of these documents or input on other aspects of the application process, then head over to the Wordvice Admissions Resources site, where we have a variety of articles and videos for you to check out. Our Admissions Editing Services are also always available to proofread your essays, polish your writing, highlight your strengths, and help you get admitted into the school of your choice
Wordvice Business & Writer Editing Services
After landing that sweet job position when you finish your graduate degree, be sure to get English editing for any of your crucial documents before sending them to colleagues, clients, or users. Check out our list of business editing and writer editing services below.