So you’re thinking about applying to graduate school, congratulations! Applying to grad school is a truly exciting period of your life because it means you’re committing to embarking on a new challenge to make yourself a better person.
That being said, it’s also a time-consuming, intensive, and expensive process. Applying to grad school is no light decision and something you should take seriously and commit to spending months of preparation on. After going through the rigorous process myself, here are my tips:
This might be obvious, but if you’re not 100% certain you want to complete graduate school, then don’t do it. Before you make the decision to apply to grad school, you should have a clear idea of what you want to get out of your experience, how your degree will contribute to your life and career, and if it will truly achieve your objectives. Some professions simply don’t require a grad degree to be successful and/or well paid; others require it. Before you make the decision to apply, make sure you’re committed to the degree you’re pursuing and fully understand your reasons for wanting doing so.
Like, really early. As in, you should be thinking about and preparing for graduate school about a year before applications are due, which is about 7 – 10 months before grad programs typically start…meaning you should start thinking seriously about grad programs 1.75-2 years before the program itself would start.
But don’t get stressed! The most important reason to start thinking about grad school early is so you have enough time to get a general sense of what types of programs you want to apply to and what their general requirements are. Most programs don’t list out requirements to get into their programs, but if you read between the lines, you can usually figure out what they’re looking for. If you don’t immediately fit a program’s profile, it’s useful to know that in advance so you can take the appropriate steps to strengthen your application.
For example, almost all of the public policy programs I applied to had a preference for applicants who had a demonstrated commitment to public service and had completed economics and statistics courses. In order to strengthen my application, I increased the amount of volunteer activities I was involved in several months before applying, and completed online graduate courses (including Statistics) at a nearby college to prove I was capable of succeeding in a rigorous academic environment. Neither of those things would have been possible to do if I only started my search a few months before applications were due, but I started thinking about grad school early and was able to plan ahead.
If you already have a good understanding of what you’d like to do and feel confident that you have the right profile for the programs you want to apply to, you likely don’t have to start searching quite so early. Regardless, it might take more time than you think to search for programs you love and decide where to apply. Depending on what you want to study, there may be dozens of programs to consider, and it’ll take lots of research (see the next section) to finalize the list of where to apply.
A general rule of thumb is to apply to 5-7 programs, with 1-2 programs being reach schools, 2-3 schools that fit your exact profile, and 1-2 safety schools.If you can find more than 7 programs you really like, I might suggest that you need to narrow your focus and spend more time researching all aspects of schools and programs, and narrow down the list. To reiterate a sentiment from above, if you don’t really love a program and don’t see yourself being happy there, don’t apply. If you don’t get into any programs you really like, I would genuinely recommend taking a year to strengthen your application and then apply again, rather than commit to a program you don’t like.
Something else to seriously consider when creating a shot-list is the amount of time, energy, and money it takes to apply. Each program likely has its own set of unique essays, videos, and interviews to complete, and if you don’t tailor each piece of your application to that specific program and school, then seriously – don’t bother applying. Each program has unique values and goals and looks for unique characteristics, and all of that needs to be translated into your application.Writing good essays takes serious time (something I’ll get into in a future post), and that alone may preclude you from applying to a multitude of programs. Trust me, you’ll get busy, life will get in the way, and you if try to overachieve and try to apply to too many schools, you may shoot yourself in the foot (think quality over quantity).
And in terms of costs: the GREs currently cost $205, sending your scores after you take the GREs is $27 per school, each program charges anywhere from $25-$85 to apply, and my alma matter charged $8 for each official transcript sent. Needless to say, the costs tallied up real quick.
Seriously. Don’t give yourself only a few weeks to decide where to apply, as it may be something you need to think about and keep in the back of your mind for months. Making the decision to dedicate a full year or two to your studies, a lot of money, and sometimes a move across the country, aren’t decisions that should be made lightly.
When you finalize where to apply, the best thing you can do for your applications is to spend time on them. Spend time making a really good first draft, and then take a break from it. Look at it again with fresh eyes and then make another really good fresh draft. Then, give it a friend to review, and then make another really good draft. Rinse, repeat, etc.
Some programs may also ask questions that you may not have an immediate answer to and will want to take time to deliberate on. For example, I had to write short essays on my biggest accomplishment and my biggest achievement. Instead of writing about the first thing I could think of, I spent weeks thinking about the most strategic way to answer those questions.
Jan – May: Start searching for programs to apply to
June – July: Study for the GREs/GMATs
August: Take the GREs/GMATs
Sep: Take the GREs/GMATs again (this is much more common than you think)
Oct. 1 – Dec. 1: Start your applications
Dec. 1 – Feb. 1: Applications due