When to Apply for Grad School?

The best time to start your application to graduate school is not when the institution opens its application portal…

Smart students who desire to have a stress-free application, get all documents ready and perfectly reviewed by professionals and trusted friends do so earlier than you might imagine.

The secret to success in life, generally, is planning. And when it comes to applying for a grad school, you need that solid plan together with time and project management—treating every component of the admission application process as a project. Creating a to-do list of tasks that need to be done at a particular period of time.

An early submission can give you an edge and below are tips to help you at least get off to a smooth start.

The first thing is making that decision to go and then position yourself in the best way possible to be accepted into your desired school and program.

…And what’s the best way to do that?

Begin by breaking down the mountain of tasks into manageable parts, proceed by asking yourself the questions below, and follow the general timeline.

How Long Should You Give Yourself?

When applying to a graduate school, you should give yourself a minimum of 1 year.

This long period of preparation is to give yourself the most breathing room and get the necessary things ready before the application deadline.

You don’t want to wait until the application is open before you start putting documents into place. You want to target late October/early November admission windows and plan a year before.

In fact, many people recommend 18 months before your first day of class. Their reason for this recommendation is to save you from any stress or unforeseen circumstances, plus the fact that some graduate schools do not have extended periods of deadlines.

Where to Start

As a student looking to apply to graduate school, the best way to start is by talking to your school professors or project supervisor.

Visit Gradschools.com, TheGradCafe.com or the Princeton Review. And then visit the school.

For students abroad, while you might not be able to visit the school in person, you can do an online tour of the school by browsing through the institutions. In your research consider factors such as location, programs offered, faculty, research opportunities and cost.

This will help you to gather enough ideas about the programs or schools that interest you (of course, not every school will attract you).

What Test Do I Need to Get Into Grad School?

Ask yourself a few questions; what school interests me? Which program do I want to go for?

Now, if you can answer these questions, then you already have answers to the test you will need to do that will boost the chances of your application.

If you have a list of universities that interest you, then go through their requirements and deadlines. Make a list of these requirements and create a to-do list for yourself.

Let the to-do list contain:

  • The required admissions tests if any
  • Recommendation letters
  • Transcripts and personal statements or essays are on that list.
  • Application start and end date

The application deadlines will let you know when to apply to grad school.

From here, if the GRE exam is part of the admission requirements, you would want to start consulting with the relevant test-prep organizations that offer free practice tests on their websites. If IELTS or TOEFL tests are required, you would also want to start preparing and sit for the exam when you have the confidence that you can do it and pass excellently.

When to Start Writing a Personal Statement?

Recommended timeframe is 4-5 months before applying to grad school.

One thing to consider here is that this is not a last-minute proposition. You will definitely need plenty of time for revisions from trusted friends, colleagues and your professors or project supervisor for them to give constructive feedback. 

No matter how good you are at writing, humans are prone to errors and sometimes you may not even see some of these errors.

Keep in mind that your personal statement is an accurate depiction of the “real” you—what you’ve accomplished to get where you are, and why you want to pursue that degree at the specific institution and not in another institution.

Don’t forget to keep that list of trusted professors handy (who review or help to proofread your writing). You will need their recommendations when it’s time for it.

When Do I Fill in My Application?

Target: 1 month before applying to grad school.

When it is about a month into your application, request your official transcripts and start your application processes. 

At this point, your essays should be ready for a final edit, and make sure to give a friendly reminder to your recommendation writers. If you need to retake a standardized test, do it now.

Although most schools have application deadlines from Oct. 31 to Jan. 15, early submission is better, especially for institutions with rounds or rolling admission—getting that application in during the first round will give you an edge.

No matter what the application process entails, a late application can put you under high pressure; you don’t want to find yourself in that state.

How to Strengthen Your Application for Grad Schools

Application into graduate schools varies by institution and program that you wish to apply for.

The stronger and solid your application is the better the chances of making it through to enrolment.

While many applications emphasize a strong undergraduate GPA, compelling recommendations, good test scores, and a great personal statement, there are many programs that require some other things such as academic publications (maybe thesis), research, teaching experience, and in most cases, leadership skills and volunteering for community services.

A strong application will help position you for your chosen program in graduate school.

Here is a breakdown of things you can do to strengthen your application in the meantime as you prepare for your graduate studies:

  • Volunteer: Volunteering for community programs is a way to augment your application in cases where there is no teaching experience. Looking out for what’s available near you can help you to identify opportunities wherein you can participate.
  • Become a research assistant: Work experience can cover for this—where you have a full-time job and you probably can’t quit it for an underpaid and overworked full-time research assistant. But if you have the time, you can offer to help professors with research projects on a volunteer basis.
  • Work on cultivating mentors: These are people who can eventually write strong references and recommendations for you. Whether this entails strengthening relationships with supervisors, going to alumni events, joining professional organizations, or getting back in touch with professors, having a genuine connection with people who can write you strong recommendations is a great way to improve your application for the next admissions cycle.
  • Take classes: Take some courses that can help you demonstrate to admission committees that you can be a strong graduate school student.

Applying to Grad Schools? Factor in Your Personal Life and Relationships

Graduate school can be a bit hard for students especially if you already have a full-time job. 

Activating that student mode is not easy. You will have a completely different schedule and you will want to adjust and manage your time (work-study-life balance). Your finances are going to be impacted and it could have an impact on your relationships, especially if you are already married with kids. 

Although these changes can be exciting, it’s important to be ready for them. Proper planning ahead of time can help you to strategize and come up with a work-study-life balance that works well for you.  

Consider the Cost and Finances

At graduate school, you will definitely have many new expenses including tuition and fees, room and board or housing and food bills, books and supplies, and so on. Nontraditional students who have worked or started a family before attending graduate school may have already learned to manage their money well but are usually still confronted with some financial issues even when they have fellowship or other funding.


  • Studying at graduate school means you will need more time for studying and less time to work and make money.
  • Additional expenses will come in apart from the tuition and fees.
  • You are more likely to juggle a budget that may include a family, mortgage, and other established expenses.

Breakdown of Grad School Application Timeline

There are many things you will want to decide on; from the schools to taking the GRE, gathering recommendations, requesting transcripts, writing application essays and some other things based on the requirements. To plan for all of these, here is a breakdown of the graduate school application timeline.

Timeline Task
January-March Identify the school: Dedicate this period to figuring out what programs you want to apply for while also considering factors like the faculty, school location, fees and other expenses, and curriculum.
March Make a Chart/Tracking System for Your Tasks: The chart here is the grad school application timeline. It will give you a clear and easy-to-follow list of tasks along with specific goals.
Register for GRE: Although you can register for the Graduate Record Examinations when it’s most convenient for you, the June/July GRE is most advisable because you will have enough time to prepare and have time to retake the GRE one more time before the application deadlines should the result turn out not to be what you want.
April-May Prepare For GRE: For the spring and early summer, focus on GRE prep; understand the GRE and the underlying content that the test is all about. Study with practice questions and work with your study plan. You’ll want to make a specific study plan based on where you are now (your baseline) and what score you want to get (your goal score).
June-July Take GRE: It’s time to take the GRE! To increase your chances of GRE success, get a good night’s sleep the night before the exam and eat a healthy breakfast and make sure you take along everything required at the venue.
Send Scores: Once you complete your test score and see your results, send it to the graduate programs of your choice. Note that your final score report will only be available online after 10-15 days.
July-August Start Working on Essays: By mid to late summer, most programs will have posted application information for the coming fall. This means that essay prompts should be available! Summer is a good time to start working on grad school essays and personal statements because you should have some time to really focus on your essays before you have to start worrying about all the other administrative hoopla that goes with applications. Try to complete robust outlines for all of your essays during this time, and get a jump on a few of your drafts.
September Ask for recommendations: In early September, it’s time to get in touch with your recommenders. This is a good time because it’s well before any deadlines and people won’t already be overcommitted to writing recommendation letters for other people. Even the most dedicated professor can only take on so many recommendations in a given term!
October Request Transcripts: It’s time to request transcripts from anywhere you’ve already taken college- or graduate-level coursework! For some applications, you may be able to scan and upload an official copy of your transcript, but for most, you’ll need to have an official copy sent directly to the school. Requesting early means that you’ll have time to deal with any administrative errors or issues that come up in the transcript-request process.
Start Application Forms: This is a good time to start working on all those application forms! Lots of the information you enter will be fairly tedious—typing out your college coursework, test scores, and listing addresses. But you’ll also probably need to write about your work, research, and teaching experience, as well as extracurriculars, honours, and publications. You may also need to include a resume or CV; this is a good time to make sure that it’s polished and up-to-date.
Keep Working on Essays: Be sure to keep working on those essays. Try to have all your drafts done by the end of October so that you can turn them over to some trusted sources for feedback and suggestions for revision.
Take GRE Again and send scores (if necessary): If you weren’t happy with your first set of GRE scores, this is the time to take the test again!
October Start Application Forms: This is a good time to start working on all those application forms! Lots of the information you enter will be fairly tedious—typing out your college coursework, test scores, and listing addresses. But you’ll also probably need to write about your work, research, and teaching experience, as well as extracurriculars, honours, and publications. You may also need to include a resume or CV; this is a good time to make sure that it’s polished and up-to-date.
November Make sure recommendations and transcripts are on track: Check school application portals to make sure that transcripts and recommendations have been received. If not, follow up with your previous institutions to make sure nothing has gone awry and check in with your recommenders!
Finish Essays: After you’ve had some other people look over your essays, it’s time to make the final revisions. When you’re happy with the substance, make sure to double-check that there are no typos or errors.
Finish Application Forms: If you haven’t already, finish out all of your application forms.
December Submit your applications wrap: Up any loose ends, review your application one last time for any errors, and submit!

Understanding Graduate School’s Admission-Application Deadlines

How early should you submit your application?

It’s always good to submit your application early. However, early submission sometimes depends on the program type:

1. Rolling Admissions

For rolling admissions, the earlier you submit your application, the better. Because the review process starts the moment the application is received so there may be more funding for earlier applicants. 

Applicants need to get themselves ready with all the requirements and submit them early in the first few weeks after the school begins accepting applications.

2. Priority Deadline

In some cases you can have a priority deadline for funding, in that case, you want to meet up with the deadline. This will increase your chances of funding and admission as well. You should treat the priority deadline as a hard deadline.

Just One Deadline

Where there’s only one deadline and no rolling admissions, an early submission may not be that important. You can take your time to review or scrutinize your application over and over before you submit it.

But still, submitting early helps you to focus on other things. And of course, you definitely don’t want to leave everything to the last minute.

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