The first step in applying is deciding if graduate school is right for you. So, now you’ve decided: it’s time to gather your materials and start sending in those applications.
This list pretty much covers all the bases of what a school will expect for a graduate application. You’ll find many don’t expect all of these things, and some will even throw a few extra wild cards at you just to keep you on your toes.
What you’ll need:
- Subject and General GRE Test scores
- Personal Statement
- Academic Statement of Purpose
- Writing sample
- Transcripts from degree-awarding institutions
- 3 faculty recommendations
Applications are generally due during the months of December and January. My earliest application was due December 6th and the latest was February 2nd, but the majority were due between mid-December and early January. Your first order of business is to figure out when you are taking the GREs. Trust me, this is something you’ll want to get out of the way ASAP. If you are really prepared, I’d recommend looking at the times the Subject and General GREs are offered a year in advance. The best time to take it is over the summer when you’ll have free time to study and fewer conflicts. You can always take it again if you’re unhappy with your initial score.
Another thing you’ll want to think about as early in advance as possible is your writing sample. What will you write about? When will you have time to work on it in addition to your studies? Ideally, the writing sample will be the most recent sample of your best work to date. As many applicants will note, this presents a conundrum. If you have a paper you’re working on for the current semester, will you have enough time to revise and polish it before the application deadline? If it’s a paper from a previous semester, will it really reflect all you’ve learned since? I will have much more to say on this subject later, but for now know that it is something to start thinking about as early as possible.
Next, you need to ask your instructors for recommendations. If they are popular professors, chances are many students will be asking them to write recommendations. The earlier in advance your recommenders know which recommendations they have to write, the better they can prioritize their time. The last thing you need is a hurriedly written recommendation or worse, an irritated recommender. While you’ll want to initiate the discussion with your recommenders as early as possible, you’ll need to keep them updated as you get further in the process.
I kept a spreadsheet of all the schools I applied to, which materials they required, whether the recommendations had been sent etc. I also kept a list of all the usernames and passwords I used to sign in to each application. Even if you’re not an organization freak, I highly recommend doing something similar. After the first four times you forget where you wrote down the application login number to a particular school, you’ll want to throw your computer across the room, and believe me, there will be plenty else to stress about before this process is over.
In order to create said spreadsheet, you’ll need to decide which schools you’re applying to. Talk with professors in your intended field, ask graduate students for recommendations, and research the programs you’re looking into. Also, think about where you would be willing to live and what type of atmosphere you prefer. Remember, application fees are not cheap. If you know ahead of time that a particular school is not strong in your field of interest, or that you’d prefer a small liberal arts school over a big research university, it’s best to save yourself the time and application fees from the beginning.
Almost all applications will be online. I only had to send in one application by mail, but be aware that there may be schools that will require you to send materials by mail. Now you will begin the arduous process of signing in to all the applications and filling out the personal information they require. Wouldn’t it be nice if they standardized this process? Yep, sure would. Get ready to fill out your mailing addresses (both permanent and local), GRE scores, and undergraduate institution code ONE MILLION TIMES. Ha, ok it’s only like 10, but it’ll feel like a million.
Around September of the year I applied, I had all the aforementioned tasks out of the way (except for the Subject GRE, but that’s another story) and I thought I was well ahead of the game. Boy, was I in for a stress-coaster. I went back and forth on which writing sample I was going to use so many times I still to this day sometimes forget which one I picked for a minute. I thought “personalizing” my personal statements for each school was a matter of pulling up a single word document and making a few minor edits. Misleading information on all the schools’ websites regarding how to submit transcripts sent me into a frenzy approximately twice a week.
You may think yourself the most prepared, organized, put-together applicant in the world, but inevitably something will go amiss with your applications. However, if you plan ahead and know what you’re doing, you’ll have time to work through any problems and get your applications in on time.