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Twelve-Month Checklist for Applying to Graduate School

Graduate school involves a major investment personally, intellectually, socially and financially. Be sure to allow yourself enough time to get all of the information you want and need.


12 months before applying

1. Do a Web-based search on graduate programs in the field of study you are pursuing, such as psychology, law, humanities, advertising, finance, etc. to identify as many institutions as possible. One excellent resource for this type of inquiry is GradSchools.com.

2. Once you have done a thorough search, make an alphabetical list of all your options, regardless of what you presently know or have heard about them, and put them on a spreadsheet. Be careful about accepting word of mouth or what you think you know as final at this point in the search process. Do not eliminate any option from your list.

3. Go online and do some initial research on all the institutions. Assess not only the content of material on their websites, but look at the way in which it is presented. Is information easy to find? Is the tone friendly and inviting? Are there easy and quick ways to request more information? This would also be a good time to subscribe to university mailing lists, follow the school’s Facebook page or LinkedIn profile, or request an e-brochure from each of the schools that interest you. The material available will vary from institution to institution, so be sure to review each Web site carefully before contacting the admissions office.

Requesting additional information not listed online will provide you an opportunity to find out just how responsive admissions offices are to you. This can be very telling, and may shed light on the general level of responsiveness of those institutions about which you have made an inquiry. Give each institution a grade on their Web site, and on the level of responsiveness they provided. Here is a suggested grading system:


A = easy to navigate, informative, captivating

B = well-done, good information, friendly 

C = fairly easy to navigate, not as helpful/friendly

D = difficult to navigate, not very informative  

F = what were they thinking?

FF = no website, or close to nothing


A = had a response within 5 business days

B = had a response within 10 business days

C = had a response within 15 business days

D = took three weeks or longer for a response

F = no response


11 months before applying

1. Based on the items above (website and responsiveness), you are now in a position to narrow your search. But do not narrow it too much. Obviously those institutions you have graded as F or FF could be eliminated. You may be surprised at some of the options you are eliminating should you rely completely on the grades given. If you still have an interest in a college or university that you did not initially grade well, keep it on the list for now. However, if you continue to get the same treatment you did when first browsing the web or asking for information, ask yourself: If I’m being treated this way now, how will it be should I apply, be offered admission, and enroll?

2. Further expand the spreadsheet you created last month to compare each of the options that remain on your list. (See the spreadsheet here.) Some of the columns in your research spreadsheet will have letter grades, some will say “yes,” “no” or “maybe,” some will be dates, dollar amounts or various numerical responses, and some will be more evaluative (scale of 1-5, with 1 being terrible and 5 being outstanding).


10 months before applying

1. Work on completing your research spreadsheet, filling in every column for each option. As you go along you will eliminate a few or quite a few. That is okay. As a consumer you are doing what you should be doing—comparing.

2. After reviewing your spreadsheet, do a very general rank order of the options that remain. You could rank every option, starting with #1 and going to the end of the list. Or, you could group your options: top group, second group, third group, etc. Whenever possible, you should have at least five options left. However, depending on the type of graduate program you seek, the number of options will vary. The point is that you are still not at the place where you need to have a “shortlist.” You are still 10 months away from applying, and will have several opportunities to narrow down your list before that time.


9 months before applying

1. Start preparing for any standardized tests required as part of the application process. Depending on the program, most graduate school admissions committees will require the GRE, GMAT, or in some cases the MCAT, which is for medical school applicants. In addition, as an international applicant you will most likely be required to take a test to demonstrate your level of proficiency in the English language.

The Educational Testing Service, the Graduate Management Admission Council, and the Association of American Medical Colleges have preparation materials on their websites. Other organizations, such as Barrons, Kaplan, Peterson’s and the Princeton Review offer test preparation classes. In addition, you can go to your local bookstore or EducationUSA Advising Center and find a host of printed materials and study guides.

Standardized tests bring varying degrees of stress for prospective students. While test scores measure a certain level of academic ability, they by no means cover the entire academic arena. Most admissions committees do not have a cut-off requirement for test scores, but some do. It is a good idea to find out what each of your options looks for.

2. If you can afford to visit an institution more than once, make your first visit unannounced. How you are treated as a complete stranger can be  revealing. In addition, you may not have the financial resources to make a campus visit at all. If so, be sure to take the virtual campus tour that is offered on most admissions office websites.


8 months before applying

1. Now is the time to do some additional research on your options. One area that may be of interest is the type of press they receive. There are at least two ways to find this out: One is to go to the website and look for a link that might read: “(institution name) in the news,” or “press coverage of (institution name).” A second way is to search online for press coverage. This type of search will yield more news clips because institutional websites tend to accentuate only positive press coverage.

2. Another way to learn about your options is to read their institutional and student-run newspapers. In some cases you may have to ask for access to these, and in others you can view them freely on the website. This allows you to review both external (press) and internal (institutional/student) perspectives on faculty, research, etc. that you will not find in admissions or other promotional information.

3. Find out if there are rankings of institutions offering the graduate program you are seeking. Various organizations provide annual or biannual rankings that can be useful to you. However, remember that rankings and reputation are two different things. Organizations that do rankings may try to provide reliable information, but those actually doing the data gathering, analysis and dissemination of the rankings have biases of their own. Often times they have never stepped foot on campus. Also, rankings provide a source of revenue for the organizations doing them. One ranking differs from the next. You may be better off looking for trends, such as: Has a particular institution or program of interest been consistently ranked in the top 20?

Remember that rankings and your success in and after graduate school are also two different things. Your ultimate success will depend on two qualities you need to succeed, which come from within: persistence and determination.


7 months before applying

1. Contact current students at the institutions on your list. If you know someone who is attending, contact them and ask questions. If not, ask the admissions staff if they can put you in touch with a current student or two. Many admissions offices have student volunteers who are willing to talk with prospective students. If you can ask the same questions for each of your options, you will have more information for your spreadsheet.

2. At this point, do a second evaluation of your options, considering what you have discovered from external and internal press, rankings, and conversations with students. Remember, you are not ready to make your shortlist yet. You can, however, change your spreadsheet evaluations at any time. Also, something you learn from the press or rankings about an option that was eliminated earlier from your list may cause you to place that option back on.


6 months before applying

1. Most applicants will not have an opportunity to visit the campus before applying—that’s ok. But if you have the opportunity, a campus visit is a unique chance to see if the school is a good fit for you. Institutions usually offer two ways to visit.

a. Most institutions provide opportunities to visit the campus during the academic year. Visitors can usually attend classes, take a campus tour, meet current students and talk with someone in the admissions office.

b. Some institutions also have special campus visit programs, which include sessions on the admissions process, financial aid, housing, student life, career services and more. These special programs often take place in the fall.

2. One alternative to a campus visit is to find out if admissions information sessions, also called receptions, are being held close to where you live. Many institutions recruit in areas they have identified as strong or developing markets.

3. Another option is to take a virtual tour of the facilities. Most admissions websites offer this option.

4. Make sure to evaluate your visit on your spreadsheet (see the September/ October edition of SPAN for a sample research spreadsheet) as soon as possible after your visit.

Reputation, rankings and reality are very different things. When it comes to reputation, while an institution may be well-known or considered prestigious, this does not mean it has to be on your final list or that it has the best program for you. As mentioned earlier, rankings are useful. But remember that those publishing them are looking to sell what they publish. If there is considerable difference between one ranking and the next, it is likely that good methodology is taking a backseat to selling copies of the ranking or is designed for advertising purposes. Finally, it is what is real for you that is most important. It is your time, energy and financial resources that are being spent.


5 months before applying

1. Prepare for standardized tests. Be sure to take a look at the websites of programs you are interested in to see which tests may be required. On your research spreadsheet you have a column for application requirements. Start familiarizing yourself with both the logistics of taking the tests, as well as actually doing some practice test taking.

2. Explore available resources for test prep. In India, visit or contact an EducationUSA Advising Center and library to learn about the resources available to you. Also, as most graduate school applicants are asked to take the GRE or GMAT as well as an English-language assessment, there are primary sources of information you should review. These include:

a. The Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey (GRE and TOEFL iBT)

b. The Graduate Management Admission Council in Virginia (GMAT)

c. International English Language Testing System (IELTS)

d. Pearson Test of English (PTE) Academic

Should you not score as well on your test as you had hoped, take it a second or even a third time. This does not make you look less competitive in the application process. Rather, it demonstrates that you are trying your best to perform well on the test.


4 months before applying

1. Narrow your list of options down to those to which you will submit an application.

2. Take a close look at your research spreadsheet. Which of your options have the highest evaluations, based on your research and admissions information you received?

3. Focus your time and energy on a limited number of options.

4. Be careful about applying to only one institution. If you are absolutely certain that this is by far the only option, be sure to prepare yourself for whatever decision you receive.

It is important to keep all the information you have gathered on all of your options until you have made your decision about where you will attend and have actually enrolled there. Should plans change in some way or you decide to hold off on your graduate studies for another year or longer, you will not be starting from scratch when you resume the research process.


3 months before applying

1. Now it is time to make sure you have current application materials. You will most likely access applications on the institution’s website. Having reviewed the information on your school spreadsheet (see the Sept/Oct 2013 issue of SPAN for a sample spreadsheet), you should be generally familiar with the deadlines.

2. Verify the requirements for admission interviews, if applicable, and revisit the interview deadlines for each option. You should already have some of this information on your spreadsheet.

3. Start thinking about who you will ask to write letters of recommendation for you. If you are applying to several schools, be sure to have more than one or two individuals selected. A good rule of thumb is: One person could probably do two or three recommendations. Once you have selected those you would like to use, contact them and get their approval.

4. Similar to the school spreadsheet, create an application spreadsheet. Place the names of each of your options alphabetically down the left hand column. Across the top, place the items you want to be sure you remember, or compare, throughout the application process. These will include:

a. The deadline for which you will apply

b. Date you actually send in your application

c. Interview requirements

d. The date your interview was scheduled

e. Is the interview to be conducted on campus, in your area or by Skype?

f. The date of your interview

g. Were you notified that your application had been received? If so, how long after you sent it in?

h. Did the admissions office notify you of a decision?

i. If admitted, how was the follow-up afterward? Too much? Too little?

j. What is the enrollment deposit amount and deadline, if admitted?

k. What information do you need for financial aid purposes, if admitted?

l. Is there a campus visit program for newly admitted students? If yes, and you attended, what did you think? Is this a place at which you would feel comfortable?

m. If waitlisted, how were you treated?

n. If denied, how were you treated?

o. Is waitlist, deny or re-application feedback available?

p. If you chose to appeal your denial, was the admissions staff friendly and caring?

Tip: This is a great time to create outlines of the essays you will write. This also helps to ensure you answer the right questions for the right schools.


2 months before applying

1. Set aside time each day, or every other day, to complete your applications.

2. Address or complete one essay each time you work on your applications.

3. Make sure your recommenders are ready to go with their letters or forms, and confirm that you have provided them all the information they need.

4. Start requesting transcripts. Most universities are familiar with this part of the application process and have procedures in place. If you need additional assistance, USIEF offers attestation services to Indian citizens who are applying to U.S. higher education institutions.

5. Make sure you are ready to schedule any interviews you plan to conduct. Admissions offices will have different procedures for these and you want to make sure you are following the right guidelines for the right school. Having your application spreadsheet is very helpful here.

Tip: With the exception of essays, it may be helpful to complete the same section for each application you are submitting. That way you are going over the same information, and have a sense of accomplishment.


1 month before applying

1. Now it is time to fine-tune your applications. Thoroughly re-check your essays. Then have someone else check them. Go over each of the other sections to be sure you have accurately answered all questions.

2. Be certain, to the best of your ability, your applications are exactly the way you want them to be.

3. Start preparing your application fees. Keep in mind that some universities and colleges are willing to waive their application fees for financially deserving students. Contact the admissions department to explain your circumstances and request an application fee waiver. It is important to do this well in advance of the application deadline.

If you need help requesting a fee waiver, contact an EducationUSA adviser in India: www.EducationUSA. info/India or call toll free at 1800 103 1231.


Don Martin is a former admissions dean at Columbia, University of Chicago and Northwestern; and author of “Road Map for Graduate Study.”

Wesley Teter is a former regional director for EducationUSA in New Delhi. He is also the editor of the multimedia outreach campaign, 10 Steps to Study in the United States.