Graduate School Application Planning: When to Apply & Where to Start

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Preparing your graduate school applications can be a daunting task. It is a big, time-intensive, and complex commitment – and often one many applicants are working on in addition to work, school, or both! The best way to give yourself a shot at success is by understanding the application process fully before embarking on the journey. In this guide, we try to unwrap this seemingly complex undertaking, break it off into its component parts, and guide you on how to approach each task. We will go through the application timeline and help you answer questions like ‘How should I start the application process?’ and ‘What should I do when?’

The graduate school application is a daunting and drawn-out process. Firstly you need to research many different programs and select those that best align with your career aspirations. Then you need to start preparing for entrance exams, gather recommendations, pull together your CV, write multiple essays outlining your strengths and motivations, and do anything else the university requires! Before you embark on this daunting journey, it is essential to understand what all it entails.

Step 1 – Understand the Process & Commit to the Work

Start as early as possible. Ideally, more than a year in advance.

Whether you are planning to start your graduate program next year or five years from now, it is never too early to understand the admission process. Understanding the process, requirements, and how schools evaluate applicants will help you tailor your academic and/or professional decisions to build a strong applicant profile.

To Do – Research rigorously and make a list of the schools and programs that you’re interested in.

Admissions requirements can vary depending on your target program (MBA, MS, PhD), your field of interest as well as which university you are hoping to get into. For example – some MBA programs just require a Personal Statement essay, while others require multiple short essays in addition to a longer Personal Statement.

Yet, there are a few aspects that are common to most graduate schools that you must familiarize yourself with. Most will require the following components in some form:

  • Undergraduate Transcript and Cumulative GPA
  • Test Scores (GMAT, GRE, TOEFL, etc.)
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Multiple Application Essays and/or Statement of Purpose
  • Resume or CV
  • Interview process

Begin by looking up the graduate schools you are interested in attending. Take your time to go through the university’s website and talk to alumni to understand the specific requirements of the programs. This will also help you figure out the field of study you seem inclined towards. Use this knowledge to form a broad shortlist of universities you would like to get accepted to.

This list doesn’t have to be finalized – you can add or remove schools down the line, but it helps to have a few target schools in mind so you have an understanding of requirements. This list can also help keep you motivated throughout the application process since it’s more concrete and can make going to grad school seem more real!

Step 2 – Decide Your Test Strategy

We recommend starting 9 months before the application deadline.

Once you have a rough list of target schools and their application deadlines, the first step is to check their standardized test requirements. Taking the test can be a time-consuming task, and you need to make sure you have enough time to give yourself a proper shot at the exam.

Depending on your target program and prior professional experience, you might get a waiver for the test score, as well. You can typically find out if you’re eligible for a waiver on the university’s admissions website.

To Do – Take a Diagnostic Test. Customize your prep to your current level and target score.

Start by taking a free practice test to understand where you stand. This will help you set up your study schedule, and determine how much work is needed to get you to your target score (more on that in a second!).

Most of the common tests have at least one free official mock exam made available by the organization that administers the test (ex. ETS for the GRE, or GMAC for the GMAT). Many test-prep organizations offer free practice tests on their websites, too!

Then, compare the mock score with the average scores of last year’s class for the programs you are targeting. If your score is way off the average score, you’ll know that you will need to spend significant time studying in order to bring your score up. If you end up close to the average score, a quick revision might do the trick.

As you think about how much time is needed to study and what score you’re targeting, consider that you’ll want to have your test completed at least six weeks or two months before your applications are due – so you have time to finalize your essays and other components of your application. It can also be helpful to build in time to take the test more than once, since you’ll very likely score better on your second attempt!

While the test score is just one component of the application that admissions committees look at, having a high test score will have a direct and positive impact on your application.

Step 3 – Starting Crafting Your Story

Start at least 5 – 6 months before the application deadline.

By this time, most schools have released their essay questions – whether it’s for a series of short essays or a longer Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose (SOP) – or both.

Writing a great essay is a time-consuming process and involves a good amount of self-introspection and contemplation. You will need to write multiple drafts and get feedback from different people on the style and substance of your essay. Hence, start early and spend enough time crafting your story to showcase it in a clear and compelling light!

Whether you are done with test prep or not, it is good to start thinking about what kind of a story you want to share with the admissions team through your essays. I recommend keeping a list of short stories and anecdotes that you want to incorporate in your essays – this will make getting started drafting much easier!

To Do – Figure out your unique storyline and structure it professionally.

All top graduate school programs around the world would require a detailed Personal Statement, Statement of Purpose (SOP), or multiple essay questions. Regardless of the specific requirement, every admissions committee uses essays to assess who you are as a person and what distinguishes you from the rest of the applicants. Given this, it is extremely important that you write a story that is unique to you and ties well with the other aspects of your application.

Most essays require thorough research of the university you are applying to so that you can answer the ‘Why this university’ and ‘Why this program’ questions authentically. While it can be helpful to have a template essay that explains who you are and your professional interests – you’ll want to make sure that your reasons for being interested in a specific university is anything but generic. Admissions committees are experts at figuring out who’s genuinely interested in their program and not.

Use formal, but friendly language. While it is good to show a command of the English language, avoid unnecessary jargon or acronyms – schools will know this isn’t authentic! Finally – make sure to proofread and edit your drafts multiple times to ensure no grammatical or spelling errors.

Step 4 – Ask for Letters of Recommendation

Give each recommender 2 – 3 months to write your recommendation.

Letters of Recommendation are one of the trickier parts of the application – because you’re relying on your recommenders to both write great letters about you, and turn them in on time!

To Do – Brainstorm several potential recommenders who you’d be happy to have write your recommendation. Reach out in order of preference.

The best thing you can do to ensure you have great recommendation letters to submit is to think carefully about who’s well-positioned to write you a glowing letter i.e. it should be someone who’s worked closely with you! And, then give them plenty of time to draft the letter – and lots of examples and anecdotes for them to incorporate.

Make sure to clearly communicate deadlines and send (friendly!) reminders along the way.

Step 5 – Complete Every Part of the Application with Rigor

Start completing the application about 20 – 30 days before the deadline.

Once you have your test score and your essays have started to take shape, it’s time to move to the other application requirements. Identify any official documents you need to submit like graduation transcripts, professional certificates, etc. Also, make sure your recommenders are on track to submit well in advance of the deadline!

No matter how simple these last few requirements might seem, it is important not to rush through them. Always keep room for unexpected hiccups when dealing with external parties. A week or two of buffer will help you keep your stress levels in check and ensure you put your best foot forward!

To Do – Tie the story together with professional achievements and personal anecdotes.

Apart from transcripts and LORs, some programs will also ask a lot of short answer questions about your academic or professional journey. Some might ask you to list your top 3 professional achievements, while some may require an additional question about your strengths and weaknesses. No matter what shape or form these last few questions come in, make sure to answer them with the same rigor that you used for all the other aspects of the applications. Students often underestimate the importance of these seemingly direct questions and write things for the sake of completion. Make use of these questions to tie together your story – are there important parts of your background or personality that you didn’t have a chance to talk about elsewhere in your application?

Step 6 – Know When to Hit the Submit Button!

Submit your application a day or two before the deadline – and then celebrate!

Fiddling with your application until the last minute isn’t ideal. Also – there can occasionally be a surge of applicants at the last minute that causes glitches in the submission system. So – to be safe – be ready to submit your application a few days ahead of the deadline!

If you’ve done thorough research, worked hard on each component of your application, and gotten feedback from professionals or academics in your field – you’re ready to submit! Congrats on making it this far in the graduate school application process – we’re proud of you, and hope you take some time for a well-deserved celebration!


  • Ayush Verma

    Ayush is a Test Prep Expert and Application Coach actively involved in the Test Prep and Application Consulting space for several years now. He is a GMAT 99 Percentiler and has extensive experience in delivering private tutoring sessions for GMAT, GRE, and SAT exams. Ayush has a Bachelor’s in Computer Science and an MBA in Strategy from the Indian School of Business. He is an ardent ManUnited fan and when he is not helping students understand that tricky GMAT question or write that dreaded Why MBA answer, he would be likely cheering for his team at Old Trafford (GGMU). To connect with him, feel free to reach out to him via LinkedIn or his website Test Prep Buddy.

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