Grad School Application Timeline

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Grad School Application Timeline

A sample schedule for weighing options and applying to programs


Brad R. Conrad, Director of SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma

Learning about graduate schools and applying to programs is a time-consuming process, but working on it a little at a time can make it a lot less stressful. Below is a suggested timeline based on a four-year undergraduate experience that transitions right into a graduate program, though lots of successful graduate students don’t follow that path. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to planning your future, so adapt this to work for you. And if you’re in your final year of college, no need to panic! Just jump in where you can.

Years 1-2

  • Get started on research! Talk to professors, advisors, and classmates to find opportunities, and apply for summer research experiences (e.g., REUs) and internships.
  • Find out what schools your department’s alum attended and what they’re up to today.
  • Attend career fairs and department colloquia to learn about career options.

Year 3

  • Talk to current and recent graduate students about their experiences.
  • Identify what you’re looking for in a program: size, location, department culture, research specialties, financial assistance, etc.
  • Browse, and visit program websites.
  • Look into fellowships and scholarships that offer financial and professional support to grad students, like the NSF GRFP and the Hertz Fellowship. Their deadlines are often one year before you start grad school, and the awards follow you wherever you decide to go.
  • Start a list of programs that interest you.
  • Check program prerequisites to make sure your coursework is on track.
  • Check the financial packages offered by the programs on your list to make sure they’ll meet your needs.
  • Check whether those programs require entrance exams. If so, look up the details, decide when to take the exams, request fee waivers if applicable, register, and create study plans.
  • Take entrance exams, if applicable.

Summer before year 4

  • Decide where to apply. Many students submit 6–12 applications.
  • Look at the application essays required by each program. Draft a personal statement, research statement, and responses to all prompts. Draft a résumé or CV. Ask faculty members and mentors for feedback on everything.
  • Plan for application-related expenses. Most application fees are $60–$120. Entrance exams and official transcripts often have fees too. If cost is a barrier, request waivers and consider asking your department or lab for support.

Year 4, fall semester

  • Make a spreadsheet to track the status of each program’s application requirements and deadlines.
  • Take entrance exams, if applicable.
  • Request transcripts, exam scores, and letters of recommendation early. Ask letter writers at least four weeks before the due date.
  • Finalize your personal statement and essays for each program. Finalize your résumé. Ask the writing center or a friend to proofread everything.
  • Submit your applications, and make sure your letters are submitted too.
  • Take a well-deserved break!

Year 4, spring semester

  • Confirm that your applications were received.
  • Prepare for and participate in interviews and site visits, if applicable.
  • Consider your options and decide what’s next for you!
    • If you accept an offer, decline others immediately.
    • If you don’t receive offers, know that you’re not alone. Explore nontraditional routes such as bridge programs, which often have later application deadlines, and talk to your professional network about other possibilities.
  • Thank all those who helped you. Your professors and mentors can be a source of support and collaboration for years to come. Let them know your plans, and keep in touch.

This article is adapted from an earlier version that appeared in the 2021 issue of GradSchoolShopper magazine.



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