Preparing a Successful Grad-School Application Takes A Lot More Time Than Most People Assume


It’s early in the fall semester, and undergraduate students at colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada are still getting settled into their new classes. At some point during the next few months, a new cohort of graduating seniors who plan to pursue a master’s or doctorate degree will begin dealing with grad-school applications. If past experience is a good indicator of what to expect over the next few months, I should be meeting several students who want to apply to grad school for next year, but who have waited too long to begin preparing.

For most students, there is more to applying successfully to graduate school than just submitting all the required parts of the application. It can take several months, even a year or more, to make all the necessary preparations so that when the time actually comes to put together the application, all the right elements are in place to ensure you are successful at getting into the program that’s right for you. Too often, students postpone everything related to grad-school applications until their senior year. By then, it’s often too late to prepare an effective application, so compromises are made, and the rush to meet an application deadline ends up in a flawed application package, and a rejection letter.

The remainder of this post discusses a few of the more time-consuming steps in the process of applying to graduate school. The advice is especially applicable to students who are applying to a doctorate program, or to a master’s program in which they will have a research supervisor (common in the sciences and social sciences).

Setting up effective letters of recommendation

One of the most influential components of a grad-school application is the letters of recommendation. Most graduate programs require applicants to submit three letters. Some of the people who make decisions about who gets in and who does not care more about what they can glean from an applicant’s letters of recommendation than from any other part of the application. It is essential that the letters come from people who have known the student in a relevant context. For the most part, this means professors who have been able to learn about the student’s personality and character, work ethic, communication skills, and interpersonal skills. In order to set up the most effective letters, therefore, students must provide at least a few of their professors with opportunities to discover these things about them. This cannot be accomplished in the classroom, so undergraduates need to find ways to get involved in their professors’ research or other scholarly work.

Once a student starts to get involved in a professor’s work, it is necessary to make a significant contribution, over a sufficient period of time, so the professor can actually learn about the student’s abilities and potential. This takes several months to accomplish, and if a student is going to get this type of important exposure with more than one professor, then the entire process of setting up three effective letters of recommendation may take a year or two. Ideally, a student who is thinking about applying to graduate school at some point down the road should start contacting professors for these types of opportunities by the end of the sophomore year. Of course, some students only begin to seriously consider graduate school during their junior or senior years, and for them it is essential to begin their preparations immediately.

Finding the right graduate programs

A great deal of research may be needed to find the right programs in light of your specific interests or objectives, so you need to get busy on this at least a couple of months before application deadlines. Many people will apply only to programs available at universities they select on the basis of convenience, or geographical location, such as only at universities within a particular city or state. That may be fine if there are legitimate reasons why one must live in a particular region. But, too often, students limit the geographical scope of their search for the best graduate program without fully appreciating how different two graduate programs offering the same degree may be in terms of the kinds of specialized training they offer. As a result, many students will unwittingly apply to graduate programs that are not ideal for their specific career goals. They might get into one of those programs, but they might also have overlooked other options that would have been even better for them.

As I have discussed before, students should focus on finding a potential graduate supervisor whose area of specialization is a good match with the student’s own interests and goals. The best programs for the student to apply to will tend to be those where they find these ideal potential supervisors. It can take several weeks or even a few months of researching different programs and faculty members to come up with a really good short list of programs to which to apply.

Wooing potential graduate supervisors

As discussed previously on this blog, one of the most important steps for grad-school applicants to take is to contact potential supervisors before applying. This contact should be made at least a few months before applications are due. The purpose is not simply to find out whether or not they are interested in taking a new grad student, although this is certainly important to ascertain before going through all the time, trouble, and expense, of applying.

As I just mentioned, choosing the right graduate programs typically means first finding the right potential supervisors. The best way to learn certain key things about a potential supervisor is through some kind of direct contact with that person by email, or even better, an in-person visit. It’s also the most effective way for potential supervisors to find out what they need to know about you. If all they have to go on are the usual components in your application file, it’s more likely they won’t feel they know you well enough to justify the risk of accepting you as a new graduate student.

Dealing with the actual applications

Each of the steps just discussed require a significant amount of time, over a period of at least a few months, and up to a year or more, before you begin dealing with your applications, per se. But, the applications can also be very time consuming. Do not underestimate the amount of time involved in properly filling out application forms (several hours) and writing a good personal statement (several days or a few weeks), or the typical delay between when transcripts or standardized test scores are requested and when they actually arrive at their destinations (several weeks). You also need to give professors a few weeks notice prior to when you will actually need a letter of recommendation.

If you follow my advice about deciding how many programs to apply to, you will probably choose at least a few, and you will have a lot of things to do for each application. You will find that each program has different forms for you to complete, and slightly different procedures to follow when submitting your application and ensuring that everything else that’s required is submitted on your behalf (i.e., your official transcripts, standardized exam scores, and letters of recommendation).
Organization is the key to dealing with multiple items for multiple applications. Most graduate programs are serious about their deadlines and will not consider an application if any of the required components is missing or late. Use a checklist to keep track of those things you have taken care of for each application, and which things remain to be done.

Consider trying to beat the application deadline by a couple of weeks, as it might pay off in unexpected ways. For instance, it may allow you enough time to respond to unexpected problems that occur close to the deadline, such as unfulfilled requests for transcripts, test scores, or letters of recommendation. Getting your application in a couple of weeks before the deadline will also indicate that you are organized and enthusiastic about the program. Your application might even receive a closer evaluation if the admissions committee or individual faculty members begin reviewing applications before the deadline, and yours is already there.

Don’t rush to get to the wrong place

Now for a bit of advice specifically for students who are considering graduate school for next year, but who think they not properly prepared to put together a winning application at this time, or else, who are still not certain that going to grad school is even the right decision. It’s probably better to wait a year to do it properly, to find the right program or supervisor, or to make certain about the career path you want to take, than it is to rush together applications to hastily chosen programs during the next few weeks or months.

If you decide to do a rush job, there is a high risk of rejection. That would mean a big waste of time and money, and perhaps a blow to your self-esteem. If you are actually accepted and decide to take up the offer of admission, you may end up with a long-term commitment to a program that is not ideal for you, when there are much better opportunities for you, elsewhere.

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