when to start preparing for grad school

Want Help With Your Applications to Grad School? I Wish You Had Come Sooner

An old Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

I love the wisdom of these words, in both a literal sense and as a metaphor for many situations encountered in life. In a literal sense, the proverb has personal relevance for me, as my wife and I have been growing vegetables in our backyard garden for many years, and I have often yearned to also have a small orchard of apple and cherry trees that would provide a bounty of fruit. I have had this longing for many years, but did nothing about it until I finally planted several apple and cherry trees, two years ago. Pondering this Chinese proverb – especially the second part — helped motivate me to stop delaying and finally plant those trees. We don’t expect significant amounts of fruit for another few years, because trees do not tend to produce very much until they are several years old. But the time will come when our trees are mature and we will have lots of cherries and apples to eat.

The proverb is also a good metaphor for an issue that many college and university students run into when they start preparing to apply to graduate school. Most wait until a few months before applications deadlines before thinking about how they might gain some advantage in the competition for admission, and although it might seem like 4 to 6 months is ample time to put together a winning application, certain essential extracurricular elements can take more like a year or two to put in place.

The best time to begin preparing for graduate school applications is last year

One of the main reasons why certain grad-school applicants are accepted while most are rejected is because the successful ones have effective letters of recommendation from the right people. Most unsuccessful applicants are rejected in part because their letters of recommendation were ineffective. As I have explained in another article, letters of recommendation are highly influential in determining the fate of most graduate school applications – even more so than the applicants’ grades. A professor who only knows a student from the classroom and exam performance will not be able to provide an effective letter recommendation for graduate school. A professor may very well be willing to provide a letter of recommendation for a student who earned an A+ grade in a course, but if the professor knows only about the student’s academic strengths, then there will be very little relevant substance to the letter.

The best time to start taking steps to prepare for grad school is when you still have at least 2 years before you will be applying to programs. This time should be used to acquire relevant experience and set the groundwork for letters of recommendation that will eventually help you get in.

As I have discussed many times before on this blog, the benefits that come from getting relevant experience for grad school preparation usually go far beyond any skills or knowledge that are gained from the experience. Even more valuable is the opportunity to be seen in action and evaluated – to have your best qualities discovered by someone who will later be able to endorse your graduate school application with an effective letter of recommendation.

Everyone knows you need some relevant experience to have a competitive grad-school application, but too many people mistakenly assume the important thing is simply to be able to show evidence of having relevant experience in a CV, in a cover letter, or on an application form. This is a mistake. Just having some amount of seemingly relevant experience does not put anyone ahead in the competition to get into a graduate program, because every applicant will have some.

The most significant benefit that potentially comes from getting the right type of experience is that it’s the best way to set up the influential letters of recommendation. Those recommendation letters should describe how the applicant has demonstrated skills, abilities, and character attributes that are essential for success in graduate school. (Read more about the importance of applicant-evaluation forms (more…)


When should you start preparing for graduate school? How about Right Now!

One of the most common mistakes that students make is to wait too long to start preparing for their graduate-school applications. The result is that several compromises are made along the way, and a rushed job to make an application deadline often ends up in rejection, a missed opportunity, and a blow to one’s self-esteem.

A great deal of research is 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. 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 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 at least a few weeks notice prior to when you will need a letter of recommendation.

Many programs stick to their deadlines and will not consider an application if any of the required components are missing or late. It is your responsibility to make sure that all of your application materials have arrived and are in your file by the deadline. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because a document has been sent, it has also been received.

Organization is the key to dealing with multiple items for multiple application packages. Use a checklist to keep track of those things you have taken care of for each application, and which things remain to be dealt with. You need to follow up at each end, first to make sure that materials have been sent, and later to make sure they have been received.

There are several advantages to beating the application deadline by a couple of weeks: 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 well-organized and enthusiastic about the program. Your application may receive a closer evaluation if the admissions committee begins reviewing files before the application deadline.

Financial support for graduate studies is another area where many students fail to act soon enough and miss opportunities as a result. You should act immediately to find out about scholarships and fellowships that you are eligible to apply for. Be aware that in most cases the deadline for application for scholarships and fellowships comes long before deadlines for application to graduate schools. In other words, if you’re applying to enter graduate program next September, then you’d better find out what you need to know about scholarships and fellowships by this September. More great articles on paying for grad school and How much does grad school cost? Can I afford it? available at MyGraduateSchool.com

Being organized, starting early and being certain of your reasons for going to graduate school in the first place will be invaluable to you as you get through the application process. Going the extra mile and avoiding the pitfalls and mistakes that your competitors will likely be making will get you into the graduate program of your choice.