When to apply for graduate school

Once you’ve decided to apply for graduate school, you need to carefully plan out the application process, leaving yourself enough time to:

In general, you’ll need to start preparing your application at least 6 months in advance of the deadline. Most application deadlines are about 7–9 months before the program’s start date.

When is the right time to apply for graduate school?

Some students apply to grad school straight from undergraduate degrees, but it’s also common to return to school later in life. If you’re not sure yet whether you’re ready to apply for graduate school, ask yourself these questions.

Career and field

  • Do you want to change your career? Many individuals attend graduate school to enter fields like nursing, physical therapy, medicine, business, marketing, communications, etc.
  • Do you need a graduate degree to progress in your field? In some fields (like law, research, most of health care, and business), a graduate degree is usually necessary to progress. In others (like software engineering or data analytics), degrees are less important.
  • How much work experience do you need before applying to graduate school? For instance, MBA programs usually expect you to have several years of work under your belt, whereas many people start medical school right out of undergrad or soon after.

Personal considerations

  • Are you at a place in your life where you can focus most of your attention on school?
  • Are you prepared to move across the country or even to another country if needed? If not, you should only apply to graduate schools near you.
  • Does your family situation permit you to go back to school?

Money matters

  • Do you have enough money saved up or a realistic plan to finance graduate school? If you plan to take out government loans, carefully consider how much you will have to pay back after graduation with your expected earnings.
  • Can you leave or cut back on your job without drastically harming your financial health?
  • Do the graduate programs you’re interested in allow you to work part-time? For instance, medicine rarely allows you to attend part-time. This may also be subject to visa restrictions if you’re planning to study outside your own country.

    Month-by-month timeline for grad school applications

    You should generally start thinking about graduate school around 18 months before you plan to start. Most program deadlines are 7–9 months before the start date, so you’ll have 6–9 months to get all your materials together, ask for recommendation letters, and take any necessary exams.

    Note that some graduate schools—notably medicine—follow a different timeline. Also, some fields, particularly law, use rolling deadlines, meaning the earlier you get in your applications, the better!

    The timeline below represents the most typical one, with a December submission deadline. If your deadline is earlier or later, you should adjust your timeline to match.

    Month Key tasks
    March
    • Decide which graduate programs to apply for.
    • Sign up and begin studying for any standardized tests you need.
    April
    May
    • Take any standardized tests for the first time.
    • Make a list of graduate programs to apply to.
    June
    • Follow up on recommendation letters.
    • Look into potential sources of funding.
    July
    • Begin requesting transcripts from institutions you’ve attended in the past.
    • Retake standardized exams if you weren’t happy with your score the first time.
    August
    • Begin writing a statement of purpose and personal statement if needed.
    September
    • Edit your personal statement and keep in touch with your recommenders.
    October
    • Retake any final exams you’re not happy with.
    November
    • Perfect your statement of purpose.
    December
    • Make sure you have all the necessary materials.
    • Send final reminders to your recommenders.
    • Finish your applications!
    January
    • If you’re an American intending to take out loans to pay for graduate school, complete the FAFSA.
    Late February–April
    • Hear back from graduate schools and go for visits.
    • Plan finances and apply for loans if necessary.
    • Decide which school you’ll be attending!

    March

    Decide which type of graduate program you’d like to apply for and start researching schools that fit your criteria. Discuss which programs you should be aiming for with your former professors or current supervisors.

    Most programs provide statistics about the test scores, undergraduate grades, or work or research experience of the students they accept. Aim high, but be realistic about your chances. Make sure to choose some programs that are likely to accept you.

    Sign up and begin studying for whichever standardized test you need. Different programs require different exams, so you should make sure to check the website of the program you intend to apply to.

    Exam What does it involve?
    GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) General
    • Most graduate school programs in the United States require the GRE.
    • Tests verbal and math skills, as well as ability to write a well-argued and logical essay.
    • Usually administered on a computer in a test center, showing the test taker his or her preliminary scores at the end of the session.
    GRE Subject
    • Specialized exams testing students on their knowledge in one of six areas: biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, mathematics, and English literature.
    • Many graduate programs that require a high level of math require their applicants to take one of these exams.
    LSAT (Law School Admissions Test)
    • Required for law school admissions in the US or Canada.
    • Tests logical and verbal reasoning as well as reading comprehension.
    • Administered digitally, usually in a test center with other students.
    GMAT (Graduate Management Admissions Test)
    • Digitally-administered exam for business schools admissions in the US and Canada (although many now also accept the GRE).
    • Tests verbal and math skills.
    • Adapts to the test taker, showing harder questions as questions are answered successfully and easier ones if they are answered incorrectly.
    MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test)
    • Exam of choice for medical school admissions.
    • One of the longest standardized exams, at 7.5 hours.
    • Tests chemistry, biology, and psychology knowledge, in addition to verbal reasoning skills.

    April

    Continue studying for standardized tests. Study books can often be checked out for free from your local library. Aim to do at least a little bit of studying every day—that way, it becomes a habit.

    Begin the process of asking for recommendation letters.

    May

    Take the necessary standardized test for the first time. You aren’t penalized for taking the test multiple times and can send your best score, so don’t panic if you don’t meet your target score on the first try. However, note that each attempt costs (a significant amount of) money, so don’t completely slack off!

    Make a list of the specific programs you’re going to apply to. One tip: organize your information in a spreadsheet with required materials, application fees, links to the online application sign-in, recommenders for each program, and deadlines. This will aid you later in the process!

    June

    Follow up on rec letters. Now is a good time to begin face-to-face meetings with potential recommenders. Update your resume so that you can send it to recommenders and they can write you a strong letter.

    Decide if you need extra funding. To plan your finances, make a monthly budget with expected rent, food, transportation, prorated monthly tuition/fees, and any other potential costs. If the cost is more than what you have in savings or expected financial support (including loans), then you’ll need extra support.

    If you need funding, look into potential options—many, such as the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program, require extra essays and have earlier deadlines.

    July

    Now is a good time to begin requesting transcripts, if you haven’t already. For most graduate applications, you must ensure you’ve requested transcripts from every university you’ve attended, even if you only studied there for a semester or it is located in another country.

    Retake any standardized exams if you weren’t happy with the scores the first time around.

    August

    Begin writing your statement of purpose. A statement of purpose is a short essay that discusses your professional and academic interests and background.

    You may also be required to write a personal statement, which should talk about your personal story and personal motivations for applying to graduate school. It may include your potential to bring an underrepresented perspective or add to the diversity of the program you’re applying to.

    September

    Send off your statement of purpose and personal statement to recommenders to aid their recommendation letters and to receive feedback.

    It’s also a good idea to have your statements checked by a friend, family member or professional editor, who can help make sure your writing flows clearly and catch any grammatical mistakes.

    A statement of purpose should be understandable to any professional in your field, even if they don’t specialize in your sub-discipline. Most graduate programs rely on a committee of professors throughout the field to evaluate applications, so there’s no guarantee yours will be read by an expert in your particular interest.

    October

    October is generally your last chance to retake any standardized exam whose scores you’re not happy with.

    November

    Perfect your statement of purpose and personal statement. It’s a good idea to take a week-long break from your applications so that you can approach them again with a fresh eye.

    December

    Many graduate applications are due this month. Remind your recommenders of the final deadlines, and finish up your application.

    Ensure you have your perfected resume, transcripts, and final personal statement ready. Upload them—and don’t forget to pay the application fee if that’s required!

    January

    If you’re American and think you might want to take out any amount of loans to fund your degree, you should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Once completed, you’ll be eligible for a loan to fund up to 100% of the total cost of your degree, including both tuition and living costs.

    February to April

    Most graduate school results will come back in this time period. Many graduate schools offer in-person visit days in March and April. Some will even pay for your transportation and hotel costs. These visits will allow you to ask questions to faculty members and current students.

    When choosing a graduate program, make sure to pay attention to how well the program fits your interests as well as its prestige. You should also pay attention to placement or job outcomes after graduation.

    If you’re in a research degree, your supervisor is vitally important to your potential success—carefully evaluate your potential options (but remember that some advisors could leave, so you shouldn’t choose a program for just one potential supervisor!)

    Try to hang out with current students in an informal setting to ask them questions you might not otherwise be comfortable asking. Ask what the work expectations are like—do they get time off? Do they feel like they’re being treated fairly? This is especially important for doctoral programs, which are several years long.

    Make sure to read the fine print of any funding that you might receive. Will you have to teach or work in a certain position for a certain number of years afterwards? Choose carefully!

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    Frequently asked questions about applying to grad school

    When should I begin my applications for graduate school?

    A good starting point to aim for is about 18 months before you would start the program, or 6–9 months before the applications are due.

    In the first few months of the process, research programs and study for any standardized exams you might need.

    You can then begin writing your personal statements and statements of purpose, as well as contacting people to write your letters of recommendation. Ensure that you give recommenders plenty of time to complete their letters (ideally around 2–4 months).

    When are graduate school application deadlines?

    Most graduate school applications for American graduate programs are due in December or January for a September start.

    Some types of programs, especially law school, are rolling applications, meaning that the earlier you apply, the earlier you’ll hear back. In this case, you should aim to apply as early as possible to maximize your chances.

    Medical school follows a completely separate timeline with much earlier deadlines. If you’re applying for medical school, you should speak to advisors at your university for more information.

    At what point in life should I apply for graduate school?

    Some students apply to graduate school straight from undergrad, but it’s also common to go back to school later in life. The ideal time to do so depends on various financial, personal, and career considerations. Graduate school is a big commitment, so you should apply at a time when you can devote your full attention to it.

    Your career path may also determine when you should apply. In some career fields, you can easily progress without a graduate degree, while in others—such as medicine, business, and law—it’s virtually impossible to move up the career ladder without a specific graduate degree.

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    Lauren Thomas

    Lauren has a bachelor's degree in Economics and Political Science and is currently finishing up a master's in Economics. She is always on the move, having lived in five cities in both the US and France, and is happy to have a job that will follow her wherever she goes.