Keeping your graduate school applications on track

You have a full and busy life. So, when you’re applying to graduate school, it can be hard to know exactly how much time and effort is needed to put together a quality application, especially when you have family and work responsibilities.

Considering that many schools expect you to submit an application almost a full year in advance of your potential start date, applying to graduate school can take some serious long-term planning. This timeline is intended to help you make decisions about how long you should study for the GREs or GMATs, when you should have your schools narrowed down by, if and when you might consider contacting potential advisers, and how to feel confident when it’s time to hit that big “submit” button. Here’s our recommended timeline.

April & May:

Start a grad school binder or folder. Think carefully about your priorities and list them out. What kind of degree are you most interested in getting? Do you want to attend a local school or a school in another state? Do you want to attend graduate school full-time or part-time? Are you looking for programs with scholarships or funding opportunities? Have some ideas about your values beforehand.

Begin researching schools and programs. Keep a running list of questions you’d like to ask faculty or graduate program managers. Make a special note of deadlines for, not only admissions, but also scholarships or assistantship positions. Get a sense of what exams are required for the types of programs you intend to apply to. Consider taking a free GRE or GMAT practice test. Your score will help you to determine how much preparation you’ll need for the real thing.

Estimated time required: 10+ hours (depending on the number of schools)


If you’re freaked out by the GRE practice test—what’s a quadratic equation again?—sign up for a GRE test prep course. If you feel pretty good about how you did on your practice test, consider getting study guides to brush up on content and build confidence (there are apps for that). We recommend registering for a test in August.

Estimated time required: 2-4 hours of study time per week


It’s time to make contact. Go on a few campus tours. If you’re planning on applying for a research program, reach out to potential advisers. Talk to friends or family members that have the degree you want or a similar degree, and ask them for insights. They might be able to recommend programs or put you in touch with other contacts.

Estimated time required: 2-4 hours of study time per week, plus campus visits and conversations with potential advisers.

Time saver: Many schools have online tours to give you an idea of what the campus is like without having to visit.


Take your GRE general test. If you’re not happy with your scores, sign up to take it again and hit those practice books. No matter what your score, treat yourself afterwards. Big tests can be stressful and intimidating.

Estimated time required: 2-4 hours a week of studying, plus 4 hours for the actual GRE test.


September is when many applications typically open. Finalize your list of prospective schools, and familiarize yourself with the application deadlines and requirements including essay questions. Pay attention to page or word counts and start drafting some essay ideas. Also, contact some people you think might make strong recommenders, and see if they are available to write a letter of recommendation for you. If you have been out of your undergraduate degree for some time, it might seem challenging to ask a former professor for a letter of recommendation.  Take the risk and put yourself out there. The worst thing they can say is that they don’t feel comfortable writing something for you. But, they may surprise you. If you’re still struggling to find someone, consider asking a supervisor or someone from a community you volunteer in. Provide each recommender with a copy of an updated resume, and ensure they have all the materials they need to describe you well.

Estimated time required: 2 hours of research, 5 hours of writing drafts of essays, 2-3 hours for contacting potential reviewers.

October & November:

Request your official transcripts from your undergraduate institution(s). Finalize your essays and ask friends to read them. If you have connections in the field to which you are applying, ask them as well. If you need to take any GRE subject tests, make sure you take them and have your scores sent directly to the schools to which you are applying.

Estimated time required: 5 hours for GRE subject tests, 5 hours of writing and editing essays.


Complete and submit those applications! Document your applications and keep them for your records. Double check that your recommendations were sent. And, celebrate!  Just applying to graduate school is taking a big step towards a new endeavor. Honor all that work you did!

Estimated time required: 10 hours for completing applications.

A note about rolling admissions:

Some schools and programs have rolling admissions where they review applications as they come in and accept qualified applicants until their cohorts are filled. In these situations, it is still best to apply early. Getting your application in early helps to ensure you get into the cohort with the start date you want and that you remain eligible for scholarships and other funding opportunities.