Grad School Application Checklist: 12 Months Out

Start early so that you aren’t scrambling to meet deadlines.

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A year before you submit your grad school applications, start researching schools and building a checklist.
A year before you submit your grad school applications, start researching schools and building a checklist.

Over the next several weeks, we will be presenting information for prospective graduate students who are planning to enroll in the fall of 2014.

Graduate school is not something to take lightly. It involves a major investment personally, intellectually, socially, emotionally, and financially. Be sure to allow enough time to do your due diligence and get all of the information you want and need before deciding where to apply.

It is wise to take about a year to do your research before submitting your application materials. Why start that far ahead? Typically, graduate schools start accepting applications just under a year before the intended start date. To be able to thoroughly evaluate all of the information you will receive and read, you will need at least a year to gather those details before the application deadline.

If you hope to start b-school in fall 2014, for instance, you should already be working on your application now, two years out.

[Read grad students' explanations of why they picked their schools.]

In my experience, most candidates apply to between five and eight graduate programs. Many students wait until a few months before application deadlines to start their research, take standardized tests, and prepare applications.

Starting the admissions process in the 11th hour can leave applicants with too much to complete before the deadline, which increases the likelihood that they will make mistakes, leave something out of their application, or send the wrong essay to the admissions committee.

By making mistakes of those sorts, students considerably lower their chances of being admitted. Not doing research far enough in advance can also mean that students end up applying to a graduate program solely on the basis of rankings or word of mouth.

Those who do this have, in many instances, been disappointed with their chosen program or institution. That problem could have been avoided by taking more time to find out what it would really be like to study at a given school.

[Learn how to fix errors in grad school applications.]

When you start researching programs 12 months ahead of the application deadline, here are two tips to keep in mind.

1. Conduct an initial Web search: If you have decided on a full-time master's program, such as one in psychology, conduct an online search for graduate programs in psychology in the United States, Europe, or in other countries that might interest you.

If you know the geographic region of the United States or Europe where you would like to live, focus your Web search on that region. Make sure to do multiple searches so that you can vary your search criteria and find as many prospective institutions as you can.

An example may help illustrate the value of a varied search. One student I coach was absolutely convinced he wanted to pursue an MBA. I pressed him to look at a variety of graduate business education programs online, and after he did so, he changed his mind. He's now applying for a master's in public relations.

[Read 4 grad school myths debunked.]

2. Make a list: Once you have conducted your thorough searches for prospective institutions, make an alphabetical list of between 10 and 20 programs, regardless of what you presently know or have heard about them. Write them all down or put them on a spreadsheet.

Be very careful about believing everything you hear about a school. You have your own unique needs, expectations, and experiences—and this is your educational experience, not anyone else's.

Start by gathering a robust list of programs, and don't eliminate any of them at this point in the process. You want to get as much information as possible, so you can decide which options are the most appealing. Doing this 12 months ahead gives you the time you need.

Another example is informative. A student I coached two years ago was pursuing a master's degree in education. She had compiled a list of five target schools based on several anecdotal criteria: Her mother had attended one of the programs; her boyfriend was a student at another; at the time, she was attending another of the schools at the undergraduate level; and the other two programs were highly ranked.

The first assignment I gave her was to search programs online and come back with at least 7 to 10 other options. After she spent more time looking at other programs, several of the new ones she added to her list became her top choices—demonstrating why it's so important to conduct these sorts of in-depth searches.