Grad School Application Checklist: 3 Months Out

Use this time to track application deadlines and prepare for the essays.

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At this stage, graduate school hopefuls should start sketching out their application essays.
At this stage, graduate school hopefuls should start sketching out their application essays.

This is the 10th installment of our series on what you should be doing in advance of submitting your graduate school applications. For the past several months, you have been gathering information on options for your graduate education, gradually narrowing down that list to the final number of programs you will actively pursue.

Three months out, it's time to create your online application accounts, making sure you know exactly what is required and what application deadline you will use.

[Check out 10 colleges that lead to grad school.]

Here are some tips on this part of the applying to grad school process.

1. Create an application spreadsheet: List each institution on the left-hand column, in the order of the deadline you will use. Then, fill in the spreadsheet: List the number of essays, number of recommendation letters, which test scores are needed, whether an interview is required or if it is conducted by invitation only, and the amount of the application fee.

You should also list any other special requirements, such as a writing sample, or if you can submit an optional essay. And you should indicate whether you need to submit special forms or essays to be considered for financial aid.

[Get tips on paying for graduate school.]

2. Add columns to further evaluate schools: To help make your enrollment decision a few months down the road, you should add columns to the spreadsheet now that can be filled in after submitting your applications, to evaluate the service you receive from schools. Some examples include:

• Ease in completing your application: Did it flow easily, or was it difficult to navigate?

Contact with admissions office staff: Were they responsive, caring, respectful, and most of all, did they convey genuine interest in you?

• Did you receive confirmation that your application was received, and that it was complete and ready for review? Did you receive your notification decision by the date provided?

• If admitted, how was the follow-up you received? Was it positive, informative, and helpful? Did you feel that you were sincerely welcomed to the academic and student community?

• If wait-listed, what are the next steps?

• If denied, what feedback is available?

3. Add recommenders: If you have not already done so, start thinking about who you will ask to write letters of recommendation for you. If you are applying to several schools, be sure to have more than one or two individuals selected.

If they are going to do a good job for you, they will need time to prepare their comments. A good rule of thumb is to ask one person to write no more than three letters.

Once you have selected those you would like to use, contact them, get their approval, and then add their names to your spreadsheet.

[Learn how to deal with negative recommendation letters.]

4. Prepare for the essays: Once you have your spreadsheet completed, you should start preparing a brief outline of the points you want to cover in your essays. Create an essay document for each institution, listing each essay question.

You should think through the main themes you would like to convey in each essay and write them down. If you have any sub-points under those themes, list them as well.

For example, if you are being asked to cite your major strengths, perhaps you will choose motivation and teamwork. Your sub-points should illustrate those strengths. For motivation, you might share a story of how you overcame a major obstacle to accomplish a goal, and for teamwork, you could cite an example of a successful experience in which you served as a team leader.

By taking the time to organize your application information in this way, you will lessen the tendency to make mistakes that comes by waiting until the last minute to get everything ready. Your stress level will be much less, and you will be able to focus on preparing your best applications.