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Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

April 12, 2009

Steve Green: Start Early! Start Now!

In this post, Steve discusses the importance of starting early for those planning on Fall 2010 admission.



Applying to graduate school disproves the old adage that “Good things come to those who wait.” Wait too long to prepare your graduate school application and you risk having a bad thing come to you- failure to enter a school of your choice.

This post presents a list of to-dos for the period between now and when you can actually access schools’ application forms.

It’s only April but I’ve already acquired new clients who are applying for graduate school programs for 2010. Online and paper application forms will not be available until late in the summer so: Isn’t it too early to begin preparing your graduate school application? No!

You should prepare as far ahead of program deadlines as possible. Most US grad school applications are not available until the end of August or beginning of September and most deadlines are somewhere between mid-December and mid-January.

If you wait until you can download them you will have a narrow window of time in which to complete all of your applications. Many people do, in fact, wait until fall to take any action on their application. They seem to treat the actual release of the forms as an official starting line for the application process and become stressed as they race to accomplish so much in so little time.

As an admission consultant it is frustrating to watch highly successful, intelligent people risk handicapping their chances by writing essays in an agitated, worried frame of mind as they struggle mightily to accomplish many things in November and December that they could have done earlier.

If you are a full-time student or professional you will need to budget your time carefully. A great way to do so is to have less to do when application season “formally” commences.

Here are four things to start doing now. I summarize them first and say more about each below.

  • Get the test monkey off your back before you start writing essay drafts!

Prepare for any tests required as part of the application. Learn what the test requires, what the minimum accepted scores for each school are, and then aim to reach your highest possible score before this fall, if possible.

  • Start researching graduate programs. I provide a useful link below. Plan to know which programs you will apply to by August.

  • Decide whom to request as your recommendation letter writers and contact them now.

  • Brainstorm and outline possible essay topics.

Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

1. Prepare for the GRE, LSAT, MCAT, GMAT and any other test you may have to take as part of an application Non-native English speaking applicants to North American universities will almost certainly have to take the TOEFL. For more about test preparation, see Adam's earlier posts on the subject.

  • First, find out which test you have to take. Applying to graduate school in the arts and sciences? You’ll probably need to take the GRE. Law school? The LSAT. Medical school? The MCAT. Business school? The GMAT (and/or for some schools, the GRE).

  • Next, if you are unfamiliar with the contents of the test you will have to take, then visit the website of the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which is the sole creator and administrator of most university, graduate- and professional school aptitude exams. For GMAT, which is administered by GMAC, see here. (Disclosure: I am an annual reader for ETS Advanced Placement exams in Comparative Politics. These exams are administered to high school students. My clients do not include high school student applicants to universities. The content of this blog does not in any way, shape or form represent the views of ETS.)

  • Go to your favorite bookstore (ADAM'S ONLINE BOOKSTORE IS A GREAT PLACE TO START) or library and get a practice book for the test you will take. These usually contain multiple practice exams and you should simulate actual exam conditions a few times before you take the test “for real.” In addition to official guides published by GMAC and ETS, popular test-prep book publishers include Barron’s, Kaplan, Peterson’s, and The Princeton Review. PLEASE DON'T ASK EITHER ADAM OR I FOR ADVICE ON WHICH OF THESE BOOKS TO USE, WE ARE NOT TEST PREP GURUS! That said, some combination of an official guide and test prep books is the way many applicants start to prepare.

  • Find out if your local university or community college offers test-prep courses. Many do and enrollment is typically open to anyone.

  • Think about taking test-prep class. At the best schoools, the teachers usually are hired only after obtaining a score in the top 1-2 percentile and can introduce you to time saving strategies for answering questions. Way, way back in the pre-Internet age I took the GRE without studying for it. Armed with high self-confidence and the notion that the test would be a glorified version of the ACT(an undergraduate entrance exam) - on which I earned a high score without any preparation - I entered the examination hall sure I’d ace it. I did not. As a Christmas present, my family purchased a space for me in a test prep class, and I earned the score I needed for my target schools. (This was so long ago that I do not remember the actual name of the business. The teachers were good, though.)

  • Also consider online courses as they may offer the same value to you as a live course depending on your needs.

  • If you are taking the time to read this blog, you probably do not possess that fatal combination of ignorance and arrogance that I had. Perhaps you are disciplined enough to study on your own. Perhaps you need the structure of a classroom setting. Do what works best for your own habits and learning style and aim to get the highest possible score. For more about learning style, see Adam's earlier post.

A note on why test scores matter: Admissions committees rely on these a) as indicators for potential success and b) as a factor for awarding limited graduate scholarships and awards to incoming students. The higher your score, the more valuable your application becomes on these two points. Furthermore, many schools set a minimum expected test score and will not review essays and recommendation letters from applicants whose test scores do not meet the threshold.

2. If you've chosen your field, then begin researching programs.

  • My MPA/MPP posts have links to great databases for finding schools and the details about them. You can fine the first post here.

  • Talk to people you know in your chosen field and find out where they went to graduate school and why they entered a particular program.

  • Find out where the scholars and experts whose work has most influenced your thinking attended graduate school.

3. Choose whom you will ask to be your recommenders and contact them as soon as you know which field you wish to pursue. It is too soon to obtain the recommendation forms for most schools, but you can never let potential recommenders know early enough that you seek their help. Think about sending them a polite note requesting their recommendation, letting them know your plans and promising to send them the necessary links/forms as soon as you obtain them yourself.

4. Start brainstorming for your resume and Statement of Purpose. Begin thinking about what your different strengths are and which of your accomplishments best illustrate them.

  • First, determine your specific career goals. For a fantastic way to identify your career goals see Adam's advice and methods here. I always send this particular post to my clients and they have all found it extremely helpful.

  • Prepare your resume or CV. My guide to producing a resume is here,

The following points are copied and condensed from the first of my two posts on writing a statement of purpose (SOP) essay for most graduate school programs (outside of business schools.) For a complete, detailed summary of how to write an SOP I hope you will look both of my posts.

  • Choose several accomplishments from your resume/CV to write about in your SOP. Choose accomplishments that illustrate the strengths that will help you to succeed in graduate school. Highlight different skills, i.e. do not use different accomplishments that illustrate the same strength.

  • Decide how you can distinguish yourself. Assume that everyone applying to the same programs is as qualified as you. (After all, everyone who is accepted will, as will be many who are not accepted.)

  • What makes you unique? Think about this in terms of marketing yourself: Figure out how to stand out in a field of qualified applicants.


Ideally you should have only two things to do this fall: Write essays and complete application forms, including collecting recommendation letters and/or confirming they have been sent directly to schools when necessary. By August you should have obtained a strong test score, selected your target graduate programs, secured commitments for letters of recommendation. Between late summer and mid-December or January you should focus on writing the best possible graduate application essays, free of other application-related worries.

You probably don't need to do work on these things every day between now and this fall, but if you keep them in the back of your mind now then they'll get to the front of your mind, and onto your notebook or computer screen sooner rather than later.


- H. Steven Green

For questions regarding this post, please contact me at h.steven.green@gmail.com. To learn more about my graduate admissions consulting services, please click here.
- H. Steven ("Steve") Green, グリーン・ハロルド・スティーブン

大学院留学 カリフォルニア大学バークレー校 マクスウェルスクール シラキューズ大学 ハーバード大学ケネディスクール コロンビア大学の国際関係・公共政策大学院(通称SIPA)

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