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June 18, 2015

Short, Medium, and Long-term Planning for Graduate Admission

In this post I discuss graduate degree planning. Whether you are applying for admission to programs with a start this year, next year, in a few years, or maybe in five years or more, having a plan in place increases your chances of success.  While I work mostly with MBA applicants (Clear enough from reviewing my client results), this post is equally applicable to those applying for any sort of graduate program. Beyond MBA (and EMBA), since 2001, my clients have been admitted to a full range of graduate degree programs including Masters of Law (Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Columbia, NYU, Chicago, Northwestern, Berkeley), Public Policy (Harvard Kennedy School of Government), International Relations (Columbia, Fletcher & Georgetown), Finance (London Business School, London School of Economics), Economics (University of Chicago), Engineering (Stanford), Computer Science (Stanford),  Environmental Studies (Yale), and Physics ( Harvard and Stanford). While I work primarily those applying for masters degrees, I have also helped clients gain entry to doctoral programs.  This post draws on the full range of my experience as a graduate admissions consultant.

 Planners and Procrastinators
Let’s start at the end of the process for  submitting applications: Are you a Planner or a Procrastinator? When it comes to applying to graduate school, there are those who plan, are organized, and stick to a timetable that does not involve them pulling an “all nighter”  to get an application in and then there are those who do the opposite and create a situation where they are applying at the last moment. I have worked with both types of clients, though thankfully more of the former than the latter.  When I work with someone who is organized and takes the application seriously enough to give it their best shot, my work is a consultant is at its best because my client has time to implement what I suggest, time to review and rewrite, and even put a draft away and come back to it with fresh eyes. Clients who procrastinate, who must submit first or second drafts, and are more worried about having an answer that is decent rather excellent, are missing the opportunity to submit truly excellent applications.  I am  a results based coach and consultant: I only consider it a win if my client gains admission, not just if I get paid for my work.  The last minute types rarely get results that are as good. I can make fast emergency room type suggestions to make an essay viable, but that is not the way I want to work and it is not the kind of essay I want my clients or anyone applying to graduate school to submit. That is one reason  I think planning is important.

If you are someone who does procrastinate, who tends to submit things at the last moment, and who has gotten away with it, feel free to try your luck again. But sooner or later doing stuff at the last minute will backfire. Especially as you get older, your ability to do  all nighters will decline.  I am 47 and I know this.  If you are trying to produce quality deliverables, working in a panic and with little time to edit will work against you.  Consider the application process an opportunity to alter your behavior so that in whatever career you pursue you don’t find yourself repeatedly in situations where you are doing stuff at the last minute and making careless mistakes. And careless mistakes are so common with hastily prepared applications. As someone who works regularly with reapplicants, one of the most common mistakes I find is an application filled with typos and contradictory information. Such mistakes would have been eliminated had the applicant not been working against the clock.

Make Planning Your Friend
A friend is someone who you like and who supports you. Your plan for graduate school should be like that too.  Don’t make a plan that you can’t keep. You know your own schedule and how much free time you will have for the admissions process. While I don’t have data for non-MBA programs, based on the 2013 AIGAC survey, applicants spent a total of 90-140 hours on their applications including test preparation time, not including any time needed for TOEFL or IELTS preparation.  For those applying to non-MBA graduate programs that require multiple essays such as the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, the total hours would probably be somewhere around 75-125 hours (not including TOEFL or IELTS preparation) because interview preparation is not needed.  For applying to graduate programs that only require a statement of purpose and a GRE or GMAT, the time cou ld be significantly less. Of course, this does not include any time for writing samples or portfolios for programs that require it.

English language preparation can be a significant barrier for some international  applicants, while for others taking TOEFL or IELTS is merely a minor inconvenience.  If you need to further develop your English abilities you should really factor this in to the time you will need. English performance can easily delay the application process by months and in some cases by a year or more.

Being realistic about the time you will likely spend on the process is a core part of coming up with a realistic plan.  Especially for those who are applying in the next admissions cycle, a realistic plan is critical.

In the rest of the post, I will outline short, medium, and long term planning.  In subsequent posts, I will elaborate on the topics mentioned here. Eventually I will hyper link different parts of this post with subsequent and previous posts.

Short Term Planning
If you are less than 12 months away from the deadlines for the school(s) that you will apply to, you will need to engage in short term planning.  A good short term plan typically consists of the following elements:
-Reviewing applications to determine what you need to submit (test scores, transcripts, a resume, recommendations, writing samples,  proof of foreign language proficiency , etc.)
-Planning out a schedule for studying for and taking GRE, GMAT, TOEFL, and/or IELTS as needed.
-Determining whether you need an admissions consultant or otherwise who will review your application content.   Even if you don’t have use an admissions consultant and can’t get anyone with knowledge about the program you are applying to to assist you, have at least someone who you can use for proofreading.
-Determine who you will use as your recommenders.
-Investigate and prepare for any scholarships that might be applicable to you.
-Prepare/update your resume/CV
-Figure out which schools you really want to apply to and investigate them throughly.
-Determine why you need to attend the degree program, why particular programs, and what you intend to do with the degree subsequently (future goals).
-Begin drafting essays once the school releases the essay question(s). For graduate programs other than MBA, you most likely need not wait  because such programs don’t often change their essay content.  It always fine to contact an admissions office to ask if they will be changing their essay question(s).
-Create a schedule with set target dates from completing the above.

In addition, ask yourself what you can do in terms of your professional or extracurricular activities to enhance your candidacy.  If you are only a few months or less from the time of application, it might be hard to start something new that is meaningful, but for those with greater time, it is still possible to add something to your profile. In subsequent posts, I will discuss what might be added even in a limited time frame.

Medium Term Planning
If you are 1-2 years years away from the deadlines for the school(s) that you plan to apply to, you can begin the above short term plan to get an early start.  But given your time frame you can do even more than that. You have time to start new activities to build your experience in order to make you a stronger candidate.  Whether it is taking on leadership roles at work or in extracurricular activities (Good for MBA and MPA applicants especially), conducting research on topic related to the field you want to study, enhancing valuable skills (foreign language skills, quantitative skills, skills related to your future academic and/or professional plans), overcoming a prior weakness in your background (like lack of volunteer or community service), if you are 1-2 years away from applying you have much more of an opportunity to really enhance your candidacy.  Changing jobs might be of immense value for some. For others, it might mean be more aggressive about seeking out leadership opportunities on the job or in extracurricular activities. For others, it might be about getting some international experience.  Whatever the gap or whatever way you wish to enhance your candidacy, you have some time to address it

If you are 1-2 years away from applying, it is really good time to take care of any standardized tests (Just keep the period of validity for the test in mind, so that you make sure your score will be valid when you make application) that you might need to take and also to enhance your foreign language skills if that is needed for the programs you will apply to.

You also have plenty of time to engage in detailed research, including school visits and networking with alumni and/or current students. If you are applying to academic programs for a Masters or Ph.D., you should be reading work by faculty you are interested in studying with.

Long Term Planning
If you are 3 or more years away from applying to graduate school, you really are in a position to do all the things mentioned above, but more than that, you really have the potential to build an extensive track record of activity to enhance your credibility as a candidate.  That is to say, you can really make significant changes to yourself. Do you need to enhance your work experience?  Diversify your experience? Gain new skills?  Develop academic expertise?  Produce high quality writing samples or a portfolio(Typically for creative writing and arts degrees)?  You have the time to do it if you make the effort.

Do you have a general sense that you should pursue a graduate degree, but are unclear about what kind of degree you want?  Now is a good time to begin to figure out what you want. Whether it is through career coaching, degree advising, networking, researching about various options, taking courses in different fields of interest, if you are 3 or more years away from applying, engage in some experimentation and open yourself up to a range of possibilities before narrowing down.

Once you  are certain about what kind of degree you want, ask yourself and others what you can do now to make that degree into a reality.  Getting advice early means that you have the bandwidth to ask a great range of people before reaching any final conclusions. Getting advice early also means you are more likely to be able to act on any advice you decide to follow.

Even if you are three or more years aways from application, set some goals for yourself and break them down sufficiently into a series of steps that are realistic to complete. Don’t overwhelm yourself with goals stated so grandly that you will fail, but also don’t underwhelm yourself. If you are not willing to push yourself now, when will you be ready?

Finally, if you are seeking advice on degree planning, I offer personalized coaching for those in college, recent graduates, and anyone else who is considering an MBA or other graduate degree. To learn more about this service, please see here.

-Adam Markus
I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.
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