Ideally, you will apply to pursue a master’s degree in a paced manner—over 6–12 months. Having ample time allows you to do several rounds of work on each component; it also enables those helping you to do their best work. However, circumstances are not always ideal. If you find yourself with only three months in which to apply to graduate school, here is the first of a two-part guide to help you ensure your application shines nonetheless.

When overwhelmed by an impending deadline, applicants often go into complete paralysis. Others do the opposite—jump straight into hurried action—they open applications with a few schools they have been eyeing, ask for references, start studying for a standardized test, and begin editing their CV, all at once.  While you must take action, the best first step is to develop a big-picture view of why and how you will complete your application. Creating an informed strategy will save you time in the long run.

Week 1
  • Write down the three life goals that are most important to you. Beside each, write how going to grad school will help you fulfil it. This simple process helps you to come up with your “Why,” the main reasons you are applying. You are about to invest hundreds of hours, and maybe dollars, in this process; your “Why” will help keep you going when it gets challenging. Stick this list on your mirror or laptop, or inside a book you open often.
  • Write down two fulfilling alternatives you can pursue if you choose not to go to grad school at this time. While it is important to believe that your application will be successful, acknowledging that you have other options can help you keep calm as you apply, when you interview, and as you wait for feedback.
  • Take stock of your financial situation. Specifically, determine the budget you need to apply to, move to, and pay for graduate school. After doing this, you should know exactly how much external funding you need to pursue your studies, which will influence the schools and scholarships to which you apply.

Week 2
  • List the attributes in a school that are most important to you, and start researching your options. Create a spreadsheet for recording the places that meet your criteria: Include their deadlines, contact information, as well as links to their selection criteria pages. Make note of the schools that require standardized tests, and record the average score of the last incoming class—if they don’t have the average displayed, call and inquire about it. This way you know the bar you have to reach.
  • Review your list of schools and ensure that it includes at least two you are not overqualified for. Apply to some schools you are more than qualified for, ones you are a competitive candidate for, and a few that seem (objectively) just a bit out of your league. Each one must be a school you would be happy to attend. Depending on your field, ensure your final list has just the number of schools you need in order to have high chances of being admitted to at least two; you don’t need to overextend yourself.
  • If you need to but have not already taken a standardized test (such as the GRE), do a practice test to see how close you are to the score you need to impress your top choice (above average). Depending on how far you are from the mark, get test prep help from friends, or register for a prep course. If possible, you can also target test-optional schools, programs that don’t require an entrance test at all, or places that put more weight on non-test achievements. Register for a test date 6–8 weeks away. If you excelled in the practice test, you can book a test date that is closer.

If you did not include travel tickets, food, and accommodations on test day in your budget (Week 1), go back and add these expenses.

  • Conduct an audit of your social media accounts. Use a professional-looking photo for LinkedIn, make your Instagram account private if the message it portrays could undermine the message you will try to communicate through your application, remove Facebook photos and videos of you in compromising positions, and start ranting less on Twitter.

    Be aware that your applications might attract thorough scrutiny of your online footprint, and an admissions officer can use this digital trail to make conclusions about whether you would be a good fit for their school. It is in your best interest that your social media profiles portray your personality, values, and motivations in a way that complements the message in your application.

Week 3
  • Create an application timetable similar to this one, but include dates and other details that are relevant to your situation. Include blocks of time to: study and practice for standardized tests, write your personal statement, update your CV/ resume, respond to emails from your schools and recommenders, and fill and review your application. These are priority hours in your life now; block them out on your calendar and show up for yourself.
  • Get in touch with those you will ask to write your recommendations. Hopefully, these are people you have remained in touch with, but if not, update them on what you have been doing and how going to graduate school will help you achieve your life goals. Give them a date when they will hear from you with more specific guidance about what you need them to write.
  • Identify a backup recommender. Don’t tell this person they are your backup. Simply email them to say hello, and update them on your latest activities. Sometimes those we trust disappoint us, and in case your chosen recommenders do not deliver, or if they deliver slapdash work, you must have someone else you can call on. You don’t want to be the qualified applicant begging someone you last spoke with three years ago to quickly write and submit a glowing recommendation on your behalf. Worse, you don’t want to be forced to submit a lazily written letter, because you had no backup.
  • Begin studying for your standardized test according to your time table, and do a practice test at the end of the week. An integral part of studying is doing practice tests then carefully reviewing them. Don’t ever skip review. Go over questions you got wrong or found difficult, to ensure you understand their underlying concepts. Also, double check the soundness of the methods you used to arrive at the answers you did get right; guessing is not an ideal method.
  • Contact the programs to which you will apply. Ask any genuine and relevant question on your mind. When doing so, without pandering, tell them briefly why their program is of interest to you. If you are located close to the school, one question you can ask is whether you can shadow a class in the program. Follow and interact with their social media accounts.

  Week 4
  • Order your transcript(s) for delivery to your schools or to you for uploading. This process can take many weeks, especially if you owe an institution money; take care of it now so you can submit your application on time.
  • Review your transcript(s) for any period of prolonged poor academic performance (below what your dream school requires). Make a note of how you will explain these patterns, either in your personal statement or on the application’s “more information” section. If you experienced poor academic performance because of traumatic events like tragic family accidents, this is something recommenders can address on your behalf.
  • Figure out the main message you will convey in your personal statement, regardless of the specific school to which you apply. If you have no idea where to start, use this free download. Once you have this down, go back and tailor this message to each school. Conveying a clear, coherent message about why your school and program should choose you is a must if you want to get an acceptance letter.

Continue studying for your standardized test. Consider alternative methods of strengthening your problem areas—You Tube videos, audio lectures, your old college notes, study groups. You can also email friends or former professors for help.

That’s month one! In month two, you will begin to write your application essays and sharpen your CV while still studying for your standardized test. If you don’t have to take such a test, or if you have already gotten it out of the way, you will be free to focus on writing. In month three, you will take your standardized test, buckle down on reviewing your application essays, and submit your application. Applying to graduate school in three months is not ideal, but it is doable.

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