This is a basic timeline of the main elements involved in applying to graduate school.
If you have any questions about anything discussed here or about anything else related to graduate school, please visit us at pregrad.unc.edu to make an appointment.
Let’s discuss what you need to begin working on right now…
You need to begin to identify people who could potentially write letters of recommendation for you. Regardless of the type of program you apply to, you generally want at least one professor to write a letter for you. If you are applying to a research-focused program, you may want to build relationships with 3 or 4 professors who could write letters for you. This requires using office hours positively – not to complain or make excuses – but to get help on work you are actively taking responsibility for and want to do an excellent job on.
Now is also the time to identify and gain experience that will help you stand out. We can help you figure out how to determine what this experience may be, whether it is co-curricular like club or athletic activity, or whether it would be specific work or volunteering experience.
Now, what to do one year before applying. If you do not plan to take off any years between college and grad school, these would be things to begin thinking about at the beginning of your junior year. If you do plan to work or gain other experience between college and grad school, that would change your timeline a bit. We are happy to talk to you about the benefits of gap years and how to get the most out of them.
You’ll need to begin to research programs. Program websites can be very helpful, and we have tools to help you determine a list of schools to look at that may be right for you. Faculty and graduate students here can also help point you towards programs you may want to consider. You can also directly contact schools in person or by email to get more information, and we are happy to help prepare you to make the most out of that interaction. Finally, you should consider graduate fairs where you can speak with representatives from many different graduate programs.
If you need to take an entrance exam, it will likely be the GRE – but check to make sure. If so, you will want to register for the GRE and take a practice exam to see where you stand without any preparation. This will help you determine how much study to plan on in order to get the score you want. You’ll want to take the actual test well in advance of the due dates of any applications. This is because you can retake the GRE multiple times and select your best scores to send. You also shouldn’t underestimate the time needed to have your scores sent.
Check your unofficial transcript on ConnectCarolina to make sure all of your grades have been recorded correctly. If any change needs to be made, it may take quite a while, so do this early!
What should you then work on the summer before you apply?
You should finalize the list of schools you are applying to, make sure you know everything required for each of their applications, and make a calendar of deadlines by which you need to turn your application materials in.
You should also write a rough draft of your personal statement. Do note that some schools may require multiple essays in their application, and that even if all the schools you are applying to require the same kind of essay, you will likely need to personalize it a little for each school.
You should also compile your CV. We’d be happy to help you figure out all of the things you should include and how to format it.
Some graduate programs do not have you select an advisor until you have been on campus for a year or even more. Others require you to identify a potential advisor when you apply and to have already been in contact with that person to make sure that they are able and willing to take you on. We can help you figure out how to determine what applies to the programs you are interested in and give you advice about how to contact potential advisors if it is necessary to do so.
Finally, what to do during application season.
Polish up your essays and CV with help from as many sources as you can, including the writing center, family and friends, faculty, and us!
At least a month before the earliest date you need them, you need to meet with your potential letter writers – in person if possible – to request your letters. Be sure to ask them if they feel they can write a “strong” letter for you. This means they feel they know you well enough to have good things to say and that they are invested in your success enough to take the time to write a very good letter. It also gives them a chance to decline to write for you if they don’t feel they would write you a good letter. We have very specific advice on data you should give to your letter writers to help them write the best letters possible, so be sure to visit us.
Also well in advance of any due dates, you will want to have the University Registrar send official transcripts to your target programs.
Finally, double check all requirements for each program and make sure you send in all required application elements before the deadlines.
Do note that if you are applying to external funding sources, they will have their own required application elements and deadlines. Even funding sources based at the schools you are applying to may have elements and deadlines that vary from your actual application, so be sure to be well aware of all elements and deadlines.
Now, after your applications are all in….
Contact each program – ONCE – to see if your application file is complete. This will let them know that you are conscientious and thorough without being a pest. Unless necessary, do not contact them again beyond this.
Once you have offers of admission, you should make as many campus visits as is feasible. Check out what housing, transportation and life in general is like in that area. You will be there for a little while, at least! You should also talk to faculty and students to try to get a very honest picture of the actual jobs students who have graduated in the past couple of years have actually gotten. For PhD programs, you can see how long it actually generally takes to complete the degree. Remember, program websites are advertising materials and may present a picture that is a bit better than reality. Speaking to current students can give you a more realistic picture. Finally, you’ll want to see how willing and able mentors are to help students, especially if you have already zeroed in on some you might want to work with.
Now, just send in the deposit and any other forms to your most appealing offer and be sure to decline all other acceptances.
And finally, be sure to hand-write thank you notes to everyone who helped you significantly – especially letter writers – and let them know of your successes and new plans!
For additional questions or more in depth advice, please make an appointment with us at pregrad.unc.edu.