PLEASE, Don’t Start Your Grad School Application Your Senior Year!

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This post briefly covers where and when you should start with graduate school applications.

person who has been crying with a smiley face picture covering their mouth

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It’s 2 AM on a Monday. I can’t sleep. I check my work email (a big no-no for many reasons). The first email I see is one from one of my favorite, recently graduated seniors who was an incredible student and has already been accepted into a few different (prestigious) graduate school programs (I have had the pleasure of working closely with few students who fit this description, so there no point in trying to guess who it is). This student is trying to figure out funding for their graduate school. I let out deeeeeeep exhale. The conversation they are wanting to have with me should have taken place before they even decided to apply.

This is another case of a student who mistakenly thought the application process was just paperwork that could be completed in a month or so. This could not be further from the truth, especially if you don’t have the money to pay for grad school on your own.  It’s about relationships, research, studying, taking exams, retaking exams, and more. I’ve received a few of these emails recently and expect them to continue peppering my email this summer.

I am writing this in the hopes that I can save at least one student from having to send me, another career coach, or mentor an email like this. In case you don’t read the rest of this, start the graduate school application process AT LEAST the summer before your application deadline. 

Time is money! Though clichés suck, sometimes they suck because we know they’re true. This one right here applies to so many different elements of the graduate school application process. I will dive a little deeper into those elements below. The earlier you apply (many programs will have early decision deadlines), the more funding is available because everyone else (your competition) is waiting until the last second to finish their applications. Often, the general admissions deadline is too late if you need money.

The following advice is based on the assumption that you, the reader, are wanting to go to graduate school without a gap year following your senior year at Earlham and the application deadline is in the winter.

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The first step in applying to graduate school is finding out which program is right for you. Students often make the mistake of merely choosing a grad school because of the name of the institution. This is the first mistake. Make a list of questions/criteria that are important to you. Then, the real work can begin once you have a list of schools that meet this criterion. This should be completed by the end of your junior year.

Start here:

  • Where do I want to be located?
  • Do the professors’ areas of concentration align with my career path?
  • How well is the program ranked?
  • What GPA do I need to have?
  • What is the time commitment?
  • What is the school’s graduation/employment rate?
  • How much money will it cost?
  • How much money is on the table?
person taking notes with exam study book

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While it is very possible to find a school that will not require an exam, please do not bank on this. And, while there are schools that don’t require standardized tests, there may be a school that is perfect for you that will. OR, maybe your GPA isn’t so hot. Doing great on one of these life-sucking, hell simulations may help balance out your application and better your chances of getting in. This step takes time, especially if you are bad at taking tests. Start preparing for this at the end of your junior year.

  • Take a practice at the beginning of the summer to gauge where you are and what areas you need to focus on refining.
  • Schedule your test for the tail-end of the summer to give yourself a goal to help you study.
  • Give yourself enough time to retake the exam if you bombed the first time.

*When rescheduling, it is imperative to keep in mind that the easiest way for admissions to get rid of applicants in an overwhelming stack is to quickly identify those who didn’t get ALL of their application materials turned in on time. You want to allow enough time for your scores to be sent and arrive at the school. When you think your application is complete, reach out to admissions to confirm your application is actually complete.*


handwritten letter

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Letters of Recommendation

This will not affect your financial situation directly, but it will take time. Identify which of the current professors you know could provide QUALITY letters of recommendation, and ask them if they would be willing to be a recommender early-mid summer. I say “quality” and mean that you should find someone of the same field you are pursuing that can speak to the awesome qualities of you as a student. If you are interested in pursuing a psych program, your first choice probably shouldn’t be your Spanish professor. It’s a mistake to first ask them in the fall because they become busy quickly. Once they agree to help you out, send them a list all at once of the places you are thinking of with links and deadlines. Make the process as simple as possible for them with all the information they need in one place.

  1. Ask them in person, first.
  2. If they say yes, make sure you disclose how many you are applying to, and ask if how many schools they would be willing to provide recommendations for.
  3. If they say yes, follow up with an email. In that email, make sure you send them a list of the places you are thinking of with links and deadlines.
    1. A sharable document all parties can access like Google Docs or a Box document works well for this purpose so you can make changes in real-time and check on their progress without having to bother them.
  4. Make sure to gently remind them around two to three weeks before your deadline if they have not already written and submitted it.
  5. Send them cookies or a gift card and a thank-you when they have accomplished their task. The same applies to requesting transcripts—ask as early as possible in the summer because your registrar’s office is busy. Cheat code: all Earlham career coaches have a stash of thank-you cards. 😉


This is the most important when it comes to money. Actually cultivating relationships is something you cannot rush. The most important relationships you need to build are ones with admissions and potential professors. They may be able to give you the inside track on funding at that particular institution, assistantship opportunities, or other sources of money!

  • (Optional) Seek research or extra-curricular activities in the program or with a professor of the program you are interested in around your sophomore year (if still applicable to you). You can even try at the beginning of your junior year.
  • Reach out to admissions to ask them about internal funding and other deadlines.
  • ****Reach out to a professor in your area of interest.**** DO NOT just think the first time you email them you can ask them about funding and get positive results. Get to know them! Treat them like they’re humans who deserve respect (because they are, duh) and come correct!
    • FIRST, do your research on them and what they have done in the past.
    • Email them explaining who you are and what are your interests.
    • Ask them if they would be willing to talk more about what a successful student looks like in their program (this will also help when you are writing personal statements).
    • If they say yes to an informational interview, ask them about why they think the said institution is a good choice.
    • Ask them what projects they are working on at the moment.
    • Send them a thank-you note, a dying gesture. (Cheat code: all Earlham career coaches have a stash of thank-you cards)
    • THEN, much later on down the line, ask them if they know of any assistantship opportunities. This is why it helps to secure an opportunity where you are working directly with them.
  • Know that you may get no’s and some who don’t respond at all. That’s ok. All you can do is all you can do.

These things should be already taken care of by the time you get to the summer of your junior year (assuming you are applying for a school that has an application deadline the following fall). Because many parties are involved in your application, be considerate of EVERYONE’S time. You are not the center of their universe. Consider the fact that everyone is typically winding down from a crazy school year and may have more time to devote to speaking with/assisting you. The spring/summer really is the perfect time to start this process. This is only the STARTING point of the application process. Notice how I didn’t really touch on the main components of the grad school application.

I implore you to talk to a career coach if you need help.

More tips to come ….


By Eboni Dixon
Eboni Dixon Asst. Director of Epic Communications and Career Coach