My College:

Grad school application timeline

Suzanne Shaffer

If this is the summer before your student’s final year in college, you might feel a bit dazed. How did three (or more) years pass so quickly? And what will your son or daughter be doing this time next year?

Some students are career focused from the get go, and some know early on that graduate school is in their future (for example, most pre-med students). Many other students don’t consider the possibility of graduate school until this last college summer, or at some point during senior year or soon after graduation.

I remember how it played out with my daughter. The job market after she graduated from college was poor. This was in the first few years after September 11th, which were hard on college graduates. With jobs scarce, many grads moved home with their parents after coming up empty in their initial job search efforts. My daughter was one of them.

During the year she lived at home, she started thinking about graduate school — partly because she’d loved college and fantasized about being a student again, and partly because she felt that with an advanced degree she would stand out in a sea of grads with bachelor’s degrees.

To make a long story short, my daughter applied, was accepted, and attended graduate school, where she earned a master’s. She found employment after graduation, but the job hunt was still difficult because, even with the additional education, she lacked professional experience. A graduate degree is by no means a guarantee of employment.

What are the best and worst reasons to attend graduate school?

The best reason for your student to attend graduate school is to improve and enrich his professional prospects. A graduate student should be very self-directed, and have a strong passion for education and the desire to use that education to improve his career.

More questionable reasons to attend graduate school include: avoiding financial obligations (such as student loan repayment), having difficulty with the job hunt, not possessing a clear direction, or assuming (without having done the research) that a certain career path requires a graduate degree.

Reflecting back, I recognize that my daughter’s decision to enter graduate school fell into this “questionable” category. On top of everything, she increased her student loan debt because she applied late and did not research scholarships or financial aid. However, in the long run, her graduate degree did lead to higher earnings.

As soon as your student expresses an interest in graduate school, have open and exploratory conversations about his goals and options. Don’t be shy about asking questions! This is the perfect time for you to be a helpful sounding board.

What is the value of a graduate degree?

People with advanced degrees tend to earn more than those with only an undergraduate degree. But the added value of that degree depends on the area of study.

A study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce reported in the Washington Post examined annual earnings by degree level and field. Engineers with advanced degrees saw the biggest pay increase, followed by computer science and business grads. Communication majors were the only ones that did not get a bump in income after a master’s degree, but did get a significant increase after receiving a Ph.D.

What does data like this mean for your student? A graduate degree is only as valuable as its payoff. Research is crucial before making the decision. Students who aren’t receiving financial help from their parents may incur additional debt to secure the degree and they need to be very confident that they will earn back their investment sooner rather than later.

How can parents help with the decision?

As soon as your student expresses an interest in graduate school, have open and exploratory conversations about his goals and options. Don’t be shy about asking questions! This is the perfect time for you to be a helpful sounding board.

Does he have valid reasons for wanting to continue his education? Has he done the research — on his own or at the campus Career Center — and concluded that the extra education is likely to be valuable both professionally and financially? And this may seem obvious, but is he a strong student, receiving mostly A’s, in the field of study (usually his academic major)?

Ask if he has formed good relationships with faculty, including some of the more senior/tenured professors in his department. Graduate school admissions are competitive, and he will need multiple letters of recommendation. In addition, his academic advisor and/or thesis advisor will be someone who can give him a frank opinion about what kind of candidate he might be, and what programs he should aim for.

Once your student determines that graduate school is in his future, he should prepare much as he did with his undergraduate applications and the summer before senior year is a great time to start. There is a major difference this time around: most likely you as a parent will not be involved with the process. However, understanding what’s required, and having a sense of the timeline, can help you advise your student.

In addition, it’s important to talk about finances. Will you contribute or will your student be self-supporting in graduate school? Encourage your student to explore in-state options and schools that might offer merit aid and fellowships.

When should students start planning?

Ideally, students begin preparing for graduate school before senior year of college. Graduate school applications are more comprehensive and time consuming than college applications and graduate schools take the decision to admit seriously.

Most graduate program application deadlines are in December or January for entrance the following autumn. At any given university, different departments will have different deadlines and requirements.

Here is a simple timeline for your student to follow:

4-6 months before the application deadline
  • Determine professional goals
  • Research institutions and programs
  • Request information and read materials carefully while noting all deadlines
  • Prepare and register for required admission exams (GRE with or without subject test, GMAT, MCAT, LSAT, etc.)
  • Make plans to finance the education: scholarships, loan programs
  • Look into assistantship and fellowship opportunities
2-3 months before the application deadline
  • Finalize a list of grad schools/programs
  • Establish contact with potential schools; visit and interview if possible
  • Draft the statement of purpose and the application essay
  • Contact professors and mentors about writing letters of recommendation
  • Take the admission exam
  • Request official transcripts
  • Complete as many elements of the application as possible, paying close attention to instructions and requirements
1 month before the application deadline
  • Gather letters of recommendation
  • Polish the essay, personal statement and application
  • Continue financial planning
  • Submit application before deadline if possible! Some schools/programs have rolling admissions
  • Follow up to confirm receipt of application, test scores and other needed documents


Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been highlighted on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College and TeenLife online and she has written for Smart College Visit, College Focus, Noodle Education and Road2College. Her articles have also been featured in print in TeenLife, UniversityParent and CollegiateParent publications.
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