You’ve probably heard the conventional wisdom about how far ahead you should plan for graduate school: Start at least 10 to 12 months before the application deadline (November-December) researching prospective colleges or universities, parsing out pros and cons, taking required standardized tests, and requesting letters of recommendation. But what if you don’t have a full year?
What if you want to apply, well, now?
Our graduate admissions counselors tell us that you may still be able to apply, even with an ultra-short timeline. Many graduate programs accept late applications (a notable exception is those that adhere to a strict cohort model to keep the entire class together throughout the program).
You may have a strong case if you have two things: good reasons for wanting to start immediately, and the ability and discipline to quickly pull together necessary documents and information in a compressed timeframe.
Good vs. bad reasons
Everything depends on your unique circumstances, but here are a few reasons that might be compelling and valid:
- You want a certain job that requires you to work on an advanced degree
- You want to signal to your employer that you’re serious about professional development (say, for example, as part of your job, you perform some data analysis, but you know you could advance significantly with an M.S. in business analytics)
- Your target school offers incentives, such as guaranteed graduate assistantships, that are available for spring but may not be available in the following semester
- Your family, friends, boss, and coworkers love your goal and support your enthusiasm
- You started a master’s degree years ago; life got in the way, but now you’re back in a good place to resume your studies (many schools will accept a hefty amount of transfer credits)
- You feel that you are ready to do this and confident that you can make the commitment
- You’re feeling overwhelmed, disorganized, and anxious
- You just don’t see how you possibly have enough time to apply
- You’re unsure that you can commit the time or effort to work on a degree
- You’re afraid to broach the subject with your family or employer
Keep in mind that you can practically tailor graduate studies to your own likes, schedule, and situation. For instance, you don’t have to drop everything and immediately become a full-time student: You can start out with one or two evening or online classes to see how you do. You can start with offerings in your main course of study or program prerequisites, or even something completely unrelated that interests you. Or you can commit to a full courseload. Some accepted students even defer their start date for a semester or two to accommodate their life circumstances.
The most important thing is to know yourself. Do you like to start projects slowly, and then accelerate, or prefer to forge full steam ahead? Is this a challenge you’re willing to tackle?
If you’re unsure, contact graduate admissions to understand the requirements and get a better perspective on your ability to handle the demands.
You can do it — if you really want to
If you have the desire and motivation, the truth is that almost nothing can hold you back. Princess Rallins G’19, who completed her undergraduate degree in 2008, had wanted for a long time to start grad school but kept doubting her own ability. One snowy January, eight years after finishing her bachelor’s degree, she made up her mind. “I was pregnant with my fourth child when I went to talk to a graduate admissions counselor,” she says. “I told her, ‘I have three boys at home and I work full time. Can I really do this?’” The counselor drew up a road map to show her the timeline and said, “Yes, it’s possible.”
Rallins was admitted for the spring semester, and has been taking three classes per semester (on top of her full-time job and taking care of the kids) since starting a year and a half ago. The week after her fourth child was born in April 2018, Rallins was back in class. “My advisor (the most positive person I’ve ever met!), my classmates, my professors in the program – everyone is so empathetic,” she says.
She is three semesters away from completing the requirements for her M.S. in clinical mental health counseling. She has a 3.9 GPA.
The necessities of your application
Your graduate program may require standardized tests, such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), or Test of English Fluency and Literacy (TOEFL), International English Language Test System (IELTS), or Pearson Test of English (PTE) for non-native English speakers.
Find out exactly what your college or university requires: are the tests required or optional? If they’re optional, do you gain any advantage by taking the tests? What scores are required?
These tests are typically given year round, so schedule a time to take each required test, but don’t take it until you’re ready for it. Gauge your readiness by taking a free online practice exam offered by one the test-prep companies. If you don’t do so well, you can improve with a study guide (online or in book form, which you can find at many public libraries).
The most time-consuming part of your application will be getting transcripts of your undergraduate grades and letters of recommendation. Transcripts are the easier of the two, as you only have to request them; however, you have to wait for them to be delivered to your graduate program. Ask if your undergraduate school can send a secure electronic transcript to speed things up.
If you have an unofficial transcript, send that to give graduate admissions officers an idea of your academic performance while they’re awaiting the official version.
Although her application was rushed, Rallins adds that, thanks to her natural love of organization, she had her papers ready to go when they were needed. “You really want to have everything in order,” she advises, adding that that unofficial transcript came in handy.
Letters of recommendation are a little more complicated, so we’ll address those in a separate post. For now, suffice it to say that you want strong recommendations from mentors, employers, or faculty who know you, understand your goals, and want to see you succeed.
Make your application tell your story
It’s not just a pile of papers: It’s the story of who you are and what you want to achieve. Your application should make a strong case for why you want to go to school and present a clear arc, beginning from the time you figured out your direction, continuing through what you’re doing now, and culminating in how graduate school will help you attain your goals.
Use your application strategically: For instance, if your grades aren’t so good, explain in your essay and interview how they represent your strengths. Did you start as a D- student, but fight your way up to a B+ average? An uninspired student with a 4.0 GPA isn’t a shoe-in; much more compelling is one whose grades fell because he had to drop out to take care of his family when his mom was diagnosed with cancer.
Just because your timeline is compressed doesn’t mean that you can’t establish relationships with your prospective grad school. Your prospective professors will be happy to talk to you about your plans and advise you about strategies. At Saint Rose, each department lists faculty contacts who will be glad to answer your queries.
Graduate admissions is also an excellent resource for any questions you might have about graduate school: If they can’t answer your questions directly, they can put you in touch with the right resource for your queries, such as financial aid, disability services, the writing center, the international center, or career services. They can also set up joint meetings with faculty.
Keep In mind that graduate school is a partnership, and that the more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it. When you meet with a faculty member or admissions officials, ask thoughtful questions that demonstrate your interest and commitment: “What makes a successful candidate in your program?” “What kind of candidates are you looking for?” “What specific skills should I learn before beginning this program?”
A good sign: Your meeting leaves you feeling warm and positive, and ends on a note like: “Looking forward to seeing your application!”