Whether you want to take on more responsibility in your current career or transition to an entirely different industry, pursuing a graduate degree can open up a world of opportunities.
Still, going back to school is a major decision to make, and it’s common to feel overwhelmed when narrowing down where you want to go and what you want to study.
And once you’ve settled on your dream university and program, there is one more hurdle to cross: the application itself.
Applying to graduate school may seem daunting, but luckily, we have all the information you need to make the process as smooth as possible.
Speaking with Jeremy Clifford, a graduate/international credentials analyst for the Office of Graduate Admission at USC, we determined when you should apply for a program, what you need to know before applying and the best tips to keep in mind throughout the process.
First off, it’s important to note that the graduate school application timeline can differ from program to program and that many programs offer varying start dates. Typically, however, you can apply as early as a year out from when you plan to enroll.
If that’s too far in advance for your schedule, many USC graduate programs allow you to submit an application as late as April or May to start studies in the fall, according to Clifford. Others have an even quicker turnaround period, such as the online Master of Science in Digital Media Management, which requires applications to be filed by July for an August start date.
That being said, Clifford maintains his number one tip for prospective students is to apply as early as possible — so even if you aren’t quite ready to hit the books just yet, it’s best to prepare your paperwork well ahead of the deadline.
For a more detailed breakdown, we’ve outlined what to expect during the graduate school application process below:
12 Months Out
Twelve months before your intended start date, you should begin your program research, determining where you want to study and what exactly is needed for each application.
Take note of whether you’re required to sit for the GRE or GMAT (multiple USC Online programs have waived the GRE, for example) — and if so, start studying for those as well.
“One major recommendation I have is to go to the individual program’s website because it’s true: There are so many different programs at USC, and they’re managed by different units. The best way to get information is to go to the specific program’s website, find the contact for that program and send your questions to them,” Clifford said.
11 Months Out
At the 11-month mark, start networking. You’ll want to meet with past professors, employers and career center personnel to request letters of recommendation as well as ask for advice on essays, financial aid and more.
Speaking with people who work in your desired field can also help you determine if you’re following the right professional path. After all, graduate school is not a small commitment — you want to be sure the program you’re applying to will lead to a career you enjoy.
10 Months Out
Ten months out, you should plan to take the GRE, if necessary. Study with a test prep book, course or online program and practice test-taking strategies.
If there isn’t a GRE requirement for your program, this is still an important time: You should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which determines if you qualify for federally funded student loans as well as financial aid.
It’s essential you fill out the application as soon as possible because financial aid is sometimes limited and given out to those who apply first, Clifford noted.
“The best first step for financial aid when you’re considering grad school at USC is to contact the specific program advisor … directly about the financial aid opportunity. Some programs, if you apply by, say, one of the first earliest rounds for applications, then you have a greater chance of receiving a scholarship from the program,” he explained.
Speaking with specific program advisors will also help clear up any financial confusion you may have: “[These advisors] all manage their individual scholarship programs, and they are very specific scholarships for each program. Plus, they’ll put you in touch with the financial aid office as well if you have more questions about loans or things of that nature,” he said.
9 Months Out
At nine months, you should finalize your graduate school application. Gather your transcripts, test scores, resume, personal statement, letters of recommendation and work samples.
Fortunately, the application for USC graduate programs is quite simple, according to Clifford. All the programs are filtered through the same submission system, and “it’s a very easy application to follow.”
No matter which program you apply to, it’s vital to provide as much documentation as you can about your work and education history, including college transfers, study abroad experiences and community college credits.
“Often what holds up [the process] is applicants will not provide enough information about their educational history,” Clifford warned.
After submitting your application, you’ll be informed of the program’s decision notification date.
“Usually, it’s hard to gauge when [the notification] will be. It depends on the program and what their specific timelines are, but it can be anywhere from one month to a couple of months,” he said of USC graduate admission decisions.
8 To 6 Months Out
Between eight and six months, you’ll likely be waiting to hear back about admissions, but there are still tasks to complete during this time period.
Continue researching your financial options and reach out to the programs you’ve applied to (if you haven’t already) to explore available scholarships.
4 To 2 Months Out
In this final stretch, you’ll typically begin receiving decision notifications — whether you’ve been accepted, rejected or waitlisted. You’ll also be informed of what scholarships you’ve secured and how much financial aid you can expect to receive.
Once you know which programs have accepted you, it’s time to make the final decision: where to attend graduate school. Then, all that’s left to do is send in your deposit and declare your commitment to reserve your spot.
Amidst the hard work, study stress and application anxiety, don’t forget to make time to celebrate your massive achievement — getting into graduate school truly is half the battle.