This post is for those of you who are planning on applying to masters level programs for 2014.
While the majority of deadlines are in the fall and winter, preparation for graduate school admission actually takes place almost a full year (if not more) in advance. Below is a checklist of what you will need to start thinking about and planning this spring and summer:
Study for and take your GMAT/GRE/TOEFL
I probably don’t need to tell you that your first major hurdle will be the GMAT/GRE/TOEFL. If you haven’t already begun studying, you should do so immediately. We have had clients who scored impressively well on their first try, but that is usually the exception. The majority of our clients spend a good 6-8 months preparing for the exams, with some needing more than a year.
The scores are not everything, but they are important. At reputable schools, there are always more qualified candidates than there are seats available. You don’t want to give the admissions committee a reason to choose another applicant over you. When there are 8 or 12 candidates competing for each seat, you’ll want to be in the strongest position possible. And while many graduate programs will provide a range of admissible scores, remember that those who score on the very low end are typically exceptional candidates with extenuating circumstances.
And if you have already taken the GMAT, GRE, and/or TOEFL in the past, check the dates to make sure the scores haven’t expired. GMAT and GRE scores need to be no older than 5 years and the TOEFL no older than 2. I have had clients who found out one or two months before their school deadlines that their scores just missed the cut-off by a week or so, and they had to scramble to retake them. So be sure to check now.
Improve your academic record
Find out what your undergraduate GPA (grade point average) is, or what your average grade or rank was. Unfortunately, the undergraduate academic record is one part of the application that matters but that cannot be changed. While the admissions committee may be sympathetic to the fact that your 2.8 GPA was due to the 70 hours a week you had spent on the varsity football team, another applicant who presents a straight-A transcript and a pattern of intellectual motivation will have an advantage academically over you.
Or, let’s say, you were a straight A student but you’d majored in literature or history, and you avoided anything related to math. If you are applying for an MBA or a masters in public policy, for example, you will need to convince the admissions committee that you are both comfortable with and adept at analytical work.
To help remedy either of the above situations, enroll in some classes this spring and/or summer if you possibly can. Take classes at a local university. If you are deficient in quantitative skills and your target programs require strong quantitative ability, take (for example) an accounting, calculus, finance or statistics class. If your undergraduate GPA is low, take a class (or more) – conducted in English – and try and earn an A. Give the admissions committee evidence that you have the intellectual prowess necessary to do well in a demanding graduate program in English.
Continue to build your leadership
Top graduate programs across the board are looking for future leaders, whether they’re in business, law, international affairs, education or the arts. In your work do your best to seek out opportunities where you can take initiative or problem solve. If you have an official leadership position, great; if not, you can still find ways to go the extra mile in what you do. We had a client not long ago who was working in a rather low level position. However, because of her passion for the field, she continually did more than she needed to do, both on the job and off. At night and on weekends she attended seminars and took classes. At work she learned as much as she could and eventually initiated a proposal which was accepted. Her company will start up a new division based on her idea and they sent her to graduate school to develop expertise to run the new division.
You absolutely need to do more than just read the internet. Join information sessions, network, and visit schools if possible.
Of course, you can begin with the internet. Find out when schools will be visiting your city or offering information sessions. Check out The MBA Tour, which organizes multi-school information events in cities around the world. Sign up and attend different sessions even if you are not 100% sure you want to apply. The purpose is to learn more about schools and to have more options. You may find that 7 months later you do want to apply to Cornell after all but there are no more information sessions to attend.
Connect with current students and alumni of schools you are interested in. If you don’t know anyone, ask friends and colleagues and friends of friends for contacts. You can also check the school websites to connect with students through blogs or clubs. Talk to them. Short of visiting the school, this is the best way to get some close understanding of what it feels like to attend.
If you have the resources, it is always a great idea to visit the school. Nothing can substitute the experience of attending a class, having lunch in the dining halls with current students, or attending a party on campus. When scheduling your visit, however, be careful to check the school calendar first; schools tend to enter exam mode in May and will be very quiet over the summer. At some programs, applicants are not allowed to visit classes during the first couple of weeks that school begins in the fall.
The more research you conduct, the better you will be able to make the right choices for your future. You will also be able to express your interest in the school more convincingly in your essays and interviews.
Look for money
Graduate programs can cost up to $100,000. If you are not receiving sponsorship by your company, it may be worth your time to do some research about scholarship opportunities. The Fulbright Foreign Student Program (for international applicants) and The Rotary Foundation (see District Grants and Global Grants) are two of the most prestigious organizations supporting potential graduate students and they are accepting applications now.
Check also on the websites of your target schools. Many schools offer scholarships; you may need to submit additional essays at the time of application or simply check “Yes” in the box where they ask if you would like to be considered for scholarship money.
This article here lists a few resources as well.
Finally, check with foundations in your own country as well as your country of residence. In Japan where most of our clients are, there is the new scholarship program started up by one of our former clients at the Kamiyama Foundation, and the College Women’s Association of Japan (CWAJ), from which another former client had benefited with a $2,000 monthly stipend throughout her MBA studies. The Kamiyama scholarship does not require Japanese nationality status – only a commitment to eventually contribute to Japan – so even if you’re an expatriate, it may be worth it to look into scholarship opportunities in your country of residence.
Think deeply about your goals
I’m often surprised at how many people decide on applying for a graduate degree without having first considered what they would like to do once they graduate.
Spend these spring and summer months solidifying your short-term career goal. This may be less difficult if you are company-sponsored and returning to your employer. If you plan to leave, though, think about what you will do after your degree. In what kind of industry do you wish to be? What kind of responsibilities do you hope to have? What kinds of contributions do you wish to make? What kind of position might allow you to do these things? What gaps or needs in society will you be fulfilling? Why is this goal important to you? Do you have some transferable skills for this new position? How easy or difficult will it be to get this kind of position, given your background and the job market? If you are unclear about any aspect of your future target career, do some networking now to learn more about it. Schedule information sessions with individuals doing the kind of work that you would like to be doing. Learn from them. The more focused and realistic you sound, the stronger your applications will be.
Secure your recommenders
You will need 2-3 letters of recommendation for graduate school. If you are applying to the Stanford Graduate School of Business, you will also need a recommendation from a peer (someone who’s worked side by side with you – not a superior and not a subordinate). While they won’t need to submit the recommendations now, consider the best mix of recommenders for your applications and ask if they will support you in your graduate applications. As a courtesy to them get their support early and talk to them about your plans, and let them know of the deadlines so they can plan ahead.
The list is long, but if you start now, you can tackle your applications later this summer/fall with the peace of mind that these other tasks are either behind you or under control.
Cecilia Wu Tanaka is co-founder of Reve Counseling and a veteran graduate admissions counselor with 19 years in the field. Prior to starting Reve 8 years ago she headed up a $1.25 million counseling department at the largest test prep company in Asia. In her previous life, she sat on various admissions committees at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, conducted interviews for the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and directed the interview program at Harvard Medical School.