Start your application process 12-16 months before you hope to begin graduate school.
If that sounds like a really long lead time, consider that most applications for programs that begin in September are due in January of the same year. So most of your work on the admissions process has to take place before December (when it will become very difficult to contact professors and departments, since they’ll be consumed by exams, grading and holidays). Ideally you should begin your background research over the summer so that by the time fall rolls around you’ll be ready to contact specific departments and professors and to round up your application materials. Write your application essay well in advance so that you can take advantage of any offers of advice; when I was visiting grad schools I showed my essay to a then-student who whipped it into shape. He’s now one of the hottest scholars in the field so I couldn’t have found a better advisor.
Apply to as many place as you can.
Yes, the applications take work, but the more acceptances — and the more fellowship offers — you accumulate, the more likely you are to be able to get the financial package you want at the school you want. So even if there’s only one program you really want to do, it’s worth the time (and money) to apply to a few more programs, ideally from schools with similar reputations. An offer from one school can be great leverage to get a comparable offer somewhere else.
Treat the application process like a job.
If you’re applying to more than a couple of schools – which you should do, if you want to maximize your funding prospects – it will take a lot of time and focus to create solid applications for each school. So here are a couple of organizing tips: I created a folder for each department I applied to (a computer folder, and a real physical folder) and a binder with a section for each department I applied to. For each school I typed up a list of required application materials and the application deadline, and put this list each school’s computer folder, manila folder, and binder section. I used the binder to keep notes on each department, and put a “contact log” page in the front of each tabbed section to keep track of all contact I had with each department. That way I knew when I had last called/emailed each department, and when to follow-up. I also kept a single calendar with all deadlines written in one place. Obsessive, but effective.
Do your homework.
Make sure your “why I want to go to your school” statement holds together as a coherent statement about the research you want to do, how your past experiences and talents prepare you for grad school and your particular research plans, and how the profs/resources of this particular department make it the best place in the universe to pursue your research plans. When I wrote my application essay I had one paragraph that I changed in each application; that paragraph basically said something like “Harvard is the ideal department in which to undertake this course of research. Professor Y’s research on X speaks to my interest in Z.”(repeat for 2-3 additional professors). To find out which professors to mention, look at the department’s web site, and read academic book reviews of the relevant professors’ work so you sound like you’re at least vaguely acquainted with it. (Reading their articles etc gets a bit time consuming, but abstracts are another useful shortcut). Again, good to make contact with as many of these professors personally as you can.
Don’t underestimate the politics of admissions.
It definitely helps to have a good GPA (good grades) but they aren’t everything. Personal calls/e-mails from your advisers to their buddies in the departments you’re applying to are worth a lot. And if you can swing a visit, personally visiting the departments you’re interested in, and making appointments with the profs you want to work with, gives them a chance to decide whether they want to advocate for your admission to the department. At the very least send personal emails introducing yourself to the profs you want to work with, attaching your cv and perhaps offering to send samples of your work (or attaching a recent paper you think might interest them), and ask them for their advice on your application.
Ace your GREs.
The GRE bears as much resemblance to graduate work as driving a Ford Explorer bears to the work of Lewis & Clark. But you might as well take the time to ace them, because they do carry some weight in the admissions process – though typically less than grades, supporting letters, and most importantly, supporting statement. It may seem insane to spend months honing a skill set that you’ll use exactly once – to write the GRE itself – but since it’s a learnable skill it’s another element of the application process that you can try to control. Your best bet for learning this skill is to buy one or two of the GRE prep guides and work your way through them, doing a few full-length GRE simulations along the way. One interesting thing about the guidebooks is that (ten years ago, anyhow) they all advised that the best way to complete the English section of the exam is to skip the reading comprehension sections, which most people can not complete successfully. Since the GRE is by definition an exam that is taken by people who have already completed college, my mind was boggled by the realization that most American college graduates are unable to read two paragraphs and then answer several questions about what they have just read. So if you have read and understood this paragraph, you are already ahead of the majority of GRE-takers!
If you’re doing the degree because you want an academic career, don’t go to grad school if you don’t get tuition plus some sort of stipend.
Really. As my mum (a PhD and former university VP herself) always says, if you’re not good enough to get funding, you’re not good enough to get a job. Harsh but probably by-and-large true. Heaven knows there are lots of Ivy League Ph.D.s who are unable to find tenure-track jobs, despite having brand-name degrees and great dissertations.
Be the best applicant you can be.
While graduate schools look for good students – after all, grad school is school, so your undergraduate record is a not-bad predictor of grad school survival – application decisions don’t all come down to grades. One Harvard department chair told me that the department specifically picks a couple of wildcard applicants each year; applicants who don’t meet the typical profile but who just might do interesting work. So don’t limit your application to your academic qualifications: if you have interesting personal or professional experiences, make them part of your application with a personal statement that explains how these experiences have shaped your academic interests or prepared you for graduate work. As hokey as it sounds, your best bet for standing out in the ever-growing pack of grad school applications is to put yourself forward not as another GPA or transcript but as an actual human being with a passionate interest in continuing your education.
My complete guide to grad school applications:
Who I am: my faux qualifications for dispensing grad school advice
My story: how I survived the application process
My results: where I got in, and how I got funding
Questions to ask yourself: things to think about when applying
Questions to ask departments: things you need to find out for your applications
Acing the application: my tips for winning at the application game