featured image
Image by annca from Pixabay

The ultimate guide to applying to a graduate program: Part 3. Establish your timeline

How long does it take to apply to graduate school in the US and what are the essential application steps?

If you happen to have a US-based undergraduate degree under your belt, the timeline of the graduate application process is likely nothing new to you. As an international applicant, you might be surprised by how different it can be compared to your country, or, even worse, end up being short on time when you apply to your program. Let’s take a closer look at how long the application process takes and when is best to start the preparations.

But first - a story from a dumbhead who didn’t consider these differences carefully. Yep, that’s me!

In Russia, applying to undergrad/grad school is (or at least used to be) a fairly quick process. For undergrad programs, we had to take standardized tests (usually in May), gather a few documents and bring them to the admission office (June-July), sometimes pass college-specific entrance exams (June-July), and know if we made it in by early to mid-August. The bulk of the process took place in summer, and school started around September 1. Of course, looking for colleges and programs could take some time but, generally, the entire process was quick.

Having finished my junior year in college, I started looking for some info in June 2014 with the intent to have my applications in by the end of the year. After all, how much harder could it be compared to what I did for my undergrad, right?


When I sat down to start the search for my graduate program, I had no idea what program I wanted to be in, didn’t know many American universities, and knew nothing about admission requirements. Learning the details made me realize that the 6 months I had left were barely enough for me to create a strong application. Those 6 months were really exhausting. I often had to work 12 hours a day without days off to get things done on time. 

So why did it happen?

Well, I didn’t consider my level of preparedness based on multiple aspects of the application process. With this experience under my belt, I know I'd do things differently. I’d like to share what I learned with you so that you can evaluate your level of preparedness and create a viable timeline.

Below you will find several questions that you will need to answer to create your personal timeline. Here we go!

Q1. How many universities/programs would you like to apply to?

While some application elements are fairly common (basic demographics, writing samples, resume/CV, some test scores, statement of purpose), they will vary based on the specific university/program of your choice. Even if you apply to the same program in 3 different colleges, your statement of purpose will have to be tailored to each school accordingly, as well as your writing sample and the format of the application. You can crank out one statement of purpose in a couple of days but can you make 6 of them this fast? Probably not. I recommend dedicating at least one month for statements of purpose and writing samples. This number is inversely proportional to (a) your certainty about the program/area of interest; (b) your English level - meaning, the less you know about what you want to do and the lower your English level, the more time you will need.

How many universities should you apply to? The more, the higher the chances to get in. However, with each one the cost of the application process rises, and so does your workload. I would recommend aiming for 3 to 5 universities on avergae as it gives you good chances without overwhelming you with extra work.

Q2. Do you know what universities/programs/areas you are interested in?

If no, give yourself at least a month to search for this info, better yet - a few months. You’ll be in it for the long haul, so don’t slack on this one. I kinda knew my field (linguistics or education) but wasn't sure about the program, and it took me a month ofextensive search to find a reasonable fit. I wish I had more time.

Q3. How much time do you need to prepare for required tests?

Most graduate programs in the US require GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) or a GRE subject test focused on a specific area (such as Chemistry and Biology), and, for international students, TOEFL (The Test of English as a Foreign Language) or IELTS (The International English Language Testing System). All of them are a real pain in the butt. GRE is notorious for its ridiculous difficulty even among native speakers; as an international student, you’re in for a rough ride! Go take a sample test (they are free: TOEFL sample test, GRE sample test, IELTS sample test) asap and see how much work needs to be done. 

I recommend spending at least 1 month on TOEFL if your English is good and 2-4 months is it’s not. TOEFL is very important (I focus on TOEFL and not on IELTS because it seems to be accepted by more uniersities than IELTS). A good TOEFL score can guarantee you a free pass to a teaching assistantship position without the need to take any English courses or examinations. That’s why you need to nail it! 

As for GRE, from my experience, admission committees won’t care that much about the score as long as it’s not abysmal, but having a relatively high GRE score will make you look cool. In my program, GRE scores had to be above a certain threshold to be considered for a teaching assistantship. Now, depending on your English level, even getting an okay GRE score might take a few months of preparation, so my advice would be to spend as much time on GRE as you can but space it out. Much of GRE preparation is learning a ton of really difficult and rare vocabulary and fighting through really dense texts (+ some school math and intense essays). So if you have 6 months to prepare, dedicate at least an hour every day for GRE all 6 months long. The more, the better. 

Q4. What are the application deadlines?

Application deadlines tend to cluster somewhere around December but may vary from early November to mid-January or even spring dates. Most likely, each university will have a slightly different deadline. Put them down and revisit them from time to time. They will be the starting point of your backward planning approach.

Q5. What are the available test dates and locations?

Even if you live in a big city, TOEFL (or IELTS) and GRE might be available only on certain dates. As a resident of a smaller town, you might have to travel elsewhere to take them. In bigger cities there are usually enough opportunities to take the tests but you might need to sign up for them at least a couple of weeks in advance. Look up all of the available dates, times and locations for these exams asap to plan your timeline ahead. Pick an approximate date considering your level of preparedness, how much time you need for preparation, how much time you'll have to wait for the results, and how long it takes to send the results to your universities of choice. I recommend leaving at least a month between the test date and the application deadlines just to be safe.

Q6. How much time will you need to collect and send out all required documents?

Ah, good old red tape. Nothing more infuriating than having your application on hold your alma mater can’t send out the goddamn transcripts in a sealed envelope…

Let’s look at the packet of documents you’ll need to have ready (this might vary but generally they are required in one form or another):

  • Official transcripts (sealed and sent by your university, might require translation and evaluation)
  • Diploma (if applicable) 
  • Letters of recommendation (usually 3) and contact information of those who will provide them (including their email, position, full name, and sometimes even phone)
  • Resume/Curricular Vita
  • Statement of Purpose
  • Writing Sample
  • TOEFL and GRE scores (you’ll need to send them directly to schools from the test websites or in the test centers)
  • Application materials and demographics, including small annoyances such as calculating your GPA, figuring out how to transliterate names and places, and so on.

This doesn’t look like much until you start dealing with bureaucratic agencies on both sides - in your home country and in the US. Plus, some documents you will have to send by mail, or have other institutions send them, which also takes time. You will also depend on other people for references. 

For all the bureaucratic documents give yourself at least 2 months to make sure everything is delivered and submitted on time. Don’t trust anyone to do things fast and make sure to start early.

Q7. Consider your other commitments and financial situation

Applying to grad schools is expensive. Each application will cost you from $60 to 100 (although some universities waive this fee based on your financial situation). Both GRE and TOEFL are around $200 - which you might have to retake if the results are not good. You might have to pay for mailing things, translation and evaluation. If you don’t have this money available, you might need to spend some time saving. Furthermore, if you are currently a student, work full-time or take care of a family, you only have so much time on your hands. Figure out how much time you can spend to prepare your applications and make sure it’s reasonable and viable for your particular circumstances.

Creating your timeline

Now you are ready to create your timeline of the application process.

Let’s assume that most of the deadlines in your schools of choice cluster around December. You want to have:

  • 1-2 months for school/program search
  • At least 2-3 months for TOEFL and GRE preparation (this can overlap with other activities)
  • At least 1 month for writing Statement of Purpose and writing sample
  • 1 month for handling other required documentation (assuming you spend another month doing that while also working on other application tasks)

Considering there will be some overlap among these tasks, you will need to start at least 6 months before December - which means early June. This was my timeline and it looked like so:

  • June (no school or work): Find potential schools, decide what the heck I wanted to do for my degree, start preparing for TOEFL
  • July (no school or work): Spend 10-12 hours a day preparing for TOEFL and GRE, keep searching for information about schools and applications, create an extensive list of all universities and required documents
  • August (no school or work): Keep preparing for GRE, contact universities with questions (there will be many!)
  • September (school and a dramatic decrease in free time): Start online application forms, take TOEFL, keep preparing for GRE
  • October (school): Take GRE and work on Statements of Purpose, get official transcripts, translate some paperwork, ask for recommendation letters
  • November (school): keep an eye on the recommendation letter progress, write a writing sample, keep working on online applications, monitor the delivery of required paperwork by mail
  • Mid-December: all applications are submitted

As you can see, I did the bulk of the most difficult work in summer when I had a lot of free time, and spent the fall mostly figuring out paperwork. I was lucky to have enough time, not to have any family obligations, to have enough money to pay for the costs; plus, English was my major in my undergrad, so it wasn’t a problem (TOEFL and GRE still kicked my butt though). 

To be honest, I wish I gave myself a year instead of 6 months because I felt burned out and often rushed. I did fairly well on tests but could have done better. My Statements of Purpose could have used more attention as well.

And yet, those 6 months allowed me to build a decent application package that paved my way to my current program. I’d say, 6 months seems to be a good average estimate but it will change based on where you are at the moment. You might find that you only have 3 months left and are determined to make it. It will be intense but possible, provided that your English is decent and you have at least some idea about what program would be a good fit. 

If there is only one thing you will take away from this article today, let it be this: the time to start the application process is now, and establishing your timeline early on and prioritizing the tasks involved in the application process will serve as a strong foundation of your success.

Got your timeline ready? Time to pick your universities and programs, let's keep rolling!

Other posts of the series: