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Grad School Myth #3: You must apply 1 full year in advance

Photo by alykat / flickr

Unlike most resolutions we set (eat better! exercise more!), the decision to go to grad school isn’t exactly a choice we can make today and start tomorrow.

To get into most grad schools, you must begin the process of applying nearly 1 year in advance.

Why? Deadlines for most grad programs run from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, interviews take place in March, acceptance letters get mailed out in April, and classes begin around September — about 1 year after you applied.

Considering the application process is cumbersome — requiring you to study for and take the GRE (or not, if you’re lucky), write a personal statement, collect recommendation letters, and, if necessary, complete prerequisites — some people start preparing to apply a full 2-3 years in advance.

Behind before you even begin

Going by this time line, even if you had built up the motivation that this was the year you were finally going to grad school, well, you couldn’t. You would’ve had to apply by last December. You can do nothing this fall but apply, and you won’t be able to start your first class until fall of next year.

That requires a lot of foresight. And frankly, some people don’t have time to wait. Maybe you were laid off and are eager to jump-start your degree before your unemployment check runs out, or perhaps you’re hoping to start a family soon and want to get things moving.

Speed it up

The good news is some master’s programs have rolling admissions where they let students apply at any time throughout the year. The program’s board reviews applications as they come in and accept students on a “rolling” basis, or as they go — usually until the class is full.

You should get your decision letter quickly, within 1-2 months. And if accepted, many programs let you start the next soonest semester, even if its the spring or summer session, and even if it happens to be a few months away from today.

No more One And Only One Deadline. No more fall-only starts. No need for 1 year in advance planning.

I’m talking apply next month, start your master’s program 1 month later.

Add in that some schools allow you to waive the GRE if your GPA is high enough, and you could be sitting in your first graduate class this year. Some programs even accept students days before the semester begins, provided they still have room.

Multiple deadlines, multiple options

Another flexible option is staggered deadlines, where schools accept a cohort of students for the fall semester and another for the spring, thus having two application deadlines. Some schools even take new students for the summer term.

Photo by alykat / flickr

Photo by alykat / flickr

For instance, applications may be due Feb. 1 for fall and Oct. 15 for spring admission.

By these time lines, you could sitting in your first graduate class within the next 2-6 months.

Freedom in flexibility

When I was thinking about pursuing an M.A., I couldn’t get my act together to apply, and not because I was procrastinating. Without a college adviser to guide me, I was overwhelmed by the whole idea. I also had real-life stuff going on, like moving, working full time, and bouncing my way around holidays, friends’ weddings, and baby showers that kept stalling me.

Programs that aren’t so rigid, though scoffed at by PhD candidates, can truly be a breath of fresh air for working professionals, like me, who need work, school, and family life to blend smoothly. We can’t put our entire lives on hold to do our master’s program, we have to integrate it with everything else. Schools with flexible deadlines are usually, all around, more accommodating of people who work full time while going to school. And that’s exactly what I needed.

There are more grad programs with rolling applications and staggered deadlines than I can list. However, as long as you’re aware of the option, it will be easier for you to find them. Flexibility can be freeing.

Always try to apply as early as possible

Just be sure to keep in mind two things:

  1. Don’t assume that every grad school deadline is in November or December. As you can see from the examples above, deadlines vary widely for each school.
  2. As Boston College’s grad-school preparation site points out, you should still try to apply as early as possible:

If the schools are using rolling admissions or staggered deadlines, it is to your advantage to apply early because fewer acceptances will have been made. If you apply just before the last deadline, a school may only have a handful of spaces available and a large number of candidates, reducing your chances.

Applying early can also work in your favor because, in the first few weeks, admissions committees have relatively fresh minds and have read fewer applications, making it easier for your application to stand out. In the later stages, after they have read through several thousand applications, admissions committees can get fatigued, and may be less likely to re-review a borderline application. Try to put most applications in the mail before Thanksgiving or Christmas, depending on the deadlines.

Submit the application at least one week before the deadline to make sure it arrives on time. Consider sending the applications using certified mail, which gives you a written receipt confirming that the applications arrived at the schools.

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