Applying to graduate school can be daunting especially if you have work and personal commitments that make it hard to keep track of the what feels like an endless list of documents. Speaking from personal experience, it’s very normal to feel overwhelmed, especially when stress and anxiety start creeping in. To help you plan ahead, I wanted to share with you my personal timeline that helped keep me on track throughout the application process.

As an international applicant, I don’t think the process is too different from domestic applicants. For me, the biggest challenges were finding a GRE testing centre, managing the time differences for application/Q&As, and translating and notarizing documents where needed. For more tips on international applicants, check out Yiting’s post here.

My biggest challenge in meeting the deadline was for things beyond my control.  For example, recommenders must submit their Letters of Recommendation directly, so plan ahead to avoid added stress, especially if you have other commitments at the same time.

Phase 1: Plan ahead and map out a game plan

  • Essay questions: Spend some time thinking about these essays and draft a skeleton of key points. It’s a helpful tool for you to understand why you want to go to graduate school and what you hope to get it out of it
  • Professional Resume/CV: Pull out that old, dusty resume! Reach out to friends and colleagues for samples if you want some inspiration
  • Quantitative & Language Resume/CV: Think about what skills and experiences you have that can go into this. Identify if you have gaps and think about how to plug those gaps.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Identify 2 (or 3 if you prefer) professional contacts who can help create the right narrative for you
  • Academic Transcripts: Unofficial transcripts are fine when applying, but you may still need to reach out to academic institutions and send those transcripts. This is a quick and easy win!
  • GRE/GMAT: Get those GRE/GMAT books and start studying! I personally ‘started’ (by started, I mean I bought the books…) 8 months before the deadline but only geared up 5 months before (I took the exam 3 months before the deadline). This is because I wanted to focus the last stretch on essays without the added stress of exams. As an international student, my home country had limited places and seats where I could take the test, so booking a spot early helped me plan my studying schedule accordingly. Need more tips? Check out Niara’s advice on preparing for the GRE here.
  • For TOEFL/IELTS/PTE: Even though I’m an international student, I didn’t have to fulfill this criteria as my undergraduate degree was taught in English. Based on other Seeples experiences, the timeline with TOEFL/IELTS/PTE, is similar to the GRE/GMAT. As I don’t have personal experience, I have omitted this from the timeline.

Phase 2: Execution and keeping yourself on track

  • Essay questions: Draft out those essay questions! I recommend getting feedback from 2/3 other people to help you fine tune your messaging (and to keep to the word limit!) but wouldn’t go more than that as it can get very  daunting. It took me many drafts before I was comfortable enough to get feedback. I also ended up re-writing one essay so that I could better capture my thoughts. Keep in mind this could be a long process of reiteration. It’s different for everyone!
  • Professional Resume/CV: Clean up your resume/CV, get feedback from trusted friends or colleagues, and submit! That’s two ticks down, which is a great way to keep you motivated.
  • Quantitative & Language Resume/CV: I personally struggled with this and spent a lot of time thinking about what I should include. I ended up including everything I did at school and work that had a quantitative element (even if it was minor). A sample of the resume can be found here. Write that resume and submit. (Three things done!)
  • Letters of Recommendation: Reach out to recommenders and prep them! Once recommenders accept, share this useful outline to help them plan their letters. I also shared some key points and achievements that they may want to include. This approach does differ as every recommender has their own style. But don’t assume that they don’t need a little coaching to tailor their narrative for you, prepping your recommenders is key!
  • GRE/GMAT: Book your test date and study, study, study! I took the test during this ‘phase’ and it was a huge weight off my shoulders. And don’t forget, when you complete the exam, you have five schools you can send your scores to for free! If you’re set on SIPA, send it to 2161. It costs $27 to send it later.

Phase 3: The last mile and submission! 

via GIPHY

  • Essay questions: Final round of edits and click that submit button! By this point, you might be so tired of those essays, you’re just making unnecessary (and possibly detrimental!) edits.
  • Video essay: While this may seem terrifying, it’s only 120 seconds of your life! The video essay is available only after you submit your application and pay the app fee. More details on accessing it can be found here. The questions really range and I prepped for it by thinking about how I would best structure my answers to sound more confident and coherent. My only advice is breathe, be yourself and use those 60 seconds wisely!
  • Letters of Recommendation: Help recommenders by reminding them of the deadline and offering to help them with key points or messages. When they’re ready to submit, they should check their inbox and spam folders so that they don’t miss the link SIPA sends them. They will use this link to log in to the application system and submit their letter on your behalf. If they have issues with the online submission, they can contact sipa_admission@columbia.edu. Please remember that all letters should be on letterhead, signed and in English (or accompanied by certified translations). An applicant does not need to wait for recommenders to submit their information prior to submitting the application. There is no problem with an application being submitted before all of the recommendations have been submitted. The opposite is true as well – there is no problem with a recommender submitting a letter before the application is submitted
  • GRE/GMAT: If you’re still crunching for the GRE, that’s okay! You only need to submit self-reported test scores with the application by the deadline, so that helps ease the burden. Scores must be verified after admission to the program, but before your scores expire.

Phew… that was a lot to digest but hopefully this helps. Everyone has their own journey and process when it comes to applying for graduate school so don’t be terrified if yours is different! Find your sweet spot but most importantly, plan ahead so that it doesn’t overwhelm you.

Good luck!