Opinion: 12-month plan to submit a successful grad school app

 Starting 12 months before you want to apply will enable you to explore lots of options and put forward the strongest application possible. Photo by: Wilfred Iven

Thinking about graduate school? The process to find the right school and create the best application can feel intimidating. Where do you start? How much time do you need to prepare?

The Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs brings together the leading graduate schools around the world, which specialize in international affairs. Our events and resources help students navigate the search process and connect with the programs to meet their personal and professional needs.

We recommend a long-term approach. Starting 12 months before you want to apply gives you the opportunity for discovery. It will enable you to explore lots of options and put forward the strongest application possible.

12 months out: Cast a wide net

This is the chance for research. Think broadly about what’s interesting, desirable and practical. Get advice from family, friends, coworkers and supervisors. Read job descriptions to learn more about different careers and the skills they require. Look at the staff biographies for organizations at which you want to work. See what they studied and where. Begin looking into financial aid options.

Not sure how which program is right for you? Check out 5 questions to help find the right graduate school.

9 months: Zero in

Start to focus. Tailor your search within a particular field or sector. Visit websites and request brochures. Identify any weakness in your background and find ways to make up for them. Complete prerequisite courses. Take standardized tests. This way, if you don’t do well, you still have time to take them again. Begin to understand the financial aid options in your field (both within specific schools and external sources).

6 months: Where the rubber meets the road

Finalize your list of desired programs. Create a spreadsheet to track the application and financial aid requirements for each school. Participate in graduate fairs and ask schools about the priorities of their admissions committee. APSIA, its members, and partners regularly hold in-person and online events around the world. You have a chance to have your personal questions answered and build one-on-one with admissions representatives.

Six months out is also a great time to begin to pull together parts of your application. Start with the easy ones: update your resume. Reach out to potential recommenders. Request transcripts from your undergraduate institution(s). Retake any standardized tests or courses. Outline your essays. Explore more financial aid options.

3 months: Putting it together

Advance each piece of your application. Write out your personal statements. These essays must put forward a clear case as to why you are the right fit for each specific program.

Check in with your recommenders to make sure they will turn things in by the deadline. Finalize your financial aid applications, too. Ask friends and family members to review your materials. How do you come across; is it what you intended? Tweak as necessary.

Deadline day: Last look

Put the finishing touches on each piece of your application. Double check your spreadsheet to make sure you prepared everything each school requests — no more and no less. Make sure everything is error free! Hit submit and feel confident knowing you planned well and put forward strong materials.

After you apply: Still work to do

Unfortunately, you’re not done. First, confirm that each school received everything you think you sent. Then, thank your recommenders; you want to preserve a strong relationship with them beyond one application process. Keep learning about the schools to which you applied. Attend their open houses. Talk with alumni. Hopefully you are admitted to more than one school. Be ready to decide between them!

Putting together successful graduate school and financial aid applications does not need to become an overwhelming experience. With planning and forethought, you can put forward the best case for yourself.

Looking for more tips on applying to graduate school? APSIA hosts monthly webinars with best practices in applying. Visit www.apsia.org/events for details.

You know you need a postgraduate degree to advance in a global development career, but deciding on a program, degree and specialization can be overwhelming. In partnership with the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs, Duke Center for International Development, American University Kogod School of Business, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore and the MPA/ID Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, we are digging into all things graduate school and global development in a weeklong series called Grad School Week. Join online events and read more advice on pursuing a postgraduate education here.

About the author

  • Carmen Iezzi Mezzera

    Carmen Mezzera has been executive director of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs since January 2014. Previously, she served as director of programs and operations at the Bretton Woods Committee; executive director of the Fair Trade Federation; assistant director for education and outreach at the Atlantic Council of the United States; and director of Alumni Relations for the School of International Service at American University.