Monday, February 28, 2011

Graduate School Application Timeline

Here is a basic timeline for applying to graduate school as well as an extended description of each month. The following time line comes from Mathew LuAssistant Professor in the Philosophy Department at The University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN. It also contains updates and comments from my recent experience with the philosophy graduate school application process. Includes average cost of one university application all together.

Basic timeline:
January-October:  Research programs of interest and contact professors/ graduate students. Read some of the work of professors in those departments. The web lies or at least is very vague about faculty interests. Look into their C/V and read some papers written by the professors who you hope to work with/ be advised by. Many apps ask if you have contacted any faculty about attending.

October: Take GRE, Know 4 schools to addend for sure.

November: Make sure all schools your applying to have online applications. Find mailing addresses for transcripts and other materials.

December: Mail Transcripts, Letters of recommendations and any other materials.

January: Applications deadlines start, some in late December but most are Jan 1st - Feb 1st.

February - March: finish applications, get acceptance/rejection letters.

March-April: check out campuses and make decisions about where to go.

April 15th: Make a binding contract with a school

The following time line comes from Mathew LuAssistant Professor in the Philosophy Department at The University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN. Some of this information is out of date but generally is sound. My comments, updates and suggestions in [RED]
What to Expect

October, if you didn't take it the previous April you will need to take the GRE General Test at this time to ensure that scores will be available by deadlines. Now would be a good time as well to start thinking about whom to ask for your recommendations. You may have to pester your recommenders a bit, so it is a good idea to start early.
[ 1. You are able to send 4 GRE's off immediately after the test for "free". Be sure you know which schools you want sent to.
2. If you were in a case like mine,  where I took some time off after undergraduate before applying, be sure to email your professors and ask them if they can write you good letters for your future application process (if your going to take a bit of time off ask them if they could put one on file for you before you graduate. Part of this is so that they wont forget you. If you take a year off and only see them twice in that time, then they are liable to forget some of your better subtle characteristics. Also when it comes time to get your applications together you can send the email conversation as an attachment saying something like: "Several months ago I inquired into whether you could write me a letter of recommendation, I was hoping that you would still be willing to do so. Attached are the email correspondences we had at that time". Remember your professors are doing you a huge favor, don't make this seem like its your right. Having a forth recommendation wouldn't hurt either 
3. Check out It is an electronic letter delivery service, 4 out of 5 schools use it now, it makes things way easier on you and your professors.]

November, if you haven't gotten them yet, you need to contact the various departments to which you are thinking of applying and request applications. For many departments you can do this over the web or you can get the phone number of the departmental administrative person. 
[1. I only had one application ask for hard copy of any application forms and that was in addition to an online one.
2. This seems like the best time to research the departments you want to go to. Make sure you have each of their application processes down in a notebook if not on a spreadsheet. Some require one copy of transcripts sent to the university general, one to the department. Some only take letters of recommendation as hard copies. Some require you to send all your material in one packet. Many require a C/V. Each school's process is a little different know what they want in ADVANCE.]
December: Get out your typewriter and fill out all of those forms. Of course by now you should have decided which departments to apply to. In general it should be like college, apply to as many as you comfortably can across a range of several top schools including your first choice, a couple of middle range schools, and probably one or two "safety" schools. This can get somewhat expensive as processing fees range from a reasonable $35 (Pittsburgh) to an egregious $65 (Stanford and host of others).
[1. The beginning of December is a good time to send everything out that is automated: GRE, FAFSA, Transcripts, and hard copies of letters and other materials. The GRE and FAFSA can take up to 3 weeks to get to your the college your applying to (I have no idea why this is so long).
2. My average total application cost: $165. 
My apps ranged from $50-$85 each, transcripts $5-$15 each, Letters from interfolio $1-$6 each, GRE test $160. GRE beyond the first four - $23 each. Interfolio $20 year (don't quote me on the last one).

I applied to 13 schools, partially because I was not a 4.0 student, and philosophy grad school is competitive. I have heard others say that sending out less than 7 is really risky even if your a 4.0. I had two school transcripts to send and I also had to ship many things express so it cost extra but with everything it ended up being about $165 for each application on average. This includes the cost of printing, ink, stamps and the cost of several materials that either got lost in the mail, or in the universities filing system; it happens more than you think. 13 Apps: ~$2150. OUCH!]

January: Application deadlines! Some deadlines may even fall in December (e.g. Harvard). Keep in mind as well that at some places fellowship deadlines may be different (earlier, e.g. Berkeley) than admissions decision applications.Now the waiting begins. Through the next few weeks you should start to get reply cards back from the various schools indicating that they have received your application. If you haven't gotten one back by the first of February you may want to call to ensure that it has been received.Admissions committees meet at different times at different universities. Furthermore the admissions decisions are made differently as well. At some places a committee may narrow down the pool of qualified applicants and then have the whole department read the remaining applications to decide on the offers. At other places the admissions committee may do all of the work itself. Other places may involve the whole department from the beginning. In any case, while this process will naturally be of great interest to you since your whole fate rests in it, it will generally be entirely opaque. (It seems like most things in life of paramount importance are - such as what, exactly, is going on in her head).In any case once committees meet and make their decisions you will be notified.
[1. Financial deadlines are different from application deadlines. This forced me to drop 2 applications (not included in the 13), because like many students I don't have the means to pay for my education. The school may list Jan 15th as their department deadline but in the fine print the deadline for getting funding, grants, fellowships etc... can be way earlier. One MA program I applied to had a Feb 1st deadline for the department and a Jan 5th financial deadline. LOOK AT THE FINE PRINT, or just email the poor overwhelmed secretary. Many schools take your financial information from FAFSA, who can take up to 3 weeks to get in contact with some schools, so do that last month!.
2. Be sure to fill out the applications early, many have surprises (like needing the date of your high school graduation and contact information of the high school]

When do you find out?
The short answer is late February or early March. Most committees meet, it has been my observation, in February (and possibly as late a early March). For instance, I know for a fact that in 1999 committees at Pittsburgh and Cornell met in February. If you are lucky you will hear from the director of graduate studies directly after the decision is made. This is not the case everywhere, though. I heard first from Cornell and Rutgers by phone, from UCSD by email, and from Chicago and Texas both by mail. Of course, you will receive official letters from everyone whether or not you are admitted. Generally it seems that letters of offer go out before those which decline to admit.You should expect to receive most of your letters, one way or the other, by the second week in March. This is by no means a hard and fast rule. Berkeley didn't get back to me until nearly the end of March and the graduate studies director from Rutgers called me in early April. Don't lose heart too early, but it was my experience that I had heard all the positive offers by the first week in March (excepting an offer to be wait-listed at Rutgers which came quite late).
[I only received one rejection letter so far (now: Feb 28th), it came on the 15th of January.]

March and April: This is a good time, because hopefully at this point you are mulling over several offers. Take this opportunity to visit the various departments. Talk to the professors. Perhaps even more importantly, talk to the graduate students. You should probably rely most on the graduate students to get the best idea of what a department is like. You are going to be spending the next four to five (or more) years of your life there, you want to make sure it a congenial place to work. If you have utilized the Philosophical Gourmet, now is a good time to observe the distinction Leiter makes between faculty quality and the quality of graduate teaching. There is not necessarily a one-to-one correlation between the two. (In fact there often seems to be a negative correlation.) Now is the time for you to determine if a given place is concerned not only with having the best faculty researchers, but also with educating its graduate students.

April 15: This is the deadline recognized by nearly all the schools you would want to attend. You have to make a binding commitment to a school by the date. Keep in mind, however, that no matter what anyone else tells you, you are not in any way obligated to make a binding choice before this date.

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