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Getting Ready for Grad School: How to Plan Like a Pro

From applying and acceptance to finances and social life, learn how to prepare for your grad school experience. Get insight and advice from a higher ed expert and stay on track with our downloadable grad school checklist.

Author: Angela Myers

Editor: Staff Editor

Graduate school isn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. It takes years of research and planning before you’re ready to apply to your dream program. Even once you decide on a school, you’re often up against tough competition, especially in highly selective programs such as Duke University. It only accepts one in six applicants.

From your grades to your letters of recommendation, your application needs to show the admissions committee that you’re the right candidate. Then, once you’re accepted, you’ll still have more work to do. Planning for everything from housing to finances can feel almost as stressful as applying.

The reality is every step of planning for graduate school can be overwhelming. Luckily, there are some easy actions you can take to get ready for grad school. After reading this guide, you’ll be prepared to find the right program for you, navigate the application process, find funding options, and prepare for the first day of class. Plus don’t forget to download our handy checklist to keep yourself on track.

With so many critical steps to keep in mind and an all-important timeline to follow, getting organized is vital. A checklist can help you ensure that you don’t miss deadlines. Create your own or use ours to get—and stay—on track.

Plan Like a Grad Student Pro – Checklist

Phew. You got through the graduate school applications and have secured a spot in a fantastic program. Now that you’re part of the next cohort, what should you do? There are a couple of actions you should consider taking right after you get accepted and the summer before you start graduate school. If possible, make a to-do list of everything you need to take care of before the semester begins.

As soon as you’ve accepted your spot in a graduate school program, send thank you letters to your recommendation writers. You also should make sure to read any admitted student information. Take notes on different deadlines for payments and scheduling courses, important details on the program, and the date when the program starts.

If you haven’t visited the campus, now is also a great time to schedule a visit. You can even email the program and see if any professors or students in the program are willing to meet you during your campus visit. This is also a great time to figure out the easiest way to get to campus, whether by car, walking, biking, or public transport.

Use the summer before graduate school starts to figure out the logistics of your program. During this time, you’ll most likely be asked to create a class schedule. Make sure it meets your professional goals and degree requirements.

Additionally, consider your finances and if you want to get an on-campus job for additional cash. Spring and summer are the best times to apply for on-campus employment for the fall semester. Once you’re accepted, you also may be eligible for other scholarships and financial aid to make your program more affordable.

When you get accepted to graduate school, your program will most likely send a financial aid package. But sometimes that package doesn’t meet all your needs. If this is the case, you have several steps you can take. First, you can report updated financial information to your program and try to appeal your offer if your financial situation has changed. Additionally, you can apply for scholarships, grants, assistantship positions, and on-campus jobs to offset tuition costs.

Graduate school has a way of sucking up all your free time and leaving you without a social life. While you should devote significant time and effort to your studies, you don’t have to sacrifice your social life. A healthy social life can support you emotionally during your graduate school journey.

But how exactly can you balance graduate school and social life? Here are our top 10 tips:

  1. Combine your studies with friendship by starting a study group. Meet weekly in the library or common space in your department.
  2. Invite classmates to work out with you at the university gym. This allows you to stay healthy and socialize at the same time.
  3. Attend departmental events to meet others who share your academic interests. (Bonus: Often these events include free food.)
  4. Join an on-campus club or organization. The group you join might be related to your major, or it might support a hobby completely unrelated to your program. For example, a math major who is passionate about painting might join an art club.
  5. Stay in touch with your current friends by scheduling regular calls or times to meet up in person if you live in the same geographic area.
  6. Invite other members of your cohort to attend a concert or other university-sponsored event with you.
  7. Create a tradition in your cohort where you all get together to celebrate birthdays.
  8. Ask other graduate students if they’d like to attend a university sporting event with you, such as an upcoming football game or tennis match.
  9. Join an online support group for graduate students—or even one specifically for graduate students in your major.
  10. Attend research conferences to network with those in your discipline from other institutions.

If you plan to head out of town for your master’s degree, you’ll need to look for housing. Your university may offer on-campus graduate housing. To find out, search the university’s website or ask your admissions counselor. However, many students want to live off campus since it’s often cheaper. If this is the case for you, check how far in advance you need to secure off-campus housing.

As you’re looking for housing, keep these five tips in mind:

  1. Set your housing budget before you look.
  2. Join a Facebook group for graduate students at your university to find roommates.
  3. Consider asking others who are entering the cohort for your program if they’re looking for a roommate.
  4. If it’s an option, apply to be a Resident Assistant (RA). RAs often get free or reduced-price housing.
  5. For tips on off-campus housing options, reach out to current students who have the inside scoop on your university town.

For a more in-depth look at the planning process, we interviewed graduate school expert Alexandria Duffney. Check out their insider tips for those applying to and attending graduate school:

Q. What is the biggest factor people overlook on grad school applications?

A: Each school and program may have a different process by which they review and admit students. Some schools enroll more frequently, and others only once per year. So really understanding the unique parameters of the application process at each institution can help applicants compile a compelling application for review. Many programs request written responses in the form of personal statements and, more and more frequently, short answer responses. Taking time to read the prompts fully and addressing them completely can go a long way in the application review. Generally, written responses are used to better understand individual perspectives and motivation as well as provide context or continuity within the application. While personal statements aren’t typically evaluated as formal academic writing examples, it’s important to be intentional and authentic with your tone, structure, and grammar in your responses. Don’t be afraid to use specific examples about why you’re interested in pursuing this degree, how you intend to use your education, and examples of growth that define the type of student you will be in this new academic setting.

Q. If you could give those who are applying to graduate school right now one piece of advice, what would it be?

A: Take some time to connect with the admissions team to learn about the application and evaluation process, as well as research and engage with faculty or prospective students. Finding a program to meet your educational goals and needs is a big part of finding the right program. Attending open houses or visiting with admissions and faculty is a great way to get a sense of the learning culture, but if there are no events available, or offered in a time or format which you can attend, ask to be connected to the community to learn more about the experience of being in the program.

Q. What’s one thing you wish applicants knew after they accept a position in a graduate program?

A: Most students understand the significance of entering graduate school, and it is certainly an impressive thing to see students grow and become empowered to transform their environments and lead within their industries through the acquisition of new information and skills. Something new graduate students may not completely understand after accepting a seat in a graduate program, though, is how their perspectives, needs and experiences actively inform the future of the learning community, casting a reach far beyond their individual time in the classroom. The growth and innovation I have seen stem from student perspectives being incorporated into active teaching, learning, and inclusion practices are quite impressive!

Q. What’s an underrated way to help fund graduate school?

A: Many institutions provide merit scholarships or stipends for graduate students. However, there are often externally funded scholarships available for students interested in attending graduate school. These opportunities vary in amount and are often niche-based. There may be scholarships or grants for which graduate students can qualify based on the program(s) to which they are applying, as well as various experiences, attributes and metrics they individually possess. Depending on individual circumstances, financing may also be available through education savings programs, veterans’ benefits, or through employee tuition benefits/remission. Graduate students also are eligible to borrow federal student loans to help finance their education. So if students are able to enroll at least part-time, this may be a financing option to consider. There are instances where inquiring about private educational loans can also help to cover the cost of attendance. Graduate students can often leverage many of these resources to finance their education in consultation with financial aid offices, their local banks and credit unions, and other personal financial resources. Many institutions also offer payment plans where students make installment payments throughout the year, which can help break tuition into more manageable payments, but this process can sometimes feel overwhelming. Reaching out to the institution(s) to which you are applying and working with a financial aid counselor is always a great place to start.

Q. How can graduate students balance work, life, and school?

A: There are a few great things to keep in mind to ensure success and balance while enrolled in graduate school. Generally, identifying strategies for time management, organization, study skills, and self-awareness of your own learning style tends to promote success in graduate school. There are a few other things which help a lot, too, including identifying/cultivating a support network, be that classroom peer, family, or friends who can support you not only academically but personally through your period of education and growth. Graduate school is an amazing investment in yourself but introduces new elements to balance in what is oftentimes an already complex and demanding mix. Having integrity partners to help motivate (or sit with) you during challenging times, support you emotionally through struggles, and celebrate your successes is a major resource for graduate students’ success. Lastly, a graduate-level study is often grounded in content, ideas, and concepts which are already deeply interesting to those pursuing their education. The challenge of graduate-level study is rewarded by gaining knowledge and skills about things which are specifically and intrinsically motivating to students. Growing in this capacity within a community that values similar subjects, who are in a similar growth chapter, is very rewarding, albeit challenging at times.