Planning for Graduate School

How do you select and apply to a graduate school? What's the timeline and deadline dates? What are recommendation letters?  How do you write an effective, powerful graduate school essay?

The decision to go on to graduate school for your master's degree or other advanced study is a big one. But earning a graduate degree can enable you to take important next steps in your life and career. Making graduate school a reality will require careful planning, timely responses and thoughtful actions. 

Be sure to talk with your academic adviser, faculty members and career coach about going on to graduate school. The Career and Professional Development Center also can help you. For tips, see the center's Career Resource Handbook. To schedule an appointment, log into your Handshake account and click on the Appointments link under the Career Center tab. 

You also can stop in for quick tips during drop-in hours from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. every weekday at the Natali Student Center, Suite 138. 

Be sure to check out graduate degree programs here at PennWest California.

Graduate School Timeline

Here is a general timeline for the process of planning for and applying to graduate school. To get under way, begin in the summer before your senior year of college, or at least a year before you plan to start graduate school. Study deadlines carefully for specific academic degree programs, since they may vary significantly depending on the institution to which you apply. All times indicated below are approximate.

  • Summer: Write a draft statement of purpose that describes why you want to be admitted to the program to which you are applying. Start browsing through directories of graduate programs and college catalogs. Visit For a list of America's best colleges and graduate schools, visit  
  • September: Meet with current faculty members to discuss your statement and possible programs. Ask for letters of recommendation. Sign up for required standardized tests.
  • October: Take standardized tests. Try free practice tests at Request application materials from programs in which you are interested. A good source of information about graduate schools is the Peterson's Guide, available in the Career and Professional Development Center, Collier Library and online.
  • November: Order transcripts. Ask if the Registrar's Office can send a transcript with your fall semester grades in time to meet the deadlines of programs to which you are applying.
  • December: Complete online application forms. (Tip: Complete a draft on a photocopy of the forms first.) Give your recommenders the forms to fill out or the addresses to which they should send their letters and copies of your statement of purpose or your response to specific questions asked by the program. Be prepared with well-reviewed and impressive personal essays. Make an appointment with the Career and Professional Development Center to have your personal essay reviewed.
  • December/January: Submit applications. Even if deadlines are later, it is good to get the applications in early. If you are applying for need-based financial aid programs, you also must file an application for financial aid. You must have financial aid transcripts sent to the institution to which you are applying.
  • February: Contact programs about the possibility of visiting. Make trips to campus, if possible. Be sure to brush up on your Interviewing skills before you go.
  • April: When applying for need-based financial aid programs, you may have to file a copy of your federal income tax return.

More Resources

Extensive information is available about applying to graduate school.  Here are some selected resources to get started: