Timeline for Preparing for Graduate Study

As an undergraduate preparing for graduate school, especially if you want a Ph.D., starting as early as possible to become aware of the nature of graduate school and the requirements for admission will help you to become a more competitive candidate. The following sample timeline presents the recommended tasks to accomplish each year of your undergraduate program. Talking with knowledgeable people in your field as soon as you begin to think about graduate work is always the best policy. 


First Year

  1. Explore different fields of study and begin to hone in on a major and topics that interest you. Take advantage of the General Education program to try out different fields that you have not previously considered.
  2. Establish a strong GPA. Seek tutoring or other support services and talk to your professors if you are not doing as well in a course as you would like. Evaluate your study skills and develop a set of study skills that work for you.
  3. Begin the practice of talking to your professors about things that interest you in their courses. If their field of study seems interesting to you, ask about research, careers, and graduate study to see if this might be the field for you.
  4. Begin exploring possible research opportunities. Many are available on campus through your major or through the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarship.
  5. Create resume or CV and LinkedIn. Starting early allows you to add experiences as you go throughout your education. The Career Center provides workshops on the differences between a resume and a CV. 


Sophomore Year

  1. Confirm your major. Confirm that your major is appropriate for the field you wish to pursue.
  2. Continue to hone study skills and maintain strong grades. If you are struggling in a class, reach out! GVSU offers many resources to help you succeed academically.
  3. Research. Engage in undergraduate research, scholarship and/or creative work. Participate in poster sessions, present at conferences, and best of all, publish your research.
  4. Ask professors in your field and search the web to find out how to apply to graduate school, what materials, tests, etc. are required for application, and what it takes to be a competitive graduate school applicant.
  5. Determine if graduate study is really for you. There are many things to consider when pursuing graduate school. 
  6. Take relevant, meaningful classes in your field of interest.  Plan on taking more challenging, upper-level courses and rigorous, but realistic, course loads across the next two years of your undergraduate program. Discuss appropriate courses with faculty advisors now and in your Junior year.
  7. Become involved in internships, leadership opportunities, volunteer experiences, job shadowing, and other extra-curricular activities that will make you a more competitive applicant.
  8. Consider joining a professional association relevant to your field as a student member, and begin reading professional journals.
  9.  Identify key faculty mentors and advisors whom you turn to regularly for guidance about your career path (these are the faculty who will best know the graduate programs that are a fit for your interests and abilities).

Junior Year

  1. Research. If you have not already, become involved formally in research and/or other relevant experiences.
  2. Plan. Work with faculty members/advisors to select senior courses and appropriate experiences. Take time to focus on and develop carefully your senior project or thesis - you may be using this as a part of your graduate school application portfolio.
  3. Develop a list of potential graduate programs.
    1. Be sure you are looking at programs that have faculty with expertise/interest in your particular area(s) of interest.
    2. Discuss your choice of graduate programs with faculty members in your field, especially if they attended that program.
    3. Explore websites and carefully check application procedures and materials needed for your target program.
    4. Check financial aid and fellowship application procedures/requirements.
  4.  Do 'detective work' on your chosen graduate programs - dig into their websites, follow them on social media platforms, explore faculty members' profiles on Google, Linked In, etc.
  5. Network. Connect with Alumni Relations or in other ways seek out Grand Valley alumni or recently graduated from the universities of interest to them
  6. Gather information on registering and taking any required standardized tests.
    1. Take a practice entrance test to determine what and how much you need to study. Thanksgiving, Winter, or Spring breaks are good times to do this.
    2. Build a study plan for the relevant entrance test and begin to study on a regular basis.
  7. Develop a timeline for your application tasks.
  8. Explore the profiles of admitted graduate students to better understand what the graduate program requires: does the program favor applicants who have several gap years of work or significant volunteer experience? Many do! In this case, you will want to consider gap year opportunities that help to provide a strong foundation for a future application: work in a lab, Peace Corps, the Fulbright U.S. Student program, employment in your field, etc.
  9. Develop an appropriate Plan B. Discuss with advisors what you could do if you do not get into a graduate program. It helps to know that it will not be the end of the world if you do not get into your first choice.

Rising Senior Summer

  1. Continue to study for the relevant entrance test.
  2. Register for the entrance test, if needed.
  3. Get further research experience or become involved in other relevant experiences: this may be the right time for study abroad, or immersive language study, or field/lab experience beyond Grand Valley, or for a competitive internship in DC or NYC, or something else - the possibilities are endless! Explore!
  4. Consider research or internship summer programs offered at other colleges, especially the ones you would prefer to attend.
  5. Take the entrance test, if needed, near the end of your summer.
  6. Complete all necessary graduate school application forms.
  7. Draft up your personal statement and begin to polish it, inviting feedback from the Writing Center, your faculty mentors and others who can provide helpful guidance.
Advice from a recent Ph.D. grad

Dr. Erin Carrier is an Assistant Professor of Computing and Information Systems. B.S., GVSU;  Ph.D., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Check out her practical and timely advice about the application process for grad school!

Senior Year

Fall Semester:

  1. Continue to engage in research and advanced study in your discipline, working closely with faculty mentors.
  2. Take or retake the entrance test, if needed.
  3. Ask one or two faculty members to critique your personal statement or other application essays.
  4. Write Statement of Purpose, if needed.
  5. Contact your recommenders, reminding them of deadlines, sharing drafts of your personal statement and transcripts, and being sure to provide any forms they will need. Often, you'll enter your recommenders' names and email addresses into an online application system - be sure that you spell the names correctly, get the titles right, and include correct email addresses. Remind your recommenders to check their 'spam' filters, as automated requests for uploaded rec letters often go hit junk email filters in your faculty members' inboxes. Determine a date by which they will need to submit them. Send in / upload official transcripts into your application portal.
  6. Send test scores, if appropriate.
  7. Check to see if recommendations have been sent.
  8. Complete all applications. Submitting early in the application cycle can be an advantage.
  9. Check to see if your applications at each school are complete.

Winter Semester:

  1. Visit schools.
  2. Negotiate financial aid packages.
  3. Let schools you have chosen NOT to attend know.
  4. Let recommenders and your undergraduate department know where you have decided to go.
  5. Celebrate your successes and do not let any rejections deter you from your goals.

Page last modified June 15, 2022