Skip to main content

Timelines for Applying to Graduate Programsapplication timelines

Applying to graduate programs takes time.  In fact, a guide to graduate applications prepared for the American Psychological Association (APA) emphasizes that the application process involves a substantial workload that is equivalent to a 3-credit course or more.1  Thus, spreading out the work over an extended period – at least several months or more – can make the task more manageable and successful. 

When should you start the first steps?  When should you expect to be completed with your applications?  Here we discuss two types of timelines for applying to graduate programs such as psychology doctoral programs.  Note: for resources on the process of searching for and choosing graduate programs of interest, please visit this page

Tailoring Timelines to Your Situation

It is important to note that the two types of timelines presented on this page represent typical plans for applying.  However, depending on the particulars of your situation, you may need to adjust your application timeline for better results.  For example, if you are going to be studying abroad during a substantial portion of the academic year, you may need to begin working on your applications much earlier.  Alternatively, if you plan to take a ‘gap year’ after graduating and apply then, you may be able to shift the suggested timeline to that additional year.

When to Contact Faculty of Interest

It is strongly recommended that you reach out to potential faculty mentors before applying.  Not all faculty members in a given program are able to accept new graduate students each year.  In some cases exceptions are made, but it is better to find out beforehand (via email or by meeting in person).  As for timing, it is best to avoid waiting until the applications are due to make contact.  If it is too close to the deadline, faculty may be inundated with requests and unable to respond in a timely fashion.  By contacting faculty early – politely and briefly – you can give them time to respond.  Note: for further advice on contacting faculty, please visit this page.

Starting Early: An Extended Timeline

If you plan to begin graduate school immediately after graduation, then there is no time to lose.  Preparatory work begins well before your final year of undergraduate education.  Here is a suggested timeline for applying that begins well in advance of the completion of the baccalaureate degree (based on guides to graduate applications prepared for the APA).1,2

Freshman and Sophomore (Years 1 and 2)

Assuming that graduate school is your intended goal, it is important to make progress on your academic and research pursuits early in your undergraduate career.  In addition:

  • Complete core psychology courses (such as statistics, research methods, cognitive, etc.)
  • Complete general educational courses (such as math, writing)
  • Extracurricular involvement (such as getting involved in research or departmental activities)
  • Attend departmental seminars and events where you can learn about ongoing research
  • Be sure to focus in all your courses so that your GPA is high
  • Begin recording your activities in a file that will eventually be incorporated into a CV, resume, or application materials.

Junior (Year 3)

You are one year away from applying; thus, by the end of this year, your GPA, coursework, GRE preparation, and potential faculty recommenders should be ready for a competitive application.  In addition:

  • Complete advanced psychology courses (upper division), create an academic CV, meet with faculty mentors on a regular basis
  • Start research graduate programs of interest
  • Start preparing for GRE and take practice tests
  • Get involved in a research project
  • Research graduate research fellowships, if you intend to apply for them
  • Plan for a reduced course schedule next year, if you wish, to give you more time for research and graduate applications

Senior (Year 4)

This is the “application year”, during which you will have to put together all your application materials, actually apply, and still continue your regular undergraduate academic and research activities.  Note: for more in-depth details, see the Modal Timeline in the next section.

  • Take GRE general exam no later than October
  • Take GRE subject exam as well if required
  • Finalize list of programs that you intend to apply to
  • Download application materials
  • Identify faculty of interest and contact them
  • Draft statement of purpose and any other required application essays or materials; get feedback
  • Request letters of recommendation
  • Order and send transcripts and GRE scores
  • Research financial aid for graduate studies, if you intend to seek such aid
  • Send applications by November-December of that year

Applying in the Senior Year: The Modal Timeline

The above timeline represents an ideal situation the student had graduate school in mind early on.  However, for most students, the decision to attend graduate school is not made until partway through one’s undergraduate career.  That is absolutely normal and by no means reduces one’s chances of being accepted.  However, if one begins the process of applying in one’s senior year – and expects to send applications out by the end of the year – there is little room for error.  Here is a timeline for applying during the senior year only.1,3

Note: this timeline assumes that the applicant is otherwise qualified for the programs of interest (for example, having gotten research experience, completed the necessary coursework, and so on).

Summer (June-August)

At this point, you are about 6 months away from most application deadlines.  You may be tempted to spend summer relaxing or doing other things.  However, in order for your applications to have a chance of success, it is important to focus and get them off to a good start.  Tasks to achieve include:

  • Narrow list of programs that you intend to apply to (investigate potential faculty mentors, requirements, etc.)
  • Record and be aware of application requirements and deadlines
  • Download application materials
  • Prepare for the GRE
  • Draft statement of purpose and any other required application essays or materials
  • Research financial aid for graduate studies, if you intend to seek such aid

Early Fall (September-October)

By early fall, the process of applying should be ramping up. 

  • Finalize list of programs that you intend to apply to
  • Identify faculty of interest and contact them
  • Solicit feedback on your statement of purpose and any other essays from professors you know, campus writing centers, and any other sources
  • Revise your statement of purpose and any other essays based on feedback
  • Register to take the GRE no later than October
  • Take the GRE
  • Order and send transcripts and GRE scores 

Late Fall (October-November)

By late fall, you should be nearing completion of your application materials.

  • Request letters of recommendation if you have not done so already
  • Complete application forms
  • Finalize statement of purpose
  • Gather information for financial aid, if you are seeking such aid

Submitting Applications (November-December)

As year’s end approaches, submit your applications either before or on the due date.

  • Send all applications
  • Verify that letters of recommendation, transcripts, and any other supporting documents were received by the graduate programs you are applying to

Important: throughout this process, you will need to balance your work on graduate applications with your present academic and extracurricular activities.  Further, to avoid burnout, try taking time to de-stress and rest throughout the year.  It is not an easy process, but with careful planning and effort, you can do so successfully.

Applying After Finishing Your Baccalaureate  

Some successful applicants chose to apply after finishing their bachelor’s degree.  This strategy has several advantages.  First, the applicant does not have to divide up time between applying and taking classes; it is easier to study for the GRE, craft an excellent statement of purpose, and research programs as a result.  Second, the applicant can improve his or her qualifications by gaining further research experience.  However, it might be challenging for the applicant to obtain references or pursue some preparatory avenues without being enrolled in a university.  It also delays the start of graduate school, and involves the financial cost of living and other expenses during that interim period.  Thus, it is up to the applicant to decide whether the option of applying after graduating is worth attempting.  If so, a modified version of the timelines above could be used.

Applying for Financial Aid, Fellowships, and Scholarships

In tandem with your applications for graduate school, you might consider applying for financial aid or graduate research fellowships such as the Ford Foundation Fellowship or the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.  The due dates for such fellowships typically coincide with that of graduate applications (such as November or December).

After Your Applications Have Been Submitted

Now the waiting begins!  You may find yourself nervously anticipating emails and other messages.  Such nervousness is normal; after all, you have been working for the better part of the year towards a goal that is uncertain.  However, once the applications are submitted, your work for the moment is complete.  Ideally, you’ve done your best, and it is now out of your hands.  If things go well, here is a timeline of what to expect:1,2

Application Interviews (January-March)

  • Invitations for interviews in person (“Open House” or “Recruitment Weekend” type events)
  • Phone or videoconference (such as Skype) interviews (these are sometimes unexpected!)
  • If invited, you will be traveling to the programs of interest for interviews. For tips on how to succeed at those interviews, please visit our graduate admissions interviews section.

Application Decisions (March-April)

  • Admissions decisions typically occur within a few weeks or a month after your interview. In some cases you may be waitlisted and a decision might take longer.
  • If you are applying for financial aid, you should submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in March.
  • April 1 is the APA’s deadline for notifying student applicants of admissions decisions for doctoral programs. You should expect a decision by that point.
  • April 15 is the typical deadline for accepting an admission offer.
  • If you have received multiple acceptances, you will need to choose which program you wish to attend (for tips, please visit the starting graduate school section of this website), and inform other schools of your decision to decline.

If You Were Not Accepted into Graduate School  

There are many reasons why one’s attempt at applying to graduate programs did not yield desired results.  In fact, given the challenging acceptance rates for many programs (for more information, please visit the application qualifications and admissions criteria page), it is common for most applicants to not get invited to interview or be offered admission.  

The critical factor here is to remain positive.  In many cases, the decision to not admit was an impersonal one (that is, there was not something glaringly wrong with your application; rather, other applicants were more competitive on one dimension or another).  For example, depending on the year, different faculty may be recruiting students, and those faculty may have interests that align more closely with others.  Circumstances may be different next year.

If attending graduate school remains your goal, it is worth trying again.  However, before you do, please solicit advice from mentors, recommenders, and career advisors as to how your application can be strengthened in the next round. 

Workshops and Downloadable Resources


  • For in-person discussion of the process of applying to graduate programs in psychology, neuroscience, and related fields, please consider attending this department’s “Paths to PhDs” workshop and other related events (for dates and times, please check the undergraduate workshops calendar). 


  • Tips for Applying to Graduate Programs in Psychology (a brief summary) [PDF]

Further Resources

How-To Videos     

Recommended Reading

APA Videos on Graduate Applications

Further Resources

Norcross, J. C., & Hogan, T. P. (2016).  Preparing and applying for graduate school in psychology: 12 modules. American Psychological Association [video workshop].
Keith-Spiegel, P., & Wiederman, M. W. (2000). The complete guide to graduate school admission: psychology, counseling, and related professions. Psychology Press.
Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC).  Applying to graduate school: tips, timeline, and tools of the grade. 
Prepared by S. C. Pan for UCSD Psychology
Graphic adapted with permission under the Expat license.