Join Date: Feb 2011
Don't waste your time with a counselor
I just went through the application cycle by myself and have made some mistakes along the way, but I got into a solid school. Here is my advice:
1) Grad applications open in September in some cases, October in other cases. I would suggest that you create a spread sheet, with a list of schools that you would like to apply to, their GRE department codes, whether a GRE subject test is required, deparment website, application deadline, the program that you are applying to, the address of the grad school where materials are to be sent, and the phone number of the grad school. This will help to organize everything, because time is going to move faster than you think. I also made an unofficial check list for myself and taped it on the envelope that I would use to mail off my materials. My check list had that date my GRE scores were sent to the school, and other things like, was my SOP/transcript/research statement in the envelope. I purchased about 10 long, yellow envelopes (you don't want to fold anything), wrote the address of the place I was to send my materials. Worry about postage when you take your apps to the post office to be mailed off.
2) Request transcripts early. Request more than enough transcripts than you will need to apply to schools. I would also advise that you scan a copy of your transcript as a PDF to upload to fellowship/grad school applications that require that your upload your transcript (UMICH Rackham Grad school does this for pretty much all of their programs). If you are applying to 10 schools, get 12 transcripts. Schools do misplace materials. A school misplaced my GRE scores, and my transcripts after my application was marked complete by the grad school.
3) Take the GRE early. If you are applying for the 2013 cycle, I suggest that you take the GRE before the semister starts in August. This will give you enough time to re-take if necessary. Also, some schools require a subject test. I think that the summer before the season is ideal to lock in these scores because the extra time to work on other aspects of your application. Also keep in mind that you only can send your GRE scores to a limited number of schools (like < 7) on your test day. You will probably need to call ETS to request additional score reports, and no they are not free and take ~10 business days to arrive at the graduate school via snail mail (even if ETS has an arraingment to deliver a "disk" with scores loaded onto it to grad schools (some schools actually have this arraingment) it still takes around two weeks.)
4) When the semister starts, contact LOR writers, and start your first draft of your SOP. There are books that can help with this. Also some schools require additional writing samples or research statements in addition to your SOP. Get cracking on this early. I literally wrote every week. I would e-mail my drafts to my friend who is a technical writer, and he would do some edits for me. Get some of your profs to read your SOP, and they can help with edits. You will have to write different SOPs for each school that you apply too. This sounds like alot, but not really. I developed roughly five skeleton openings that I used before I got into why I wanted to go to grad school, and why this school is a good fit, and who I want to work for. Also keep in mind, sending the Harvard SOP to Yale, or the Princeton SOP to Oxford, looks really bad. Or saying I want to work with Dr. Smith in Physics, when there is no Dr. Smith in that schools department looks horrible also. You have to keep these organized.
5) Aim to have your GRE score(s) locked in, your SOP finished, and your recommendors lined up to complete your applications before the end of October. Why the end of October? Well that is when many grad schools start taking applications, and it will give your LOR writer ample time to write letters, and it gives you ample enough time to find alternate writers if needed. Lets face it, Murphy's Law is a reality. People get sick, they die, they go on maternity/parental leave. You don't want to be waiting on a LOR during the Thanksgiving holiday, when you have a Dec. 1st deadline. Even if your deadlines are Jan. 1st, I still wouldn't chance it, because your LOR writers will have to turn in graded at the end of the semister, and attend meeting, etc. Give them enough time. Applicatons have to arrive before, or on the due date.
6) After all of your applicatons have been submitted, check your e-mail daily to see if the grad school have sent you any notice, or if they need additonal documents. One school that I applied to required a SOP, and a research statement. About two weeks after submitting your appication, you were asked to write an additonal research statement detailing any relevant research experience.
7) After everyting is submitted, wait it out. You can possibly get into all of the schools you applied, or you may not get into any. You may only get into one, or two, or three out of 15. It is literally out of your hands at this point. You have done all that you can do. This is why you need a really polished application package. You don't want any aspect of your application to disqualify you from contention (typos, putting the wrong school in your SOP, etc)