These are also steps that you can start working on well ahead of next winter’s application deadlines.
If you’re still in college, contacting professors to be your recommenders will be straightforward; the benefit of doing it early is that the ones who work in your field will be able to give you advice about programs to consider, and might be able to introduce you to their colleagues who are doing research in your area of interest. If you’re out of school, try to make contact with professors you had good relationships with: for doctoral programs, in particular, you’ll need the majority of your letters to be academic references (rather than professional).
You can start early by discussing grad school with your faculty mentor(s), and later on, give them a portfolio of information to help them write the letter (a list of the schools you’re applying to, a draft of your SOP, etc). If it’s been a while since you took their class, it can be helpful to supply a copy of a project you completed for them—but in any event, try to meet with them in person if possible, and give them sufficient time to write your letter (a month is good). Follow up with a gracious thank you note.
You can also start learning about graduate funding opportunities right away. Find out about what kind of funding packages are available at the schools you’re considering. Do they fund MA/MS students, or just PhDs? What percentage of students is offered funding each year? Is there funding for international students? Does the school offer advising to help students apply for national grant programs like the NSF? Will you be considered for Teaching Assistant positions automatically, or must you apply?
Research your funding options and stay organized!
By Dr. Rebecca Blustein, author of Financing Your Future: Winning Fellowships, Scholarships and Awards for Grad School, Rebecca is available to help you write clear essays and personal statements that communicate and persuade.