What is the ideal time to write GRE and TOEFL tests and report scores to apply for US graduate school admissions in spring 2021. What is the safest month to apply for top 40 universities?
Before I answer the question, Top 40? Seriously? On an average it costs, $90 for university application and $50 for sending your GRE, TOEFL scores to the university. So for 40 universities it would be around $5600 equivalent to 3.75 lakh rupees. Unless you are ultra rich, consider the advice of selecting 10-15 universities, which are a match to your interests and academic profile.Tip for university selection:While selecting universities, you would like to look at the profile of Professors, especially if you are seeking a PhD degree. For Master applicants, check out the academic program, courses offered and specializations offered at the college. (E.g: Civil engineering has lots of sub-divisions like Water Resources, Transportation, Structure etc. but not all these specializations are available at the universities.) So make sure you choose the university wisely.Now getting back to the question. You want to apply for Spring 2021. The deadline for Spring semester is mostly around first week of October. So you have around 6 months left for your preparations. Although it's already late, but we can always do some crisis management. Lets divide the process into 3 stages:GRE + TOEFLSOP+LORApplication First Stage (GRE+TOEFL):Let's consider, you are not so good in English, so the preparation would take around 3 months at least. So you can take GRE and TOEFL in the first week of July. Since, most of the Fall 2021 applicants would be planning to take GRE and TOEFL around the same period, you should consider doing the booking well in advance. First step to preparation would be to understand the test pattern. You can do that by looking at mock test papers online at official GRE/TOEFL website. Now GRE is an aptitude test and has often been confused as a test for English. If GRE is the test for English, then why take TOEFL? GRE evaluates the candidates verbal and quantitative aptitude by testing his/her understanding about usage of suitable words at appropriate positions, ability to correctly understand scientific writings, critically analysis skills and quantitative skills (mathematical problem solving). Most challenging part of the two is verbal aptitude, which requires good knowledge of vocabulary and its usage. Quantitative is rather easy and scoring. Many Quorites have already written an answer about GRE preparation. I found this one to be really helpful, Shruti Rijhwani's answer to How should I plan my preparation for GRE? Moving to TOEFL, it has four sections - Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing. Of these, Speaking is considered the most challenging. Now, since you are considering applying to some top universities, you TOEFL score needs to be higher than their requirements. Most universities post the minimum TOEFL score requirement on their application website. It can range anywhere between 81-110 marks. And Speaking section carries special weight as most universities have separate cutoff for the same. It is generally in the range of 20-26, with 26 being considered as the magic number, as it is the upper limit to TOEFL cutoff. NOTEFULL is a very good web resource for TOEFL preparation. You should not miss out the official TOEFL practice test which can be downloaded from the official website (http://www.ets.org/toefl). Once you give GRE, you will find TOEFL to be relatively very easy. I myself did not use much resources apart from the above mentioned ones. However you can again find some good answers by fellow Quorans. What is the best study material for TOEFL? Second Stage (SOP+LOR)At this stage you are in the month of July, which gives you just enough time for preparing the documents for your application. SOP or the statement of purpose is a very important document in your application. It should reflect your motivation behind your application and how you plan to pursue the course. What admission committees are really looking for is a research statement. What admission committees want is a statement about what research you have done, what research you hope to do, and why you like research.Here’s a template if you need one:i. First paragraph ‡ Describe the general areas of research that interest you and why. (This is helpful for a committee to determine which professors should read your application.)ii. Second paragraph, Third, and Fourth paragraphs ‡ Describe some research projects that you worked on. What was the problem you were trying to solve? Why was it important? What approaches did you try? What did you learn? It’s fine to say that you were unable to fully solve your problem.iii. Fifth paragraph ‡ Describe why you feel you need a Ph.D./MS. Look back to section 2 and explain what in there appealed to you.iv. Sixth paragraph ‡ Describe why you want to come to the university. Whom might you like to work with? What papers have you looked at from the university that you enjoyed reading? Why is this university the right place for you?It’s important to realize that the research statement is not a commitment to do research in that area. A third of all applicants end up working in an area different from that which they described on their research statement.Generally 3 letter of recommendations are required for each application. So I would suggest you to ask your professors for recommendation well in advance (over a month) of the deadline, so that they have ample time for writing it. The letters are generally to be submitted online on the university portal by the professor. Generally most of the professors ask for a template, so its a good idea to prepare one. Ideally you would like to make all your letters of recommendation count. Consider the following two letters:i. Letter 1: “I highly recommend student X for your graduate program. Student X received an A+ in my undergraduate algorithms class. He was ranked Number 2 out of 100 students. He got the highest score on the final. He worked very hard all semester, never missed a class,and was always able to answer the questions that I asked in class. This conscientious attitude makes him an excellent candidate for any graduate program. ”ii. Letter 2: “I highly recommend student Y for your graduate program. Student Y received a B in my undergraduate algorithms class. He was ranked Number 29 out of 100 students. Halfway through the semester we started working on network flows. Student Y seemed extremely excited by this topic. He disappeared for 4 weeks and even missed an exam. However when he came back, he showed me some work he had been doing on a new network flow algorithm for high-degree graphs. He had done some simulations and had some proofs. I’ve been working with student Y for the past couple months since then and he is full of ideas for new algorithms. I think student Y’s initiative makes him an excellent candidate for any graduate program.”Which letter do you think is stronger? It turns out that Letter 2 is very strong. Letter 1 actually counts as 0 and are marked as D.W.I.C.. This stands for“Did Well In Class” which counts for 0, since the reviewers already know from the student’s transcript that (s)he did well in class. By contrast, student Y’s letter gives us a lot of information. It explains that the reason student Y didn’t do better in class was that he was busy doing research. It also tells that student Y started doing research on his own initiative, and that he is quite good at doing research. The professor was impressed enough with student Y’s ideas that he took him on as a student researcher despite student Y not having high grades.You want your letters to all be of type 2 (this doesn’t mean that you should skip class!). Remember that letters of type 1 will not count. You want words like self-motivated, strong research potential , own initiative, independent, and driven to appear in your letters. These are the words that we circle when reading recommendation letters. You therefore want to ask letters from people who have seen you do research. These may be professors or employers.It makes a difference whom you ask for a letter. A letter counts a lot more if the admissions committee knows the recommender. As a general rule of thumb, letters from professors count the most. Next highest are letters from research scientists. After that come letters from lecturers, systems scientists, employers, or postdocs.Third Stage (Applications)Considering that it would take you over a month to prepare your SOP and LOR, you are into mid August. All the universities would be open to Spring applications by this stage. Now considering that you have made choice of universities, you will need to make a separate online account for each university application. An application is generally 10-14 pages long and requires time for filling. You can fill out the university application in multiple stages. After you make your account, you will need to look for missing documents. Many universities require supplementary documents in addition to your SOP, LOR, Resume etc. These can be diversity essays, handwriting sample, video resume etc. Check for these. Also check if you need to send your official transcript to the university at this stage. If yes make sure you send it at least 15 days prior to application deadline. Also, LOR request to professors (in the form of email) is generally sent from within the application. This complete process would take you about 1 month and you will have your application completed just in time. Hope this answer helps you.All the best for your application process.