(Another) Big Life Decision Ahead: When to Take the GRE

a question mark drawn in a traffic sign

So, you’re a senior now (or at least I was when I finally thought seriously about this—a strategy I can’t, in good conscience, recommend), and you can finally see the light at the end of the college tunnel: graduation. But what about those pesky grad school applications? You know, that obnoxiously necessary process for people who somehow, after 16 years of school, believe that the ideal next step for them is yet more school?

Well, as we all know from high school, applications are the worst. In the midst of perhaps your most stressful year of school to date, you’ve suddenly got to find time to:

  • Ask (the right) professors for letters of recommendation,
  • Pay to take the GRE,
  • Study for and actually take the GRE,
  • Decide which programs to send your results to,
  • Write personal statements,
  • Carefully choose a writing sample (and maybe, you know, revise it, just in case you’ve managed to learn something in the past 4 years), and
  • Fill out the generic application forms over and over again.

And this list is only comprehensive if you already know which graduate programs you want to apply to, which is a whole ‘nother struggle.

Now, if you can manage to squeeze this stuff into your existing to-do list of classes, homework, work, and friends, then I’ve got nothing but respect for you. I, however, did not have the spare time — or the spare sanity. I decided to take my chances in that jungle known as the Real World for a time; I took a year off from school.

While you’re still in classes and desperately striving towards graduation, that year off seems like a magical realm full of Free Time, Spontaneity, and Plenty of Sleep. And it can be — for a little while. But then life intervenes: I had to update my résumé, go to interviews, and then, work, all of which is a story for another day. The problem with adulting is that you don’t have a routine, a schedule for the various parts of graduate school applications. When I got home from work each day, instead of researching programs or studying for the GRE, I’d relax, thinking, I’ve got time to do that tomorrow. The reality is that I did have that time, but my newfound autonomy had gone to my head: I didn’t use the time I had as well as I could have.

Bottom line? There’s no perfect time to take the GRE or apply to graduate school because there will always be constraints, whether they’re time, motivation, or money. The best advice I can give you is obnoxious but unavoidable: make a schedule of when things need to be done and hold yourself accountable somehow (by finding  a GRE buddy instead of a gym buddy perhaps?). The precise timing of it — junior year, senior year, after graduation — doesn’t really matter. The most important thing is to know what you want out of grad school before you take the GRE and apply. In other words, the most important thing is that you do you.

Candace is both an Associate Verbal Editor at Ready4 and a student in Emerson College’s Writing, Literature, and Publishing graduate program. She’s a dedicated nerd, compulsive book buyer, and vehement defender of the em dash.