The Ideal timeline
Now this is an ideal Timeline. I have observed many successful people follow this kind of timeline. This was commonly followed by many IIT students during my time. This time line would keep things smooth and avoid last minute pitfalls. Also remember that U.S Graduate school applications in general follow the The early bird gets the worm policy. The earlier you are in the process and the sooner you send the application (without compromising on quality), the better your chances will be.
Now lets start from the things you have to do semester-wise. Next to the semester timeline, I have also put the Timeline for folks who have completed engineering. Assume T = intended start date of M.S. This is a sort of check-list you can walk through checking each item off. In my later Blogs I will try and expand on each item to offer more insight on individual components
5th Semester: t - 30 months
1) If you don't have a passport, Apply and get one.
5th Semester Holidays: T - 24 months
1) Buy GRE Books ( Good ones are Barons Guide, Kaplan)
2) There are also CDs available on sample GRE tests in Eswari Book House (near ranganathan St) and Landmark. It is always good to have a lot of prep CDs. The more tests you write the better you feel about yourself. So make test collection a hobby :-)
3) Join GRE Coaching class (Optional). I joined the datamatics on near TTK Road. Moderately useful. Although they didn't actually 'teach' us anything. It made us take GRE seriously and put in some regularity in our test taking.
6th semester: (T - 24 months) - (T - 18 months)
1) Prepare for GRE
6th Semester holidays: (T - 18 months)
1) Write the GRE
2) Become a Member of USEFI
3) Book a TOEFL Date.
4) Start Researching Schools.
5) Begin Contacting Professors in your target universities. Try to somehow start an email conversation with them.
6) Seriously start tracking the 'preferred' research areas of your target universities and see how you can incorporate them into your projects/profile (if that "research area" is something that "interests" you)
7) Contact possible recommenders in your current educational institution. This will keep them on their toes in case you are applying to 15 universities. make sure that they will give you references. You dont want people bailing out on you in the last minute citing time constraints.
7th Semester: (T - 18 months) - (T - 12 months)
1) Take the TOEFL exam (and if you have the time the TSE exam).
2) Decide how may universities you should apply and begin to shortlist your universities.
3) Start writing your Statement Of Purpose to cater to your short-listed Universities.
4) You need to send "Proof of Financial Capability" along with your application Packet. This is mandatory for Universities to send admission documents to you. Start thinking about consolidating your bank accounts. So that you can generate a statement that would be equal or greater than your first year's expenses.
5) The intensity of Professors and Seniors contact should increase in this semester.
7th semester Holidays: T - 10 months
1) Start Packaging your applications
2) Post the applications (Submit the online components)
3) Send additional GRE and TOEFL score reports to the short-listed Universities.
4) Book a Visa appointment date (The TT Services Web page). A date between May 20 - June 15 should put you in the comfort zone. You don't need an admit to book a web appointment. Just a passport is enough. The University name fields are optional. The consulate folks understand that your University is not cast in concrete at the time of your web appointment.
8th Semester: T - 8 months
1) Track status of your Application ( have all components been received ?)
2) Contact professors and tell them you have applied. Mention your project work to them.
3) Start receiving admits.
8th Semester Holidays: T - 4 months
1) Decide the University you want to attend
1a) Join yahoo groups of students attending your university. There are also yahoo groups for Visa related tips.
2) Secure I-20 (The official INS document certifying admit status) from the University
3) Prepare financial statements and all the massive set of documents for the grand visa event.
4) Pay the SEVIS Fee (100$) and get the receipt. (required for Visa)
5) Attend the Visa interview and secure the Visa.
6) Book Tickets. If you do not have financial assistance book tickets 1 month before orientation date. This will help you with your financial aid search. You are not allowed to show up in the US 1 month earlier than orientation date.
7) find room mates. Attend pre-departure orientations conducted by U.S Consulate.
8) Contact Indian student Association for airport pickups/ temporary accommodation.
oh! ya...wait for 8th semester results :-) Forgot about that little thing did ya' ?
The Non-Ideal Time-line
Welcome to the world where Nov 1 is your GRE date and Nov 4 is your 7th semester examination. Been there. Done that :-).
I Think the last date you can take the GRE and TOEFL without really damaging the quality of your application would be Oct 15. Dont ask me if Oct 16 is okay. Its not okay. If you take it on Oct 16 a big rakshas will come and change you to a toad. Anyway the point is -- Beyond that date you risk losing the window of opportunity to apply to some high-ranked Universities. If you are a 7th semester student and you are thinking "should I or should I not". Just do it. Take this from the king of the 11th hour. It's always possible. Book the GRE on Oct 1st week and the TOEFL a week later. People do this all the time and they dont die because of it. And then do all the items listed for 6th semester holidays - Now.. The blog gives you a list of items you need to do. Start now and just do it asap. The thing to have in mind is that -- some 6 years before the application deadline was Jan 1 - Jan 15 for most top ranked schools. Nowadays its somewhere between Dec15 - Jan 1. So what must take care of is to make sure you are submitting applications by Dec 1st week (Its mostly Online nowadays so there is no worry on Christmas postal delays stuff).
If you are in the non-ideal world you may be severely tested in the stress management and multi-processing departments. As you have to manage your semester and your application parallely. Don't worry. This will not be the biggest stress that you will face in your career. It will at least prepare you for bigger and better battles.