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There are many factors to keep in mind when deciding where to apply for grad school. With the myriad funding options and program structures, it can be difficult to narrow your options down. That’s why we’ve put together some best practices to help you decide what’s best for you.

Here’s what to consider when choosing a graduate school.

Your prior academic performance and experience

One way to determine what programs may be a good fit is to gauge how your undergraduate record measures up to their expectations. Many programs share their desired GPA and GRE test score range on their admissions website, and a quick comparison between your numbers and theirs will give you an idea of how competitive your application will be.

If your previous academic performance doesn’t quite measure up, however, don’t be discouraged. Less-than-perfect scores don’t indicate that you’re not a strong candidate. Schools often take a holistic approach to assessing applicants and programs weigh academic performance differently, so don’t think your grades are an automatic make or break.

There are also ways to strengthen your application, such as taking individual college or university courses to bump up your transcript, and emphasizing personal or professional experience in your admissions essay. Time spent working also counts a great deal—especially if it’s related to your field of study—as grad schools are always looking for seasoned professionals to bring their expertise into the classroom.

What constitutes your ideal grad school program

Before starting your search in earnest, take some time to envision what your dream graduate program looks like. Put together a list of must-haves and take note of what details are most important to you. Some things to be mindful of include:

  • The size of your program or school, as well as your graduate cohort.
  • Your school’s reputation in your field of study.
  • Prerequisites and course requirements.
  • Specific areas of focus or research, and which professors you’re particularly interested in working with and learning from.
  • Graduate assistantships and other work-study opportunities.
  • The culture of the school or department, from day-to-day lifestyle to academic standards.
  • The quality and size of the library and other facilities.
  • Housing costs and availability, or commuting options.
  • The culture and quality of life where the school is located.
  • Networking opportunities.

Once you’ve put your list together, begin browsing graduate programs to see which ones meet your criteria. Remember that it’s unlikely for any one school to fulfill everything you’re looking for, but knowing what’s most important to you will help you make cuts where necessary. If you find yourself coming up short on potential programs, take another look at your must-haves and see if you can narrow down that list a bit.

And while online research is a great way to find some of the information you need, it’s always a good idea to pursue other sources as well—consider attending a few Idealist Grad School Fairs to speak with representatives from a variety of top schools and programs.

Your financial situation

When it comes to choosing a graduate school, funding and finances may play a big role in your final decision. Grad programs can range anywhere from $30,000-$40,000 per year, which may or may not be feasible depending on your circumstances. As you review your financial readiness, consider the following:

  • Your financial aid options. There is plenty of aid available to graduate students, from student loans to scholarships and grants unique to your program or field of study. It’s important to research all of your potential aid opportunities and make sure you’re getting the help that’s available to you. This will also allow you to narrow down the number of schools you apply to.
  • Whether you will be generating income while studying. It’s certainly possible to maintain a job while going to graduate school, but the level of responsibility can be challenging—especially if you’re working and studying full time. If you decide that working while in grad school isn’t for you, you’ll have to consider your budget more carefully before enrolling. It’s tricky to find the right balance, but always remember that there are a variety of ways to pursue graduate studies, including going to school part time. With that in mind, you can decide which schools on your list are most amenable to your situation.
  • Lower-cost alternatives to graduate study. There are many good reasons to go to grad school, but there are also a number of bad ones, too. Chief among those is thinking that a graduate degree is necessary to achieving your goals when it isn’t. Before committing your time, money, and energy to seeking out grad schools, consider exploring alternatives such as professional development courses or individual college and university classes instead.


Choosing a graduate school is a big decision, but keeping your academic performance, personal requirements, and financial situation in mind will help you shorten your list of potential programs. Once you’ve got a short list of schools in hand, you’re ready to start applying!

And if you’re looking to get that application in great shape, be sure to check out our post, Grad School Application | Tips for Finishing Strong.