Even when you have determined your field of study and the type of degree you want, it can be hard to decide where to apply to graduate school. There's a lot to consider between your long-term career path, faculty you'd like to work with, funding opportunities, and how the school will prepare you for your professional life. We take a look at some best practices to support your application process and help you make informed decisions.
1. Assess yourself and your application
Like your undergraduate application process, it’s important to assess your academic performance and experience when deciding where to apply. Many graduate schools share the GPA and GRE test score range on their admissions web page. Take a look at your numbers alongside these to see how you compare with previous incoming classes. If you’re not within one range, it’s not necessarily a deal breaker as schools often look holistically at your application. That said, reviewing these ranges can help you determine what schools may be more competitive for you. Keep in mind the more time you’ve had out of school, the more experience graduate schools have to weigh in addition to your test scores and academic performance.
2. Clarify what you’re looking for in a school
Before you start your school search in earnest, write down your top ten "must-haves" in your ideal grad school program. Notice what is most important to you as you write this list. Some things to consider include:
- Size of department or school
- Size of your graduate cohort
- Reputation of the school in your field
- Portability of the degree (especially if you plan to move away from that institution after you graduate)
- Prerequisites and course requirements
- Specific areas of focus or research areas (What are professors there specializing in? Are there any professors you’re particularly interested to work with?)
- Graduate assistantships/other funding opportunities
- Culture of the school or department
- Quality and size of the library and other facilities
- Housing costs and availability (on-campus or off-campus)
- Transportation needs (Can you get where you need to go by bus or bike? Do you have to have a car?)
- Quality of life in the city or town where the school is located (What’s important to you when you are not in class? Good restaurants, farmers markets, movie theaters, outdoor activities, etc.)
- Networking opportunities with alumni
3. Make a Long List of Schools
With your criteria in mind, research your options. To find schools that may be a good fit, consider:
- Researching programs online.
- Talking to professionals in your field about where they went to school.
- Attending events like the Idealist Grad Fair or Graduate Admissions Open Houses.
- Browsing programs on resources like the Idealist Graduate School Directory.
4. Make Connections
Before you call an admissions office or attend a graduate school event, be sure to research the schools you’re interested in ahead of time. Prepare a list of questions that move you closer to understanding whether you’d like to apply there and avoid questions with answers that are available on the school’s website.
Some example questions to spark your thinking include:
- “How would you describe the culture of your program?”
- “I’m really interested in focusing on (fill in your specific area of interest) in (fill in geographic or broader issue area). In reading about your (fill in the degree) program, I noticed you had several concentrations I could pursue. Which concentration might be the best fit for me and my goals?”
5. Understand school rankings and reputation
A school’s reputation is important, and a renowned school’s name can open doors for you. The rankings themselves are so intangible, however, that it can be hard to account for changes in the ranking year after year.
A graduate school will be a strong choice for you based on a number of factors, including the quality of the faculty, the caliber of classmates, and how your degree connects to your long term goals. For example, a local public institution without a national reputation may suit your needs well, especially if you intend to further your career in your current location and rely on local networks.
6. Create your short list of schools
After you’ve done some research about the schools on your long list, it’s time to narrow your list down to your top choices. The number of grad schools you apply to depends on a few considerations including but not limited to:
- How many programs meet your desired "must-haves"
- Your budget for grad school applications
- Where you feel like your application is strong and a good fit
7. Research graduate school application deadlines
Most graduate schools have application deadlines in the fall from October to December. More competitive schools and programs like MBA’s typically have early admission deadlines followed by rolling admissions. Submitting to an early deadline can increase your chances of admission as opposed to submitting for a rolling deadline. A rolling deadline means they accept people as they review applications and often this deadline will extend right up until the month before the program starts. Another thing to consider when reviewing application deadlines is test scores, if you plan to take the GRE, GMAT, or LSAT, you will need to plan accordingly around these deadlines.
As you finalize your list, consider your mix. Are they mostly reach schools? As in highly-competitive schools with narrow admissions criteria. Do you have some safety schools on your list? As in schools where you stand a strong chance of being accepted. Ensuring your list includes both, as well as some on between can help give you some options in case you aren’t admitted, or are waitlisted, at some schools.
Additionally, if you’re hesitant to apply to several schools because of application fees, consider applying online where the fees may be less. Look into opportunities to apply through a standard application shared among schools as well. You also may be eligible for a waived application fee based on your income or if you are an alumnus of a service corps (such as AmeriCorps or Teach For America).
We hope these considerations help support you as you determine where to apply to graduate school. Understandably, some of this can feel daunting, but it’s also exciting to find your fit and figure out what programs can help you start your next chapter.