While deciding which undergraduate college to attend, most people focus on broad categories such as size, location, image, and study options. It’s a bit difficult until you get there to know whether you made the best choice, even if you visited campus. Now that you are planning for graduate school, you’ll need to ask those questions, and a lot more. When considering where to apply for grad school, you’ll focus more closely on factors such as the issues you want to focus on with your career, accommodations for working professionals if you are keeping your job, program faculty, cost, funding opportunities, reputation, and how the school will prepare you for your professional life.
If you aren’t sure which degree is the best for your specific career goals, please first explore our degree overviews.
Assess yourself and your application
Similar to your undergraduate application process, it’s important to assess yourself honestly when deciding where to apply.
Before you start your school search in earnest you will benefit from writing down your top ten requirements of a grad school or department. For example, location may matter a lot, but a friendly atmosphere may not matter to you much at all. Some things to consider include:
- Size of department or school
- Size of the average class you’ll take, or of your cohort
- Demographic of your future classmates (mid-career professionals?, part-time vs full-time, commuters or people who live near campus?)
- Reputation of the school in your field and portability of the degree if you plan to move far away from that institution after you graduate
- Academic rigor of the school
- Prerequisites and course requirements (“core” courses)
- Research areas, and professional and publication history of faculty
- Approachability of faculty (How do current and former students characterize the professors? Do faculty respond to your email? Do they greet and engage you when you visit their class?)
- Graduate assistantships/other funding opportunities available
- Location and setting of the school (Near home? Far away? Close to the urban hub of your field where you can find juicy internships regularly? Further afield? Green lawns? Concrete jungle? Climate?)
- Culture of the school or department (Do the students dress up or dress casually? Are their noses stuck in their laptops? Do you see people laughing? Do people greet you when you visit? Are students enthusiastic about their work and lives? Do you sense that students get together regularly, or not?)
- Quality and size of the library and other facilities (While having a big library on campus is always beneficial, bear in mind that many schools enter library consortia that enable them to share library resources; this can entail not only borrowing privileges but also—if the libraries are nearby—another place to study.)
- Housing costs and availability (on- 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.)
- Career trajectories of alumni
- Ways of connecting with alumni—now, as a prospective student, and also when you are an alum yourself
To find schools that will further your educational and professional goals, you have many options and should take advantage of them all: start by browsing through existing programs online, conduct informational interviews and other conversations with professionals in your field, check associations of schools, attend events such as the Idealist.org Graduate Degree Fairs for the Public Good, and start conversations with admissions professionals.
First, you should talk with people in your network informally or through informational interviews—brief conversations over coffee or the phone, that give you a chance to get advice from a professional and to ask about their career paths. People who are already established in your target field will probably have opinions about local and national schools to attend—and, more importantly, can advise you as to whether you need to invest in a graduate degree to attain your professional goals at all.
Associations of schools
If your target field has an association of schools, make a point to explore the association’s website for interesting member programs you may have never heard of. A benefit of tapping into an association’s resources is that some associations offer a centralized application system that allows you to apply to many schools at once for a reduced fee; one example is the Association of Schools of Public Health (ASPH) SOPHAS system. Other benefits of researching through the relevant association is that you can learn more about the degree itself.
Here is a list of some associations of schools. If you don’t see an association of schools for your target degree area, ask an admissions professional whether there is an association or accrediting body for your field.
If you are an undergraduate student or if you work on a college campus, you may be able to attend an annual graduate admissions fair organized by your office of career services or another office. Idealist.org organizes its own series of graduate admissions fairs internationally. These events are usually hosted by grad schools, and are open to the public.
At graduate admissions fairs, you have the opportunity to meet a variety of schools that you may have never considered previously, and to speak with admissions staff. Here are some tips on what to do at the fairs.
Conversations with admissions professionals
Most graduate admissions personnel are well versed in the characteristics of peer schools. Some schools’ admissions staff even travel and attend recruiting events together regularly. Whenever you have a chance to speak with admissions officers, share with them what you are looking for in your ideal school or degree. They should be able to let you know which other schools to look into, and whether or not their school is a good fit for you.
Ask good questions
If you plan to call an office of admissions, or to attend an event where you will meet staff from many schools, try to research the school(s) ahead of time. Prepare a list of sophisticated questions that move you closer to understanding whether you’d like to apply there. Avoid questions with answers that are readily discernible from the school’s website. For example, you should avoid asking “What is the teacher to student ratio?” or “What percentage of applicants does your school admit?” because you can probably find that information easily.
A question that might be more useful to you, and harder to find an answer to online, might be “How would you describe the culture of your program?” An even better question can be tailored to your particular situation and interests. Such a question might be presented like this, “I’m really interested in focusing on access to health care (fill in your specific area of interest) in Ghana/rural areas/for the homeless (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?”
Understand school rankings and reputation
Different people perceive rankings and reputation differently.
A hiring manager might think highly of a school based on the caliber and value of the school’s graduates in the workplace, regardless of what the numbers say in ranking magazines. Another may only consider Ivy League graduates when filling open positions.
International students studying in the United States might be very sensitive to rankings because it’s one of the only ways their school will be judged when they return home and look for jobs.
Graduate schools themselves may think little of rankings as an accurate measure of a program’s quality, because rankings are so fickle and are often based on surveying the deans of peer schools—not the school’s students, alumni, or the employers of graduates. As one school representative put it during a panel discussion at an Idealist.org Graduate Degrees for the Public Good: “If the rankings stayed the same year after year, no one would buy the magazines.”
A school’s reputation is important, and a renowned school’s name can open doors for you—no doubt. But the rankings themselves are so intangible, it can be hard to account for changes in the ranking year after year. For example, a local public institution without a national reputation may suit your needs exceptionally well, especially if you intend to further your career in your current location and rely on local networks, or if it’s the degree itself that matters most, and not the name of the school on the diploma.
A graduate school will be a strong choice for you based on a number of issues, including the quality and relevance of the faculty and the caliber of classmates—all people who will be your professional connections for your first job out of school and for the long term.
Create your short list of schools
Once you have a list of all the possible schools that offer the degree you seek, it’s time to look back to your list of top ten requirements of a school. Pull out the list you created before you started your research, and compare it to the characteristics of all the schools you have found. Eliminate the schools that don’t meet your requirements. For example, if you’d like to attend grad school in your current region, you can automatically cross off the schools in other areas.
Next, you should assess the viability of your application, including your professional experience, test scores, and undergraduate GPA, compared to the relative competitiveness of the schools left on your list. The more competitive schools may have a higher bar to leap over in order for your application to be taken seriously. Find out what the minimum expectations are from your target school’s website and admissions staff. If you know that your application will be weaker than that of other applicants, you can choose not to apply or you can spend time overcoming those weak spots.
A safety school is one that meets all your main criteria, but isn’t necessarily the one you dreamed of. It’s also one at which you stand a strong chance of being accepted. You might also call it your backup plan.
To create your short list, rank the schools left on your list according to how difficult or easy you perceive admission will be for you, and also according to how thoroughly the school meets your requirements for academic offerings, faculty research areas, and other criteria. Applying to both your dream schools and your “safety schools” will give you some options in case you aren’t admitted, or if you are waitlisted to your top schools.
If you’re hesitant to apply to several schools because of application fees, consider applying online where the fees may be decreased, or through a standard application that may be shared among schools. You also may be eligible for a waived application fee if you are an alumnus of a service corps (such as AmeriCorps or Teach For America), or if your income is low.
You may decide to attend one of your safety schools if you aren’t admitted to your top picks. Or, if you think you have a good chance at getting into a better school, but it just wasn’t your year, consider taking a few classes part-time at a local community college or university to boost your transcript, and apply next semester. Ask yourself whether it’s more important to go to grad school right away, or to go to a specific school later.
Conclusion and further resources
Deciding which graduate program to apply differs somewhat from the undergraduate decision. As a prospective graduate student, you should be able to determine some specific criteria about the qualities of the programs and the potential future benefits they offer, which you can then apply in your decision making process.
After developing a short list of schools that meet your criteria, determine how many schools you want to apply for, and include both dream schools and safety schools in the mix. Save money by applying through sites that offer reduced application fees and a standard online application.
Applying to a range of schools is all about hedging your bets. Make smart choices about where to apply and be realistic about your chances of admission. Hopefully, you’ll get into your top choice, but at the very least, you’ll have a backup school and learn where you stand in the pool of applicants.