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Gearing up for Grad School, Part 3: Choose Your Schools


Applying to grad school can sometimes feel like a maze where documents are requested, fees are paid, tests are taken, and essays are written, all without any seeming rhyme or reason. How can you make sense of it all, and be successful in your quest for admission to a graduate program?

I'll break it down, step by step, in weekly installments of the Grad School Admissions Tip of the Week. This week, we'll talk about what to consider when you're choosing the schools to which you will apply.

Putting together your school list is an essential first step in applying to grad school. By choosing your schools, you will give yourself a roadmap to follow, you will know what your standardized test scores should be, and you'll also know what your application deadlines are. It should be one of the first things you do, after starting early and getting organized.

However, there is much more to choosing grad schools than simply picking schools by their names, programs, or reputations. The schools that make the cut onto your list should be schools that will further your career goals, provide you with the support and opportunities you're looking for, are located in placed you wouldn't mind living in for a few years (or longer), and fit in with your academic aspirations.

So how do you find the schools that fit all these criteria? There are a number of steps you should follow.


It's not just about where you go to school, it's about what you're going to school for. Are you aiming for a Master's or a Ph.D.? In what? Start by answering that question, so that you can best start narrowing down your school options (since not every school will offer every type of degree or specialization!).


Once you've decided on a degree and specialization, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. When you think about your future career, what do you see? Will you teach? Write? Research? What kind of work do you want to do?
  2. How do you learn best? Do you prefer a laid-back environment, or do you thrive on competition and pressure? Are you somewhere in between? What’s been your most productive academic environment?
  3. Do you care about rankings? Is the “pedigree” of your school and your degree important to you?
  4. How important is the social aspect of a school to you?
  5. Where do you want to live for the next three years?
  6. What are your goals? What do you hope to accomplish with your degree and your career?
  7. What are your values? Is it important that your school be fully in line with the values you hold dear?
  8. Will you work while you attend school?
  9. Do you have a family? Are you okay with relocating them, or do you need to stay close to home?
  10. How comfortable are you with being greatly in debt? Grad school can be expensive, and is usually financed through loans.

These questions will get you thinking about what's important to you, and what you consider important an institution of higher learning.


The idea behind the questions listed above is getting you to think about:

  1. Geographic preferences (if any)
  2. School size and social environment
  3. Academic environment
  4. Specialty preferences
  5. Financial requirements and needs
  6. Career aspirations and personal goals
  7. Work opportunities during school and post-graduation
  8. Personal skill sets

Starting from the top aspect (geography) and working your way down will allow you to narrow down schools based on your preferences, ensuring that you are keeping with your ultimate, bottom-line needs.


Now that you're armed with a load of knowledge about what you are looking for, you need to go out and research each school and see which ones can provide you with the closest match to what you're are looking for. In order to do this, you need to investigate each school.

Use the following sources to help you as you research:

  1. School print and online material.
  2. Alumni.
  3. Campus visits by representatives of each institution (if you're still in college).


Now that you've thoroughly researched each school, it is time to narrow down the list to the 5-10 schools to which you will apply. You may be able to do this very easily based on the information you've already gathered, but if you are still having trouble paring the list down, take some time to speak to alumni (again) and visit the schools (if you haven't already). This should give you some additional insight into each potential grad school.


Once all the information has been gathered, it is time to make the final decisions. Most candidates end up applying to 5-10 schools, although you may end up applying to more or fewer schools. The final list should have the same overall make-up:

  • A few “definite” schools — These are the schools where you are almost sure to get in, based on numbers, credentials, and selectivity.
  • A number of “likely” schools — These are the schools where you feel fairly confident in your ability to gain acceptance, based on numbers and the rest of your application. The bulk of your list should consist of “likely” schools.
  • One or two “maybe” schools — These are the opposite of the “definite” schools. These form part of the final application list in order to avoid missing out on a potential opportunity. Every year, unlikely candidates are offered admission to schools where their credentials did not give them a chance of admittance—why miss out on the possibility by not applying?

Keep in mind, even with a step-by-step list, there will be things outside the norm you may have to consider. Use this list as a guide, and let it help you as you determine where your academic future will lie.

The ten parts of this series are:

Gearing up for Grad School, Part 1: Start Early

Gearing up for Grad School: Part 2: Get Organized

Gearing up for Grad School, Part 3: Choose Your Schools

Gearing up for Grad School, Part 4: Take the GRE

Gearing up for Grad School, Part 5: Letters of Recommendation

Gearing up for Grad School, Part 6: Your Statement of Purpose

Gearing up for Grad School, Part 7: Your Curriculum Vitae

Gearing up for Grad School, Part 8: Your Transcripts

Gearing up for Grad School, Part 9: Additional Documentation

Gearing up for Grad School, Part 10: Interviews


Have a question about applying to grad school you'd like me to answer? Send me an email.

Check out the Grad School Admissions Tip of the Week archives!

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