How to choose a grad school: A step-by-step guide

Grad School Admissions


Taking the time to thoroughly think about why you want to go to grad school and which schools you would like to attend is important for two reasons:

  • It lets you think about what you consider important in a grad school and a graduate program.
  • It will give you an idea of where your GRE score should be (since different schools typically look for different score ranges in their applicants).

Your potential grad school list should be filled with institutions that you have researched thoroughly, that you know will fulfill your academic needs, and you know will make you happy for as long as you are there.

Take a hands-on approach to the selection process, and spend as much time picking schools as they will spend picking you. (This research is particularly important if you're an international student, since you won’t only be attending a new institution, you will also be doing it in a foreign country, on your own. You need to look for institutions that will not only fulfill your academic goals, but will also give you the guidance and support system you will need as you acclimate to a completely new culture.) Spending time determining your own preferences and thoroughly investigating schools will help to ensure your overall happiness with your choices.

Do not just limit yourself to reading school websites. Also think about what you want, and how that ties in with what you are looking for from the schools you are considering.

Do the following:

Step 1: Conduct a Self-Evaluation

Take a long, hard look at what your priorities are in regards to academics, what your desires are regarding employment post-graduation, what living conditions will make you happy, and what is important to you as a person.

Answer the following questions:

  1. When you think about your future career, what do you see?
  2. What are your interests? Is being able to continue your involvement with these interests important to you? It is important that you be able to continue them while in grad school?
  3. 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?
  4. Do you care about rankings? Is the “pedigree” of your school and your degree important to you?
  5. How important is the social aspect of a school to you? Is it important that you attend a school with a close-knit student body that is bonded together through multiple social avenues? Do you prefer a larger school where you can focus on your studies and not worry about the social aspect of things?
  6. Where do you want to live? Can you abide icy cold winters? Do you hate humid climates? Do you prefer big cities, or smaller suburban or rural areas?
  7. What are your career goals? What do you hope to accomplish with your degree and your career? Where do you want to work: In the United States? Internationally? 

By answering these questions, you will get a good idea of where you want your professional career to take you, and what is important to you in a graduate school.

Step 2: Create a Rough List

After you’ve thought about what you want in a school, the next step is to create your initial “long list” of schools you are considering.

Using your answers from the questions above, start creating a list of schools that meet your criteria for any or all of the following aspects:

  1. Academic program (what you’d like to study)
  2. Degree level you wish to achieve (Masters, Ph.D., etc)
  3. Geographic preferences
  4. School size and social environment
  5. Academic environment
  6. Career preferences
  7. Career aspirations and personal goals
  8. Work opportunities during school and post-graduation
  9. Personal skill sets

Starting from the top aspect (academic program) and working your way down the list will allow you to narrow down schools based on your own preferences, ensuring that you are keeping with your ultimate, must-have needs.

Step 3: Get Down to Specifics

Once you have created a rough list (usually anywhere from 20-25 schools, depending on academic program, geographic location, and your numerical indicators), it is time to pare your choices down further. This will require investigation and research into each of the potential schools.

You should now consider the following:

  • What type of learning environment do you prefer?
  • Where do you want to work post-graduation?

This will allow you to shorten your list based on two very important fields: Academics and future career plans. A huge part of selecting a school is not only focusing on the years you will spend earning your degree, but also on the many years after school, when you will start, build, and focus on a career. The school you attend needs to be a launching pad for your future career aspirations.

Step 4: Make the Final Decisions

Once all the information has been gathered, it is time to make the final decisions. Most candidates end up applying to 4-6 programs, although some send applications to as many as 10, 12, or even 15 schools.

Your final list should look like this:

  • A few “definite” schools — These are the programs where you are almost sure to get in, based on numbers, credentials, and selectivity.
  • A number of “likely” schools — These are the programs where your numbers fall around the median for the GRE score and GPA that schools look for, and where you feel fairly confident in your ability to gain acceptance, provided the “soft” aspects of the application (essays, résumé/CV, letters of recommendation, etc.) are also well done. The bulk of your list should consist of “likely” schools.
  • Some “maybe” schools — Here, your numerical credentials may not be quite up to what each school is looking for, and you do not feel very confident about your admissions chances. “Maybe schools” 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 programs where their credentials did not give them a strong chance of admittance—why miss out on the possibility by not applying?

How are you making your school selections? What's important to you in a grad school? Tell us in the comments!


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