5 steps to choosing a grad school

Grad School Admissions


Considering applying to grad school? Your first step needs to be researching programs and specialties, and finding out what works best for you. However, doing all this can definitely be confusing--how can you make sense of the hundreds of options out there?

Here are five tips that will help you streamline the research and application process, and will yield valuable insights once you're done.

Step 1: Check out the rankings


Take a look at the U.S. News and World Report Best Graduate Schools rankings. This will give you a general idea of the schools considered to be the best for the field you are considering. If you are an undergraduate, it can be valuable to talk to your undergraduate professors in the subject you plan to study, as well as anyone else you know in the field.

Step 2: Figure out your funding

Another important consideration is how you will pay for your graduate degree. While professional programs such as law, business, or medical school have limited scholarships available and often necessitate taking out extensive loans, academic programs (especially Ph.D. programs) often provide fellowships and/or teaching opportunities that will pay for your education as well as provide you a modest living stipend. It is to your advantage to research and take advantage of these opportunities as much as you can. Questions to ask when investigating a program include: How long do students generally take to complete this degree? Does the department fund students for the entire degree, through fellowships and teaching assistantships?

Step 3: Contact your schools

describe the imageBe as knowledgeable as possible about the schools you are applying to so that you can tailor your personal statement to the particular program. A good first step is to look at the department’s website – usually you will find a wealth of useful information there. Do not be afraid to call the department and ask questions. It may also be helpful to e-mail professors you are interested in working with to ask them about the program, or even to ask if you may attend one of their classes. Make sure you are familiar with their scholarly interests before initiating contact!

Step 4: Know what you want and keep your options open

Focus on finding the right fit for you – make a list of what is most important to you and keep it in mind as you do your research. Look at many programs before deciding, and get the advice of people who have “been there, done that” – successful professionals in the field, as well as graduate students who are currently pursuing their degrees. As you probably did when you applied to college, you may want to apply to a few schools that are “reaches,” a few that are “safeties,” and a few that are in the middle.

Step 5: Start early and plan for contingencies

describe the imageGive yourself adequate time to:

  • research your options
  • prepare for and take required tests
  • line up letters of recommendation and have them sent, along with transcripts, etc., to the departments you are applying to
  • write the required personal statement
  • complete applications

For example, if the application deadlines are mostly in January, you might want to start seriously researching programs up to a year before, and you should have a pretty good list in mind by summer or early fall, at which time you can get started in earnest on your applications. Keep in mind that professors are hard to get in touch with during the summer, so you will find it easier to contact people during the spring or fall semesters. Line up your letters of recommendation as soon as possible (and do not forget to thank your recommenders!).  Ideally, all required testing should be completed a few months before the deadline, to make sure that scores reach the department offices on time, and in case you need to re-take any of the tests (such as the GRE, which can only be taken once a month), and make sure you know if the departments you are applying to require specific scores on the GRE. All of this can get very hectic if you are applying to many schools, so keep a calendar with all the relevant deadlines!

Do you have any application tips of your own? Share them in the comments!

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