How to Choose Your Grad School

Applying to an advanced degree program? To best assess your chances of getting into grad school, you’ll need to know where you stand with respect to your prospective schools’ admissions criteria. Each program will be looking at all the parts of your application and weighing them against those of other competitive applicants.
So, how do you get a handle on seeing your candidacy from the perspective of the admissions committee?
Get a sense of whether you have a shot at matriculation by creating a fact sheet with your GRE scores (or projected scores), overall GPA, and GPA in your major (and minor, if applicable). Relevant outside activities, work experience, internships, publications, etc. will also contribute to the overall strength of your application.
The next step is to find the most current admissions information about your target graduate schools and their admissions facts and figures. There are several guides and online databases published each year that provide rankings of schools and data about acceptance rates, average GPAs, and GRE scores. Many graduate programs do not publish the GRE ranges of accepted students. Most programs will share that information if you give them a call.
Look at your GRE score and GPA alongside the averages of schools that interest you. The comparison will give you a rough idea of where you stand, but remember: GRE and GPA are not the only criteria for getting into grad school. Many other factors, including recommendations and extracurriculars can factor prominently into the admissions equation. Once you have some idea of where you fall in the competitive applicant pool, you can begin to make decisions about your application strategy.

Build your strategy for getting into grad school

A sensible application strategy will target schools across three general categories:

  • Dream schools: These are your “reach” schools—places you’d love to attend, but where your chances of acceptance are uncertain or even unlikely.
  • Good possibilities: You should apply to a few programs that you’d definitely want to attend and at which the median GRE score and GPA of accepted students is close to your own.
  • Safety schools: It’s a good idea to apply to at least one or two graduate school at which the admissions figures suggest a high likelihood of acceptance, especially if you have your heart set on enrolling with the next incoming class. Having qualifications at the higher end of the ranges for accepted students can often translate into fellowship and graduate assistantship opportunities.

Most prospective grad students apply to between four and seven schools. How many you should actually apply to, however, is best determined by certain key factors, including:

  • your strength as an applicant
  • the difficulty of admission at schools to where you’re applying
  • the general difficulty of getting into any program in your discipline

If you’re applying to five or six grad schools, pick a couple of dream schools, a couple in the “likely” category, and one or two safeties. The best admissions strategy entails knowing roughly where you stand in the candidate pool while also diversifying your applications.

Choosing the Right Graduate School Program

Whether you have the most impressive application or one that limits your options, choosing the right graduate school for your field of study is a long, complex, and often frustrating process.
Of course, this process would be much easier if there were some universal standard against which to compare different programs. But the fact of the matter is that finding an objective perspective is nearly impossible. Every school presents itself as being unique and the best at what it does (and any school that doesn’t probably isn’t worth your time). So, how do you navigate your options?
  • 1. Focus on opportunities

    Which graduate school you want to attend is far less important than which graduate school wants you to attend.
    The fact is, even at small grad programs hard-working students will have more available to them than they otherwise would going directly into the workforce after college. Just think of all the extracurriculars, research opportunities, specialized classes, helpful professors, new ideas, and interesting books that awaiting you. No matter where you go, you’ll have chances to distinguish yourself and hone necessary skills, which is really what employers want to see. That’s not to say all grad schools are the same—only that you should focus on asking what sort of opportunities your target programs are willing to make available to you.
    Of course, sometimes prestige matters, and having a graduate degree from an Ivy League school is surely impressive to employers. But attending a school that really wants you and is willing to offer scholarships or other opportunities custom-tailored to your career or research interests may be a better option than ending up as a just another number in the large student body of a more prestigious institution.

  • 2. Talk to people who know

    Yes, real talking. Not messaging, not email, but face-to-face conversation or a phone call—something we Millennials tend to avoid. There are two significant benefits to this. First, talking to professors, graduate school officers, and current or recently graduated students gives you a far more intimate understanding of what your target grad school is actually like, and it lets you learn about the weaknesses and strengths of an institution firsthand.
    Second, talking to these sorts of people heightens your chances of being accepted, as graduate acceptances are far less objective than those for undergraduate schools. The people deciding who gets in are likely the same people who will be answering your admissions questions. If they know your name, they may be more likely to accept you.

  • 3. Get an objective perspective

    As is the case with any major life decision, being able to determine the right option without too much emotion getting in the way is essential. To that end, at least in the initial stages of narrowing down the thousands of available schools to a shortlist of ten or so to which you might apply, try to stick to factors that can be quantified. Class size, cost, location, and program rankings are much better initial criteria than thinking about more subjective factors, such as the quality of life in that particular location, whether you’ll get along with the professors, or how inclusive the school really is.
    Once you narrow things down to a shorter list of options, be more subjective. Make calls and find the three or four graduate schools where you envision yourself thriving.