Which Graduate School Is Right For You?

There are thousands of graduate programs in America, and many of them are excellent. If you’re just now considering going to grad school, the choices can seem overwhelming. It’s nice to have your pick of so many excellent educational opportunities, but at the same time, applying to more than a few schools can get very expensive, fast. So what criteria should you use to determine which schools are your best choices? You'll need the help of a good grad school finder.

You’ve heard the old saying that there are three factors that determine the value of a piece of real estate-location, location, location. In the same way, the overwhelming factors that determine the quality of a graduate degree program are faculty, faculty, faculty. These are the people who make the graduate school program what it is. In fact, you’ll interact with the faculty before you’ve even enrolled in the school-they’ll determine if you’re admitted or not. Unlike undergraduate schools, admission decisions about grad schools aren’t made by an admissions board, but by department faculty. And because of the nature of graduate school, where you’ll be working closely with professors in the capacities of mentors and advisors, grad school professors will have a much more profound impact on your experience and education than they did when you were an undergrad. So that’s where you’ll start your research. Find out who the professors that you’ll be working with are. Are they and the department well respected in the field? What are some of their recent publications? Are they known for ground breaking research, insights, or inventions? And are they not merely academics, but active in their actual field? The importance of these things can’t be stressed enough. The professors are the heart and soul of the actual program, so find out as much about them as you can.

Once you’ve found a department you’d like to apply to, the next step is determining if you’re likely to be admitted to the graduate school program. Again, just like when considering whether you’re up to the challenge of graduate school, this is a time for being absolutely ruthlessly honest with yourself. The admissions process to graduate schools is quite competitive, and at America’s premier graduate schools, it’s extremely selective. Is your undergraduate degree from a highly respected institution? What’s your GPA? These are two huge determining factors in whether you’ll be accepted or not. Then there’s the question of test scores. Almost every graduate program will require you to take one of the many standardized tests given to grad school candidates, whether it’s the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), or one of the many other specialized tests that exist. Your score on the required test will be the third leg of the stool that forms your application profile, and determines your prospects of admittance. You’ll want to do everything you can, including getting a good study guide and spending weeks preparing and practicing, to get a good score on your test. Almost every graduate program will publish the average GPA and test scores of their current students, and you’ll be able to see how you stack up compared to them. And while these are just averages, they’re pretty good indicators of what your odds are, and whether or not you’re wasting your time by applying. You shouldn’t sell yourself short, and by all means apply if you think you’ve got a chance and you’d love to go to a particular school. But if your degree is from a community college, and your GPA and test score are both mediocre, there’s no sense in applying to Harvard. You’re just wasting time and money. Also, if you have high qualifications, a different educational background could well be a plus. So people with nursing degrees shouldn't write off their chances of getting into an MBA program, for example.

The next thing you’ll want to find out is how long it will take to earn your degree, and exactly what’s involved in the process-what courses are required, whether or not you’ll be required to write a thesis, etc. Master’s programs range from one to three years, with most being closer to three. PhD’s will take much longer, and most schools will be able to tell you how long it takes the average candidate to earn their doctoral degree. The PhD program, although more rigorous than a master’s program, is in some ways more flexible. Believe it or not, some students take up to ten years to finish. It probably won’t take you that long, but it’ll almost certainly take at least six years. You may also want to inquire about the dropout rate among PhD candidates, although you shouldn’t reach too much into this. Students drop out of PhD programs for a variety of reasons. Some of them quit altogether, but others get their master’s and decide that’s enough for them and their career goals. So don’t be too alarmed by a high dropout rate. The next concern is accreditation and rankings. The first is straight forward and completely objective; the second is a matter of no little dispute, because it’s extremely subjective. Furthermore, while it's easy to find medical school rankings and law school rankings, it can be difficult to find college rankings for other graduate programs. It goes without saying that you’ll only want to enroll in an accredited program at an accredited school. An unaccredited degree is virtually worthless. So make sure you verify that not only is the university accredited by one of the national accrediting agencies, but that the department you’re looking at is also approved by the national board that accredits programs in their field. This will hardly ever be a problem, but you certainly want to make sure that all their paperwork is in order before enrolling. As far as graduate school rankings, that’s a tougher call. You probably have a good idea already of the best schools in your fields, especially if you’ve researched the faculty as suggested above. And if something interests you, you probably have a good idea which schools are the leaders in that field. Anyone who wants to pursue graduate study in creative writing would probably love to get into the University of Iowa, and there are many other schools whose particular programs are just as well known as Iowa’s writer’s workshop. If you don’t know the top schools in a particular subject, there are books and magazines published every year on this very topic. You can buy guides to the best law schools, the best medical schools, the best literary arts schools, etc. US News and World Report also puts out an annual guide to the best graduate schools in the country. Some say these guides and rankings are flawed, but if certain schools turn up on all the lists, that’s probably a sign that it’s a pretty good graduate school program. A quick trip to the library should give you all the info you need on the latest rankings.

Of course, one big question is how successful the school is at educating their grad students. This is somewhat subjective, but two rough measures of success are employment statistics of recent graduates, and their success rate at passing professional examinations, such as the bar exam. The latter is usually much easier to verify and quantify-most grad schools will publish this information in their promotional literature on their website. If they don’t publish it, that’s not a very good sign, and you should attempt to get the information directly from the school. If they still won’t give it to you, or claim not to know it, you should give serious consideration to finding another school. As far as jobs landed by graduates, and the starting pay, those things can be a bit tougher to ascertain. Some schools will publish some stats, although this is more true of programs such as pharmacy and law than disciplines like history and fine arts. But for many schools and programs, the only way to find this information out is to talk with actual students and professors. You might want to visit a school near the end of a term and find out what the recruiting situation is like, what jobs people have actually landed, their starting pay, etc. If the school doesn’t publish this information themselves, there’s really no other way to get it but from first hand conversations with recent graduates and those about to graduate.

Unless you’re independently wealthy, or your parents are very generous, you’ll also want to find out what kind of financial aid is offered, how much is offered, and what your chances of landing it are. The published materials of most schools will usually have some general figures about what percentage of grad students receive financial aid. Sometimes they’ll say how much the average aid package is. In grad school, a large percentage of financial aid comes in the form of two jobs-research assistants and teaching assistants. Getting one of these can be the difference between being able to attend or not, or the difference between a small or huge student debt load after graduation. Unfortunately, you usually won’t know if you’ll be offered aid or how much until you’ve been accepted. Again, this might be a good reason to visit the campus and talk with actual grad students in your department. You should be able to get a fairly good picture of what sort of financial aid package a person with your grades and background can expect if you talk to a big enough cross section of students. You can also try calling the department directly-with a little luck, you’ll reach someone who’s knowledgeable enough and helpful enough to look at your situation and give you an idea of what kind of aid you can expect. Of course, if you don’t get the aid you’re hoping for, there’s always the possibility of student loans, and summer internships to help pay your way. But you’ll have to do the math yourself to determine if it’s worth attending without some financial aid from the school.

You’ll need to consider all the above factors when choosing grad schools. Of course, there are other factors, some tangible, some intangible. Some factors will be highly personal and individual. Where’s the school located? Could you be happy living there for several years? Even if the faculty is well respected, are their views on important subject matters wildly at odds with yours? If you’re a hopeful English lit student whose idea of literary greatness revolves around the traditional canon, you’re going to be a fish out of water if all your professors are deconstructionists who lambaste that canon as “dead white males”. It’s very unlikely that your time spent in that program would be happy or productive. What’s the library like? How about lab facilities-are they state of the art? If at all possible, you should really try to visit a school before applying, and certainly before enrolling, to get a feel for the place, the people, and the facilities. But don’t just drop in. Call or write to make arrangements for a scheduled visit. Some schools will even help you with traveling expenses for such a visit.

If you’re able to visit the school, make the most of it. Walk the campus. Check out the facilities-the libraries and labs, the classrooms, the parking situation, etc. The university will probably have arranged for you to talk with some students and professors, and you should get as much information from them as you can, while also striving to make a good impression to help your chances of admission. But don’t just talk to the people the school sets you up with-try to talk with as many students and professors as you can. The more information you have, the easier it will be to make a decision about whether you’ll like going to school there. It’s really important to talk to students-they can tell you things about the program and professors that professors themselves won’t. You’ll find out which ones are friendly and helpful and knowledgeable, and which are aloof or behind in the latest developments. If you’re in a program where you’re going to be assigned a mentor or advisor upon enrollment, this is a good time to ask students which professors are the best ones to work with personally. You can then try to request one of the recommended ones. Be sure to go out and see the town. Walk or drive around. If there’s a local newspaper, pick up a copy, along with the college paper. You’ll get a feel for the place, and be able to see what the housing situation and cost of living are like. All the while you should be asking yourself if you could you see living here for several years while you pursue your education.

Once you’ve got a fairly short list of schools, and you’ve visited as many of them as you can, it’s time to start narrowing things down even further. You’ll want to weigh the pros and cons of each of your possible schools based on the factors we’ve discussed above-the faculty, your chances of getting in, how long it will take to earn your degree, accreditation and rankings, job and test passing success rates, and the possibility of financial aid, along with your own personal and intangible criteria. Are you able to eliminate any schools based upon any of these factors? Or do all of them meet your basic requirements? Are any of the schools on your list extreme long shots based on your academic record? Are you able to eliminate any schools because they just didn’t feel right when you visited them? What you want to come up with is a list of schools that really excite you and all of which you’d either like or love to attend, and which meet all of the above criteria. How many should be on your list is up to you, although you should definitely have more than one or two. Many people apply to between five and ten graduate schools; some apply to even more. But application fees are high and add up fast, and filling out all that paperwork writing all those essays takes a lot of time, so you’ll want to keep it within reason So pick a number you’re comfortable with, and then pick your very best choices within that parameter, and give it your best shot.

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Last Updated: 05/25/2014