Choosing A Grad School
Choosing the right grad school for you can be a tricky process - you’ll be spending at least the next two or three years of your life here, so making the right decisions is crucial.
But with so many programs to choose from, where do you begin? Our guide will help you narrow down your choices. (Please note, if you have already decided you are applying for Medicine, Business or Law, take a look at our Choosing A Medical School, Choosing A Business School or Choosing A Law School guides).
1. Make a spreadsheet
It’s likely there will be large number of schools that will originally interest you, so a good way of sorting out which ones appeal most is to create a spreadsheet.
This allows you to compare each school across different aspects that are important to you in a program, e.g. location, cost, quality of faculty, academic facilities, etc.
This task will take a bit of time, but is worth it in the end, as you may find that some schools slip down your list and others appear much more attractive and move up your list.
If you have questions that are not answered on the university's website, then contact them via phone or email to ask for more information. Making contact with institutions before making an application will make a better impression than just applying cold.
2. Split schools into categories
Being realistic about your applications will ensure you will be accepted on to at least one or two grad school programs. It’s fine to start with a wide net of 20 or 30 schools that you like the look of, but putting schools into one of several categories is an efficient way of whittling down the list to a smaller number.
First, take a careful look at all the schools that interest you most, and pick a couple of “safety” choices that you know you will almost definitely be accepted to. This way, you will have somewhere to go if your other program applications don’t work out.
Next, choose two or three schools that you feel you have a fairly good chance of being offered a place at based on your current college performance. Consider these “insurance” choices, but don’t beat yourself up if not all of them decide to accept you.
Finally, think about one or two schools that are more of a gamble - while you may only dream of attending these schools, it’s no reason not to apply. If you put all the effort you can into your application, who knows what might happen?
If your grad school applications are to have the best chance of success, try to follow these tips and narrow down your choices to just five or six. You are more likely to produce a quality application if you have fewer to concentrate on, and there will be minimal deadlines to worry about. Applying to lots of different programs is also costly in both time and money. So save yourself the hassle and limit your options.
3. Think about your career
The grad schools you choose to apply to should provide an academic experience that reflects the career path you are looking for.
If you wish to do a Master’s degree to give you a boost in the job market, then the overall faculty in your field at the institution is probably most important.
If you want to undertake a PhD program, it might be better to consider individual professors at the universities who you would like to mentor you and be your thesis advisor for six years.
If this is the case, apply to schools where there are at least several professors carrying out research in your field, and would be able to form a close working relationship with.
4. Attend a preview day
Don’t forget you will be on campus every day for at least the next year or two, so it’s vital to try and visit the schools you are interested in applying to if you can.
Many institutions hold visit days specifically for prospective graduate students, and it’s a great way of finding out more about the school first-hand.
You will often be given a guided tour, allowing you to check out the quality of important facilities such as research labs, libraries, IT rooms, gyms and sports grounds.
You should also get the chance to speak to faculty, allowing you to find out more about the program and how the department functions. Introducing yourself and building a rapport with professors at this stage will only help your application.
Make time to talk to current students on the program and find out what their experience has been like so far. Questions to ask might include:
- Do they enjoy the program and working with their professors?
- Have they been given enough support and guidance with their research?
- Do they receive encouragement to pursue new methodologies or are they pressured into doing things a certain way?
- Do they feel there are any negative aspects of studying at the school?
There’s nothing like first-hand experience of a school to help you decide if it’s right for you, so check the university websites for upcoming preview days, make enquiries and try to go along.
5. Speak to alumni
As well as speaking to current students at a preview day, ask for the contact details of some recent graduates from your chosen program.
Let them know you wish to find out more about first hand experiences of the school, and could they give their honest views. You may learn some surprising feedback (both positive and negative).
6. Facilities and Resources
Look carefully at each university’s website to find out what facilities and other resources they have on campus to support you through your grad school studies. Make sure they are comfortable and up-to-date. Think about the following as you do your research:
- Libraries - how many do they have? Are they large or small? What about online materials?
- Computer labs - how many computers are available to students, and can you access them 24/7?
- Research labs - do they contain the latest technologies? If not, do they at least have all the equipment necessary to help you complete your program?
- Sports - do they have a decent sports ground? What gym facilities are there? Do they have a swimming pool (this factor may not be so important to those who are not interested in sports/keeping fit, etc.)
- Food - although you should be more concerned about the academic resources, it’s worth looking at the canteen facilities and what food is usually available. You’ll need to be fed well over the next few years to get you through your program!
While these are worth a look, they are not the be all and end all.
Although rankings can be useful to compare figures such as tuition fees and student numbers, they should not be a deciding factor over your own research, and how you felt about a school after attending a visit day.
USnews.com shares its 2020 graduate school rankings if you're interested in knowing which schools in your chosen subject came out top.
With all these points in mind, you’ll find it’s best to starting thinking about your grad school choices as early as possible. Don’t leave it until a month before the application deadline to begin your research - give yourself a minimum of six months.
This timeframe will allow to attend those all-important preview days, as well as ensuring you don’t put yourself under pressure to get your applications submitted.
It also means you can make informed decisions about where you want to apply, and which graduate schools are likely to be best for you.
Our graduate school application timeline provides more detailed information on what to do and when, and can help you be as organised as possible during the application process.
For more tips and advice on applying to graduate school, please see:
- Choosing a graduate school
- Personal statement writing
- Personal statement tips
- Personal statement examples
- Admissions tests
- Grad school interviews