How to Apply to Graduate School: Choosing Schools

3Feb2013aAlthough I thought that choosing which graduate schools to apply to would be easy, I ended up making a lost of last-minute decisions. In fact, the school I’ll be attending in the fall happened to be one that I applied to on a whim after a professor recommended the program. I would actually advise against doing this, because the deadlines will stress you out and you might wind up applying to far more or fewer schools than you had anticipated.

If you’re reading this entry (or having been following this series at all), you probably have a good idea of what school you would like to attend. Maybe you’ve taped the picture of your dream school to your fridge. Maybe you have the U.S. News graduate school rankings bookmarked. But although you might have your heart set on some programs, I’d like to offer a little bit of advice in regards to which schools are really worth spending the time and money applying to.

Narrowing down your list of schools early on will help you in a few ways. First of all, you’ll give yourself ample time to do background research about the school. You’ll also be able to schedule your applications and test dates with more ease, since deadlines vary based on the school (in general, I’ve noticed that higher-ranked programs have earlier deadlines, so bear that in mind if you want your applications to go out this upcoming winter).

The following are some useful factors to keep in mind when determining which schools you’ll want to apply to during application season:

  1. Diversity. You’ll want to apply to a diverse range of schools if you really want to maximize your chances of getting accepted somewhere. And by “diversity,” I mean diversity in all areas: public and private, small and large, Ivy League and “safety” schools. I was told at a seminar once that a lot of the time, schools will be looking for a certain “type” of student. For instance, the anecdote that the professor giving the aforementioned seminar used was his own graduate application. He received his B.A. from a mid-tier state school and was denied at every preppy, private university in the East and accepted into every public, large school in the Midwest. Additionally, some schools have much more generous funding programs than others, and while I wouldn’t worry too much about funding right this second, I think that you’ll be surprised at the funding offers you receive (the *only* private school I applied to offered me the heftiest funding package, making me wish I had applied to more East coast private universities!).
  2. Program. You want a program that can accommodate your research interests. I applied to a lot of large, public schools in the West because they all had excellent cultural and Asian studies professors in their literature programs (sadly, only one school offered me good funding, and I wound up accepting an offer at a better school back East). My advice is to access faculty lists and look at the research interests of all of the faculty members. Look up some of their conference presentations, books, or research articles. You can even get an idea of who you might want to work with or whose classes you want to take.
  3. Pedigree. This mostly applies to Ph.D. applicants, but in the humanities at least, the “pedigree” of your school is pretty important if you want to stay in academia. For those graduate students who want to enter the business world, I’ve heard that school pedigree doesn’t matter as much, but even so, going to a highly-ranked school can provide you with some highly-ranked and ambitious personal connections. That isn’t to say you should take on an unfunded graduate program from Harvard when a still-pretty-great school offers you a full ride, but at the very least it will help you get an idea of what you and your research is worth.
  4. The application. Keep an Excel file on hand of the schools you’re looking at. When are their application deadlines? What address do you need to send your materials to? How much are the application fees? Each school will have a different standard for materials they want you to send in, such as the number of recommendation letters and or the length of an intellectual statement, so you’ll want to enter that information into your spreadsheet as well.
  5. Location. This is less important if you’re only getting a Masters and don’t plan on staying put (like myself), but it’s important to assess where you would work best. Do you have a history of drug abuse, impulsive spending, and foregoing your studies to go out to parties? Maybe a school in Los Angeles or New York City isn’t for you. Decide on how far you’re willing to move away from your family. Also try to get an idea of where you’ll be living—do you insist a school provide on-campus housing to graduate students, or are you content to live off-campus in an apartment?

I’ve heard mixed things about the number of schools you should apply to, and it might depend on your program. Most estimates I’ve come across say to shoot for around ten schools. I applied to eight (many of them mid-tier, though a few were higher-tier) and was accepted at seven. Two offered me full or nearly full funding, and another two or three offered me partial funding. Looking back, I think that I aimed a little too low, but in my defense, it’s hard to gauge what you’re worth and what “type” of school would want you.

To figure out a “starting point,” you might want to ask some professors about where they’ve graduated or taught. I’m also a big fan of the U.S. News school rankings, so that you can gauge how highly regarded your desired program is.



One thought on “How to Apply to Graduate School: Choosing Schools

  1. Pingback: How to Apply to Graduate School: Find a Mentor | Discharmed

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