There are a lot of factors to consider when selecting graduate schools to apply to. Should you apply based on the school’s reputation? Geography? Specializations? Famous professors? Good basketball team? This article describes some of the data points that go into these decisions and how much weight you give to each one.

Fit

The most important part of selecting a graduate program is “fit.” Fit can be an elusive quality since it encompasses both objective and subjective criteria. But it means that you apply to graduate schools where you see yourself fitting in and being happy – rather than applying to programs that are the most prestigious or popular.

In order to determine fit, however, you need to know what kind of program you want before you start researching schools. Start by looking at yourself – with an inventory of your skills, hopes, and needs.

“Ask yourself what kind of career you want and what exactly you want to study,” says David Petersam, President of AdmissionsConsultants. “What kind of classes do you want and what do you want to specialize in? What kind of a career do you want to launch after getting your degree? Other factors that are crucial are how much money you can afford to spend (assuming you don’t get financial assistance) and where you want to live. Add in whatever other factors are important to you. An urban location? Internship opportunities?”

Once you’ve identified what you need, then you can set about evaluating programs to determine how they suit your criteria. You may need some help during this part of the process. This is part of what AdmissionsConsultants’ advisers do for their clients. Combining their knowledge of individual programs with applicants’ preferences and long-term goals, an adviser can help you determine the best schools for you.

Rankings

Every spring US News & World Report publishes its annual graduate-school rankings. These ratings can be helpful for students who are selecting graduate schools to apply to in the fall. However, be careful about putting too much stock in them.

“Selecting the right graduate school is a highly personal process,” says Petersam. “Rankings like those in U.S. News can give you useful information, but you need to look at other factors. You want admissions officers to look beyond GRE scores and GPAs when choosing who to admit. Similarly applicants should look for additional information beyond the numbers in grad school ranking publications.”

It’s also true that there is little difference in the quality of top programs. It’s almost arbitrary whether one program is ranking first one year or third the next. You’ll get a good education at any of these programs.

Guide Books

The same holds true for most of the publications that rank and profile grad schools. Many guides and directories overemphasize numerical data when describing graduate programs. This can give applicants the misleading impression that they can or cannot attend a school based on the GRE scores or GPAs of their previous admits.

“Don’t rely too heavily on statistics when you are making decisions about programs,” Petersam says. “Remember that averages are just that – averages. Many admitted students’ scores and GPAs fall above or below those averages.”

And remember that scores are only part of the application. The admissions committee is going to look at the application as a whole. “Your letters of recommendation and your essays are the true way to differentiate yourself from the rest of the applicant pool,” says Petersam. “That’s to your advantage, since these are the elements of your application over which you have the most control.”

Focus

As an undergrad applicant, it was okay to be unfocussed in your career goals. Grad schools expect you to have a much clearer idea of what you want from your education.

While a lot of undergrad programs are designed to give you a well-rounded liberal arts experience, graduate schools are pre-professional training. The professors reading your applications expect you to be able to express clear professional goals. It isn’t enough to want to be an engineer; you need to specify what kind of engineer you want to be. It isn’t enough to want to get an English Ph.D.; you need to know what genre and period you plan to study.

“All of this is to the good,” says Petersam. “The process of figuring out exactly what you want to study will help you narrow down your choice of programs – and will be excellent fodder for your personal statements.”

Research

This level of specificity, however, means that you’re looking not just for a good graduate program, but also for professors within the program who specialize in what you want to study. Many applicants underestimate the importance of identifying potential academic advisors/mentors – and mentioning that match in their essays. Finding these professors is an essential part of narrowing your list of schools and preparing your applications.

“The best way to choose the right school for you is to review the top schools of your choice and then make sure there are one or two professors who specialize your specific area of interest,” explains Petersam. “Admission in graduate programs is highly competitive. Many top programs only have a few spaces available for graduate students each academic year.”

Given a high ratio of applicants to available positions, you’ll increase your admissions chances by persuading the admissions committee that you’re familiar with their program and are confident it’s a good fit for you – especially in terms of your research compatibility with the faculty. If one of the faculty members you want to work with is on the committee, they are more likely to admit applicants with similar research interests.

Once you’ve identified these professors, it’s valuable to visit the schools and meet with the professors. Because you’ll be working closely with them, you want to find out what kind of people they are and if you are compatible. Also, you want to know if they can take new students or if they’re going to be on sabbatical – or if they’re planning to leave that school and look for another position elsewhere.

“Selecting graduate programs is very individual and personal,” says Petersam. “Make sure you’re compatible with the people you’d be working with – and that they would be available to work with you.”

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