By far, the biggest mistake prospective graduate students make is not doing adequate research and preparation before submitting their applications.
Graduate school is not something to take lightly. It’s a major investment—personally, intellectually, socially, emotionally, and financially. Be sure to give yourself enough time to do your “due diligence” and get all of the information you want and need.
This is the first of a series on what to do in the 12 months leading up to submitting your graduate school application(s).
12 months before applying to grad school
- Do an initial online search for graduate programs in your intended field of study. Make sure you do a couple of searches, so you find as many institutions matching your search criteria as possible.
- Once you have done a thorough search for programs in your field, make an alphabetical list of all your options, regardless of what you already know or have heard about them. Write them all down or put them on a spreadsheet. Remember: perception is reality—it’s where you end up, not where you start out! Be very careful about accepting word of mouth or what you think you know as final at this point in the search process. We are individuals with different needs, expectations, and experiences. This is your educational experience, not someone else’s. Do not eliminate any of your options at this point. You want to get as much information as possible so you can decide which program is the best fit for you.
- Next, it’s time to look at each program individually. Go online and do some initial research on all the institutions on your list. Assess not only the content of material on websites but look at the way in which it is presented. Is information easy to find? Is the tone friendly and inviting? Are there easy and quick ways to request more information? Speaking of which, this would be a good time to request written/electronic information from each institution. This will enable you to review what you receive any time you want. It will also provide you an opportunity to find out just how responsive admission offices are to you. This can be very telling and may shed light on the general level of responsiveness of those institutions. You can even grade them on these criteria in your initial spreadsheet.
11 months before applying to grad school
- You should now be in a position to narrow your search a bit. But do not narrow it too much. Those institutions that are clearly not a fit could most likely be eliminated. Or if you still have an interest in a college or university despite a lackluster first impression, you can keep it on the list for now. However, if you continue to get the same vibe (unresponsive treatment, unprofessional website, etc.) you did when first browsing the website and/or asking for information, ask yourself the following question: If I’m feeling this way now, how will it be should I apply, be offered admission, and enroll?
- Further expand the spreadsheet you created last month to compare each of the options that remain on your list. I suggest going down the left hand column with an alphabetical list of your options and across the top with all the areas you want to compare. Here are some suggestions:
- Class formats
- Responsiveness and friendliness of admission staff
- Interaction with current students
- Interaction with faculty
- Interaction with alumni
- Perception during campus visits or admission event(s) you attended
- Number of students enrolled in the entire institution
- Number of students enrolled in the program you are considering
- Student-faculty ratio
- Average class size
- Grading system
- Housing options (should you be relocating)
- Extracurricular opportunities
- Career services/employment percentages
- Total cost for one year
- Tuition cost for one year
- Financial aid: scholarships, loans, assistantships, fellowships, work-study
- Application deadlines
- Application fees
- Application requirements (including standardized test or tests needed)
- Usefulness of website/materials/brochures
- Must you do an interview?
- Do they keep a waiting list of applicants?
- Can you appeal/get feedback if denied?
Tip: Some of the columns in your research spreadsheet will have letter grades; some will say “yes,” “no,” or “maybe”; some will be dates, dollar amounts, or various numerical responses; and some will be more evaluative (i.e., scale of 1-5, with 1 being terrible and 5 being outstanding).
10 months before applying to grad school
- Work on completing your research spreadsheet, filling in every column for each option. As you go along you are sure to eliminate some if not many. That is okay. As a consumer you are doing what you should be doing: comparison shopping.
- After reviewing your entire spreadsheet, do a very general rank order of the options that remain. You could rank every option, starting with #1 and going to the end of the list. Or you could group your options: top tier, second tier, third tier, etc. Ideally, you will have at least five options left; hopefully, you will have more. However, depending on the type of graduate program you seek, the number of options will vary. The point is that you are still not at the place where you need to have a “short list.” You are still 10 months away from applying, and you will have several opportunities to narrow down your list before that time.