Asian woman in dark blue shirt laughing and smiling at Black female friend

How to Start Your Grad School Search With Confidence

Finding the right graduate program is misconducted process. Start your search on the right foot with these tips to help you search and apply with confidence.

Performing well in graduate school is something most students take very seriously. It involves a major investment personally, intellectually, socially, emotionally, and financially. But sometimes the process of finding the right program of study is taken less seriously.  You need to give yourself enough time to do your “due diligence” and get all of the information you want and need during your grad school search. It’s wise to take about a year to do your research. If you’re considering starting your program of study in the fall, ideally you’ll want to start your search two years ahead of time.   

Why two years, you may ask? Typically graduate schools start accepting applications just under a year before the intended start date. In order for you to have time to thoroughly evaluate all of the information you’ll receive and read, you’ll need at least a year before applying to gather that information and thoroughly review it. Here are some tips to help you conduct good research on graduate program options.

Start your search online

Conduct an initial Web-based search regarding the field of study in which you’re interested. For example, if you’ve decided on a part-time program and know where you’d like to study, do a search of educational institutions that offer a part-time program in the area and degree classification you desire. You can also do a search by program, such as Psychology, Law, Humanities, Advertising, Finance, etc. Conduct more than one search so you can find as many institutions matching your search criteria as possible. 

Get organized

Once you’ve done a thorough search, make an alphabetical list of all your options, regardless of what you presently know or have heard about them. Then create a graduate school spreadsheet (kind of like this college search spreadsheet), placing your options in the left-hand column.

Related: Video: Organization and Time Management Skills

Focus on you

Be careful about accepting word-of-mouth or what you think you know about a program as final fact at this point in the search process. We are individuals, and as such have different needs, expectations, and experiences. This is your educational experience—not someone else’s. Start by gathering a list of options. Don’t eliminate any of them at this point—you want to get as much information as possible so you can decide what options are most appealing for you. Remember: perception isn’t reality—it’s where you end up, not where you start. 

Keep researching

Once you have your spreadsheet set up, go back online and do some initial research on all the institutions you have on your list. Assess not only the content of material on websites, but look at the way in which it’s 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 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. This can be very telling and may shed light on the general level of responsiveness of the institutions you have contacted. Give each school a grade on their website and on the level of responsiveness they provide with this suggested grading system:

Website Responsiveness

A = Easy to navigate, informative, captivating

A = Response within one business day

B = Well done, good information, friendly

B = Response within two business days

C = Fairly easy to navigate, not as friendly

C = Response within three business days

D = Difficult to navigate, not very informative

D = Response within five business days

F = What were they thinking?

F = One week or longer for a response

F- = No website, or close to nothing

F- = No response

Narrow down your list (a little!)

Based on the two items above (website and responsiveness), you are now in a position to narrow your search a bit—just don’t narrow it too much. Obviously the institutions you’ve graded as F or F- could most likely be eliminated. You may be surprised at some of the options you are eliminating should you rely completely on the grades given. So if you still have an interest in a college or university that you didn’t initially grade well, keep it on the list for now. However, if you continue to get the same treatment you did when first browsing their website and/or requesting information, ask yourself the following question: if I’m being treated this way now, how will it be if I apply, am offered admission, and enroll?

Related: How Can I Trust What I See About a Graduate School?

Compare schools and programs

Start filling in your spreadsheet. On the left-hand column will be an alphabetical list of your options. Across the top will be all the areas and options you will want to compare. Here are some suggestions: 

  • Website grade
  • Responsiveness grade
  • Usefulness of printed materials/brochures
  • Friendliness of admission staff
  • Interactions with current students
  • Interactions with faculty
  • Interactions with alumni
  • Campus visit/admission event(s) you attended
  • Number of students enrolled in the entire institution
  • Number of students enrolled in the program you’re considering
  • Student-faculty ratio
  • Average class size
  • Grading system
  • Facilities
  • Housing options (should you be relocating)
  • Extracurricular opportunities
  • Career services/employment percentages
  • Tuition cost per year
  • Total cost of education per year
  • Financial aid (scholarships, loans, assistantships, fellowships, work- study)
  • Application deadlines
  • Application fees
  • Application requirements (including what standardized test[s] are needed)
  • Do you need an interview?
  • Do they keep have a waiting list?
  • Can you appeal/get feedback if denied?

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 (for example, a scale of 1–5, with 1 being terrible and 5 being outstanding).

Rank your schools

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 group, second group, third group, etc. Whenever possible, you should have at least five to 10 options left. Hopefully you’ll have many more; however, depending on the type of graduate program you want, the number of options will vary. The point is that you’re not at a place where you need to have a “short list.” You’re still 10 months away from applying and will have several opportunities to narrow down your list before that time.

Related: The 12-Month Timeline for Applying to Graduate School: 12 to 10 Months Out

Remember, you can and should feel free to change your research spreadsheet evaluations at any time. Perhaps further information and/or contact with one or more of your options will cause them to go up or down on your overall list. That’s another great reason to take plenty of time to do your research. You tend to learn more about an institution the longer you do research about it. First impressions, while important, may change later based on repeated observation and communication.

Check out Donal Martin's website, and check out CollegeXpress on our Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram

Like what you’re reading?

Join the CollegeXpress community! Create a free account and we’ll notify you about new articles, scholarship deadlines, and more.

Join Now

Join our community of
over 5 million students!

CollegeXpress has everything you need to simplify your college search, get connected to schools, and find your perfect fit.

Join CollegeXpress
CollegeXpress Logo


Are you our next winner?

Register now for our scholarship giveaway

Rhiannon Teeter

Rhiannon Teeter

$2,000 Community Service Scholarship Winner, 2012

I have spent a lot of time aggressively searching for scholarships. It was a long and frustrating process until I found the CollegeXpress network. This site made my search so much easier. With the simple check of a few boxes, the site sorted out scholarships I was eligible for and led me directly to the correct websites. Winning this scholarship has definitely given me and my family some financial relief, and CollegeXpress has allowed me to improve my chances of winning further financial aid. Thank you so much!

Caitlin Eaton

Caitlin Eaton

$10,000 Scholarship Winner, 2021

I first discovered CollegeXpress during my sophomore year of high school while researching colleges that interested me. My SAT prep class the following year further familiarized me with the opportunities available through the organization. CX has personally helped me by exposing me to a diverse selection of schools as well as scholarships and life tips that have provided valuable guidance in my college search.

This scholarship will help me adjust to college life without worrying as much about tuition. This gives me more room to truly explore and benefit from all aspects of higher education. I plan to study Conservation Biology and work protecting species/ecosystems. I’m looking forward to getting field experience and seeing firsthand the problems research is solving.

Jada Bohanon

Jada Bohanon

High School Class of 2021

CollegeXpress has helped me find scholarships for the colleges I applied to. It was very hard for me to find scholarships in the beginning that I was qualified for. My teachers recommended this website to find some, and not only did I find some scholarships but I also got to look into some schools I hadn’t heard of before. I was very happy to have discovered this website, especially with the coronavirus spreading all over as I can’t really go visit many colleges.

Sarah Armstrong

Sarah Armstrong

High School Class of 2022

I am a deaf student, and I had always dreamed of going to Gallaudet University. CollegeXpress helped me search though other qualified universities. They helped me know for sure that Gallaudet University was the right choice for me!

Yuhlani Patterson

Yuhlani Patterson


CollegeXpress has helped me find so many scholarships that fit me. They match me to colleges I have specific interest in to make searching for colleges way easier and more efficient. CollegeXpress refers me to schools that have my major of interest and backup schools if I want to change my mind. CollegeXpress also gives out their own scholarships, so you have even more of a chance at gaining multiple scholarships. This website has helped me de-stress from the pressure of not being able to afford college, [of finding] what schools are right for me, and how to find easy access to scholarships that most people never knew existed.

College Matches