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How to Start Your Grad School Search With Confidence

Finding the right graduate program is a comprehensive process. Start on the right foot with these tips to help you search for schools and apply with confidence.

Going to grad school 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 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 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. 

Related: Essential Grad School Search and Application Timeline

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 grad school spreadsheet (kind of like this college search spreadsheet), placing your schools at the top and criteria categories in the left-hand column.

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 school websites but the way in which it’s presented as well. 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. Across the top will be an alphabetical list of your grad school options. In the left-hand column will be all the criteria you 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 have a wait 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 Donald Martin's website, and start exploring graduate programs with our Grad School Search tool.

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