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How to Find a Graduate Program That Fits You

Ready to make the big next step to grad school? There are many considerations to help determine which program best fits your needs. Here's where to start!

For many people, deciding to pursue an undergraduate degree is a natural next step. Graduate from high school, apply and get admitted to a variety of colleges and/or universities, and then decide which to attend. What separated the school you ultimately attended from others? Perhaps you liked the “feel” of the campus, they had the major you wanted, or you liked the extracurricular activities offered. The decision can be fairly straightforward. Some students continue to grad school right after they earn their bachelor’s degree. Others may work for a few years after graduation and then return to school full or part time. Many people are often not sure where to begin or what to consider.

Truth be told, the graduate admission process can be somewhat confusing when compared to its undergraduate counterpart. Unlike the undergraduate process, which is typically centralized at most campuses, the graduate admission process can be decentralized. The applications may be handled solely by the program at hand or academic school of interest and vary even on the same campus. Identifying how things work at various colleges and universities will enable you to navigate through the process and obtain the best information possible about your intended program of study. As you engage in conversations and research various programs, there are several things to consider as you determine which program best fits your needs.

What's your motivation?

Having had the opportunity to meet and chat with a number of prospective graduate students over the years, I have found that, for many, the hardest part is taking the first step—deciding to go to grad school. When making this decision, it is important to ask yourself: “What is my motivation for doing so?” Is it to earn an additional credential necessary for your current career or a career you hope to pursue? Will it enable you to get a promotion or pay increase at work? Are you interested in making a career change and need to obtain a skill set beyond what your undergraduate degree offers? Or are you just interested in getting the degree for your personal satisfaction? This motivation serves as a foundation to explore the course work and structure of a program. If you have “gaps” in your portfolio, making sure the program can fill these gaps is important. Whatever your rationale, you must keep it in mind and use it as your end goal in the process. It will also enable you to start reaching out to schools to see what their programs can offer you.

Related: Choosing the Right Graduate Degree for Your Goals

Prerequisites and admission requirements

Most people understand that if they are considering going to a professional school (e.g., medical school, law school, etc.), a prospective student must complete a variety of prerequisite courses. However, many do not realize this can be true for business, education, and other programs as well. Ultimately, a school wants their new students to be successful. Requiring particular course work prior to entry enables admission committees to see that you have a solid foundation to build upon. When researching your program of interest, you will want to make sure you speak with representatives to determine what is expected and how your current background impacts your ability to be admitted. For example, if you need to complete 18 credits of additional course work prior to entering the program, your anticipated timeline may become lengthier. Here are three things that are sure to be expected in most admission policies: 

  • Grad school standardized test scores (like the GRE, GMAT, MCAT, etc.) tend to create a level of anxiety for many students and can seem like a bowl of alphabet soup. Exploring what options may exist for a waiver or just discussing the role test scores play in the admission process can be helpful. Determining where the mean scores of admitted students fall will provide you with a target goal for placing yourself in a competitive realm for being admitted. Aiming for the minimum provides an opportunity for others to score better, leaving you on the outside of being a competitive candidate.
  • Letters of recommendation are also common requirements, but programs may differ on who should be writing such a letter. One program may place a higher value on a letter from a faculty member you had in a related course versus one from an employer. Ultimately, selection committees will be looking for ways to determine that you will be able to handle the course work, but also that you’ll be a contributing member of the class or cohort.
  • Interviews or written essays may be necessary but also vary from program to program. You cannot assume that requirements will be the same for every school. Taking the time to do research may be the difference between an opportunity to choose between program acceptances and not being admitted due to missing credentials.

Program format

As you research various programs, you will want to explore the format of each one. Are courses offered year round? Is it an online program? Is the program full or part time? Are classes offered solely in the evenings or during the day? Is a thesis or capstone project required to graduate? How many credits are required? All of these questions may present potential hurdles, whether with finances, balancing work and class, or finding time to complete the degree. As a working professional, a full-time graduate program may not be possible, especially without an online option. Programs that require an internship or practicum experience may also create challenges when juggling work and school. Extra credits can potentially impact your wallet but also the time you need to devote to them, which may be even more important.

Weighing these options requires you to understand what sacrifices you are willing to make. Relocating to participate in a full-time program may not be feasible. Yet a part-time program usually extends the amount of time you will need to complete the program, which you may not have or desire. In the end, these issues can be overcome and serve as a solid reason for selecting one school over another.

Related: Is A Full-Time, Part-Time, or Online Grad Program Best?


How will you pay for graduate school? It’s certainly more expensive than undergrad was, and it seems like there are less opportunities for funding. But that’s not the case! There are plenty of grad school financial assistance opportunities out there; you just have to know where to look for them. Find out what assistantships, scholarships, and financial aid—including federal loans—may be available for each program you consider. If you’re employed, ask about any tuition benefits that may be available. If you are a military service member or veteran, you may qualify for DOD or VA tuition assistance.

Return on investment

Graduate outcomes may be of particular importance, depending on the academic area you pursue. How many students complete the program and in how many years? Are graduates able to find employment? Where do they work, and what are their jobs? Admittedly, this can be a very tricky aspect to evaluate. A student’s initial motivation for getting an advanced degree in the first place can greatly impact the answers to these questions. A way to begin filtering responses is by relying on empirical data rather than numerical data. For example, it is important to determine how many students are working but equally important to determine where and by whom the students are employed. If students are using the degree for promotion purposes, were they successful? Graduate programs are becoming more and more adept at collecting information specific to graduating student satisfaction and determining if a program of study is meeting their needs and goals. A related consideration is reputation. Ask your friends, colleagues, and employer what they think about the programs and schools you are considering; they may have additional recommendations. The school may also be able to provide some alumni feedback about the value of the program.

Related: Return on Investment: How to Pick the Best MBA for Your Career

I regularly tell students that it is never too early to begin discussions with a graduate admission counselor. If you are considering going back to school, start talking to a representative. By engaging early, you can begin to find out details related to deadlines, financial aid opportunities (assistantships, scholarships, etc.), and how to make your dream of graduate school a reality.

After you find the program that works for you, use our Scholarship Search tool to find free money to pay for it.

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