Finding the Right Grad School Fit

The suit you wear to a job interview needs to fit perfectly, and so does the graduate school that prepares you for what comes after that interview.

The suit you wear to a job interview needs to fit perfectly, and so does the graduate school that prepares you for what comes after that interview.

You may have been accepted to more than one program, but one of the most important steps in going to graduate school is choosing the right one.

If you applied to only one school and got in, or if you were accepted to your first choice and money is no concern, congratulations and welcome to the world of graduate education. Get off the computer and start buying your textbooks.

If you don't fall into that small category of students experiencing educational perfection, do not be discouraged. You are the norm. Most people experience anxiety when it comes to choosing the school they want to give their future to.

Fortunately for you, that's where this article comes in. You have been courted by a number of graduate program suitors. Read on to find out what you need to know to pick your perfect mate.

The "F" bomb

That's right—finances. Financial questions are the biggest explosions of light at the end of a great fireworks show. For many people, those grand explosions are the main reason they gathered to see fireworks in the first place. Consequently, the financial situation is often the biggest factor in a student's ultimate grad school decision.

If a school's tuition seems too much, keep in mind there is always financial aid. The school could offer you:

  • A fellowship. The equivalent of a scholarship for undergraduate studies, only much fewer are given out a year and it is often on a merit basis, meaning you may have to compete with other students to get one. If you win the battle, however, the school may offer you health and dental insurance as well as financial help.
  • Tuition remission based on a financial need. Just like when you got your undergrad degree, if your total income is too low, the school may offer you some financial assistance.
  • An assistantship. Work your debt off through slave labor. Or, to put it in more accurate (and more appealing) terms, get a job working for a professor. Become a teaching assistant, research assistant, or general assistant and do research, sort files, grade papers, or teach the actual class.
  • There are two different types of assistantships: One gives you money to put toward bills, groceries, video games, and whatever else you want to buy. One puts your paycheck directly toward your tuition.

Don't be discouraged if your acceptance letter makes no mention of any aid. Call the school and ask. You never know what answer you may receive.

Déjá vu

Visit the school again. This time, you will see the school in a different light. Now you aren't worried about whether you will be accepted to this school—you are worried about whether you should accept them.

Talk to students and professors. See what they have to say about the school. Hopefully they will be happy with where they are, and if so, find out why. If they aren't, you definitely want to know that. Learn what their personal experiences have been. What they like and dislike about the place. This may seem a bit obvious, but ask questions that relate specifically to you. If you like to shop, find out if there is a good shopping district in the area. If you are into science, ask about the quality and availability of the chemistry labs. Ask if there are good movies theaters in the area. Or good restaurants. Or any details that truly matter to you. Take this time to learn the intricacies of a school that brochures can't address.

Hopefully when looking at the campuses through your new lens, one will speak to you. If you stand in front of an administrative building and swell with pride and confidence over what you are about to accomplish, that is your school.

Two offers for the price of one

You may still be panicking at this point. Don't. It's much better to have two or three offers than none. You may think you are in a tough position, but this is actually a terrific one. These schools want you. You hold them in the palm of your soon-to-be-extremely educated hands. Embrace that power. But don't let it go to your head. And don't rush into a decision. You have until April 15* to notify most departments that you have accepted their offer to attend their school. *That date may be different for some programs.

Graduate school is a big investment and there are a number of issues involved in your decision, some of which you will have to weigh more heavily than others, like financial aid versus a more appealing location, for instance. But don't make a decision based on just one issue.

Choose the school that best fits into your budget, works most with your schedule, has the nicest campus, and matches your research interests or has the best program for your needs. If no school matches your criteria perfectly, bend a little. Maybe the school is a bit too expensive but the location is so perfect and the classes are so ideal the extra cost is worth it. Or perhaps the school isn't in the best location but it's offering great financial aid.

Going back to our suit analogy, it's all about fit. The suit has to fit you completely. Compare the money aspect to the sleeves of the suit. Making sure your sleeves fit is unquestionably important to the overall look and feel of the suit, just like making sure the cost of a grad program fits into your budget is unquestionably important in determining whether you will choose that program or not.

But everything needs to be put into perspective. Just because your sleeves fit doesn't mean the suit looks good. The pants might be too long. The skirt might be too short. The waist might be too narrow. Everything needs to fit for the look of the suit to work.

The same goes for the school of your dreams. And if you can't find the perfect fit, if the tailor just can't seem to hem those sleeves right, you can always go back to the working world and try again next year.

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