The biggest mistake prospective graduate students make by far is not doing adequate research and preparation before submitting their applications.
Graduate school is not something to take lightly. It involves a major investment—personally, intellectually, socially, emotionally, and financially. Be sure to allow yourself enough time to do your due diligence and get all 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
- Do an initial online search on 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’ve done a thorough search, make an alphabetical list of all your options, regardless of what you presently know/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 careful about accepting word of mouth or what you think you know as final at this point. We’re individuals with different needs, expectations, and experiences. This is your educational experience, not someone else’s. Don’t eliminate any of your options at this point. You want to get as much information as possible so you can decide what program is best for you.
- Go 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 the way 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 is 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 about which you have made inquiry. You can even grade them on this in your spreadsheet.
11 months before applying
- You should now start to narrow your search a bit. But don’t narrow it too much. If you still have an interest in a college or university despite a bad first impression, keep it on the list for now. However, if you continue to get the same treatment (unresponsive, hard-to-navigate website, etc.) you did when first browsing for information, ask yourself: if I’m being treated this way now, how will it be if I apply, get accepted, and enroll?
- Further expand the spreadsheet you created last month to compare each of the options that remain on your list. I suggest putting your options down the left-hand column in alphabetical order, with options you wish to compare going across the top row. Here are some suggestions:
1. Program formats (on campus, online, hybrid)
3. Friendliness of admission staff
4. Interaction with current students
5. Interaction with faculty
6. Interaction with alumni
7. Perception from campus visits or admission event(s) you attended
8. Number of students enrolled in the entire institution
9. Number of students enrolled in the program you are considering
10. Student-faculty ratio
11. Average class size
12. Grading system
14. Housing options (should you be relocating)
15. Extracurricular opportunitiesCareer services/employment percentages
16. Total cost for one year
17. Tuituion cost for one year
18. Financial Aid: scholarships, loans, assistantships, fellowships, work-study
19. Application deadlines
20. Application fees
21. Application requirements (including standardized test(s) needed)
22. Helpfulness of website and brochures
23. Is an interview required?
24. Do they keep a waiting list of applicants?
25. Can you appeal/get feedback if denied?
Some of the columns in your research spreadsheet might 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 (scale of 1–5, with 1 being terrible and 5 being outstanding).
Related: Find a Graduate Program That Fits
10 months before applying
- Work on completing your research spreadsheet, filling in every column for each option. As you go along, you’ll eliminate some or many options. That’s okay. You’re 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 group, second group, third group, etc. Ideally, you should have at least five options left. However, depending on the type of graduate program you seek, the number of options will vary. The point is that you’re still not at the place where you need to have a “short list.” You’re still 10 months away from applying, and you’ll have several opportunities to narrow down your list before that time.