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How to Shortlist Your Prospective Graduate Programs

Have a long list of prospective graduate schools? Here's everything you should consider to find the best program for you.

My senior year of undergrad was very stressful and quite life changing. I was running against a clock that timed out at commencement, which signaled the end of any grace period before I had to make decisions about my professional life or, well, the rest of my life. I liked my academic majors (Electrical Engineering, and Mathematics and Statistics) a lot, but I could never picture myself working as an electrical engineer. In fact, I could never picture myself being anywhere other than where I was right then: in a higher ed institution, surrounded by education, research, and service. How did I go from this discovery to choosing New York University as a graduate school? Here's a look and my journey and some advice to help you with shortlisting your own graduate schools list.

Shortlisting your graduate programs

The first part of my grad school search was, of course, finding programs in Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA). This was a long process that had many, many steps. My analytical—and dare I say STEM—mind insisted that I act as meticulously as possible. To that end, I looked at every single grad school that offered HESA or similar programs in the country, combing through two established databases: the NASPA Graduate Program Directory and the ACPA Graduate Prep Program Directory.

For your own search, start looking online for databases on similar programs or fields. They don’t have to be formal websites—blogs and articles could help you identify and narrow your choices as well. Another great resource are the people in your chosen field who work at your university, such as professors or other staff members. Try to set up a meeting with them to talk about their journey, their challenges and successes, and how they might relate to your own goals. One of my mentors, an established Student Affairs professional at my undergrad, provided me a lot of information and experience, which helped me think critically about my grad school search. Next, I compared the programs I found against the expectations I had for my graduate school experience. These factors included the following:

Related: How to Start Your Grad School Search With Confidence

Academic focus

With my passion for supporting students and providing them with the resources and services they need for a successful college experience, Student Affairs became the focus of my college search. Student Affairs sometimes exists under the greater umbrella of Higher Education Administration, but I chose to look mainly at programs that emphasized Student Affairs rather than Higher Education Administration. When looking at graduate programs, consider what your academic focus might be—what are you passionate about, and how can a particular academic program or certain aspects of it help you reach your goals? Creating a first draft of my personal statement helped me establish what my academic expectations and goals were, which further helped in my grad school search.

Internship experience

I wanted a program that provided internship opportunities where I could gain real-world experience and education in the field. When looking at program websites, I searched for internship requirements or opportunities the colleges provided. There were times when I couldn’t find specific internship or work information, so I reached out to the program coordinator (or another contact person), introduced myself as a prospective student, and asked for more information.

Subsidized cost of attendance

Graduate programs are expensive. One of my top priorities was finding programs that subsidized the cost of attendance through paid internships, scholarships, tuition or housing remission, and so on. I looked at the program website for more information on scholarships and financial aid and found that most websites dedicated space for this. If I couldn’t find any information, I checked the University’s financial aid page as well. And if I still lacked information, I included such questions in my email to the program coordinator.

Related: Financial Aid for Grad School: What's Different This Time?

Length of program

Since I had no academic knowledge of the field and barely any applicable experience, I wanted to dedicate at least two years to learning about the theory and research behind the work that is done. For your own search, consider the duration of the programs you are looking at—some may be just one year, and others may be closer to three. What are your expectations? What role does financial aid play when thinking about program duration? How could the length of the program impact any other responsibilities and obligations you may have?


My alma mater, while a great university and environment, was in the middle of nowhere in a small college town in a Midwestern state. For my graduate school, I wanted to experience a different college environment and a different student culture, so I looked at urban universities. College types generally include liberal arts universities, religiously affiliated institutions, comprehensive colleges and universities, research universities, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, community colleges, and many more. The Carnegie Classification gives an idea of the type of universities that exist in the United States higher education system. Think about the kind of collegial culture and environment that would best suit your graduate school experience.

Related: Grad School Choices: Alma Mater or Another University?

Research focus

Intellectual development has always been a part of my personal purpose statement. I looked at programs that had at least a small research focus so I could start learning about research in an academic setting, as well as the steps I could take to intellectually develop myself while also contributing to the knowledge base of the field. If this is important to your educational experience, check out the academic curriculum for the programs you’re looking at. Is there a research requirement posted or classes that educate on research practices? If you’re unclear, this is another great question to include in your email to the program coordinator.


Attending a selective university was important to me for many reasons. As an international student who hopes to work in the country, brand name and reach was very important to me. In addition, my family was more comfortable with me leaving a potentially lucrative field for an esoteric one if I attended an established and well-known university. However, selectivity plays one of many roles in college choice. An unfamiliar school (like my alma mater) might be a great fit for your academic and professional goals. If I had only looked at rankings, I would never have found my undergrad, and I truly believe that would be a loss to my educational and personal growth. Thus, selectivity, while important, had a lower priority than most others in my search.


I have a lot of family in and around the East Coast. Staying close to them was important to me, so I focused my search in that area generally. What role does location play in your search? How does it impact housing, moving, family, your job, and other responsibilities? Graduate school isn’t the same as undergrad. You don’t necessarily need to immerse yourself in your campus the same way. So while location should play a factor, it by now means should prevent you from going to a school with the best program for you because online courses or distance learning are also options.

Related: 10 Overlooked Questions to Ask About Graduate School

In the end, I had nine schools in my shortlist, including New York University. However, it’s important to note that these schools did not satisfy all of my expectations. By prioritizing my list, I was able to shortlist schools that covered my highest priorities. After creating your shortlist, your next steps include filling out applications, submitting personal statements and résumés, requesting recommendation letters and transcripts, and taking standardized tests. 

Research your grad program options again with our Graduate School Search tool to be sure you’re keeping the right choices on your list!

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About Dharini Parthasarathy

Dharini Parthasarathy was born in Abu Dhabi, UAE but pursued education in Chennai, India in high school. After high school graduation, she moved to the US for college. She graduated from Miami University—Oxford in 2017, with degrees in Electrical Engineering and Mathematics & Statistics. During her years at Miami, she worked as an International Orientation Leader for two years and in International Student and Scholar Services for a year. She was also part of a three-year leadership certification program for Engineering students called the Lockheed Martin Leadership Institute. Through the Institute, she was part of a University-wide endeavor called Listen4Insight, a podcast series that interviewed leaders in different fields about their thoughts on creativity, innovation, and leadership. At New York University, she works with faculty and students with different experiences and goals in higher education and to shape her own career, values, and goals.


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