How To Determine the Best Graduate Schools

You thought deciding to go to graduate school was hard? Wait until you start to narrow down the schools to which you want to apply. With the proliferation in programs across the United States, the increased competitiveness of the job market, and the downturn in the economy, applications to graduate schools are skyrocketing. Therefore, it's crucial to pick the right schools for you and for your goals, and to manage the application process masterfully in order to maximize your chances for success. Here's how to start the ball rolling by creating a list of the top schools, according to your needs and goals:

  1. Clarify your goals. Why are you going to graduate school? What do you hope to accomplish with your master's degree? It's crucial to know this with certainty in order to ascertain whether a given program can help you get there.
  2. Start by ruling out the "undesirables." Are there qualities or traits of a school's location that might be deal-breakers for you? For instance, if your spouse is an air traffic controller and needs to find work, you don't want to consider a school in a city without a major airport. If you have asthma, you probably want to focus your search on schools that aren't in cities with high concentrations of air pollutants and smog.
  3. Next, list the traits and qualities you'd prefer to see in your school choice and location. These aren't needs so much as they are "wants." You may have to abandon one to get another, so it helps to really examine your priorities. Do you prefer an urban environment or a smaller town? Are you more interested in a coastal location or a mountainous one, or do you not care? What about cultural events and social opportunities, such as museums, professional ball teams, the opera, ballet, night life, etc.?
  4. Now that you have a picture of your "dream school," it's time to get to work narrowing down the field of candidates. Consider using an online tool, such as that offered by Princeton Review. These tools can assist you in identifying the factors that are most important to you, bringing you closer to forming a list of schools to consider. You will make progress narrowing down a huge field of potential contenders to a more manageable list.
  5. Next, assess the academic integrity and prestige of each candidate school. If you want to study philosophy, you will want to consider a school with a brand new philosophy department with some caution. Use print and online resources to evaluate a program's academic rigor. Assign a numerical value to each school based on your research, such as 1 through 10, with 1 being "unacceptable" and 10 being "top-ranked."
  6. Evaluate the faculty. Do you have a subspecialty or topic you're particularly interested in studying? Look for schools that employ professors who have published in this area or topic. Again, assign a rating to the school based on what you find for this factor, 1 through 10.
  7. Talk to current and former students. What is the student life like? What opportunities exist for internships or other work experience? If teaching assistantships will be necessary for your funding package, explore the availability of this type of position. How have graduates of this program been received in your field? Assign a numerical rating to the school based on each factor that's important to you.
  8. Finally, assess the cost. Don't forget to include items such as room and board, books, travel requirements, and fees. Rank each school from most expensive to least. Now that you've amassed this collection of information, you'll need a way to assess it in order to come up with a short-list of schools which you will visit and explore further, and to which you will eventually apply.
  9. Rule out the schools that do not meet your academic needs. If the school doesn't offer a PhD program and you will require that option, strike it from your list. Likewise, strike schools that are located in areas that are not under consideration.
  10. Rank the remaining schools based on your evaluation factors above - the wants, the academics, the faculty, the student life, and the cost. Take into consideration the factors that are more important to you. Academic concerns should be of utmost importance. For instance, if you prefer a coastal area, but really ought to have a school with a particular research facility, then put the inland school on the list.

Now, you should have a better idea of which schools are your top contenders. You can proceed to visit the schools and manage your application process to each of them. Hopefully, it will be a simple matter to pick your highest-ranked choice from all the many schools that accept you.


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