Building a balanced grad school list involves several steps to ensure that the programs you choose align with your academic interests, career goals, financial situation and personal preferences. Further, you’ll want to consider your credentials as an applicant and aim for likely, match, and reach schools and programs to ensure a successful outcome.

Here is a comprehensive guide to help you create a well-rounded and achievable list:


Clearly define your academic and career goals. Consider your research interests, preferred specialization and long-term career goals and aspirations. Evaluate your GPA, test scores, research experience and publications (if applicable), work experience and other relevant qualifications.

Research programs

Look for programs that offer specializations, degree programs and/or research opportunities that align with your interests. If you are seeking a research-based graduate degree, investigate faculty members whose work aligns with your research interests. Consider the availability of labs, research centers and other facilities that support your academic work. Will these professors be taking on new students next year?

Categorize schools and programs

  • Reach. Highly competitive programs where your qualifications may be below the average admitted student profile – but you could still have a chance of admission based on areas of strength in your application.
  • Match. Programs where your qualifications closely match the average admitted student profile. There is no guarantee that you will be admitted, but your profile aligns well with the current students’ profiles.
  • Likely. Programs where your qualifications exceed the average admitted student profile, giving you a higher chance of admission. Again, there is no guarantee of admission, but there is a good probability. It is important to have an interest in attending these schools, in case you are not admitted to any Match or Reach schools.

Consider financial aspects

Look into the cost of the program, including tuition, fees and other expenses, including housing, transportation, books or required materials. Research available scholarships, assistantships, fellowships and grants. If you are applying to a research-based MA/MS program, is funding available? If so, what does it cover and what are the requirements to receive funding? If you are applying to Ph.D. programs, is funding guaranteed? If so, for how many years?

Location and lifestyle

Consider the location of the school and how it fits with your lifestyle and personal preferences. Evaluate the cost of living in the area. Look into the campus environment, student diversity and overall culture. Finally, consider your post-graduation plans: Do many alumni stay in this geographic region for jobs? That is, are you interested in staying near your graduate school for your first job, or even for your career? It is not expected nor required, but many students choose to attend a graduate school because they hope to live in that area post-graduation.

Application requirements and deadlines

Note the required application materials such as transcripts, recommendation letters and essays. Keep track of application deadlines and ensure you have ample time to prepare your materials.

Finalize your list

After thorough research and consideration, narrow down your list to a manageable number of programs (typically five to ten) that cover a range of reach, match and likely options. You’ll want to be organized and methodical – create a spreadsheet with deadlines and other important information to you: costs, research programs, and so on.

Create a balanced list to maximize your chances of admission. Book your introductory call with us today to get personalized guidance on selecting the right programs for you.


About the author
Cecilia Yan

Cecilia earned a BA from University of Minnesota – Twin Cities and an MS from Boston University, where she focused her studies on public relations and marketing. Cecilia oversees graduate programs: business development, partnerships, marketing and counselors. She also works with China partnerships. Originally from China, Cecilia is a native Mandarin speaker.

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