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You know that graduate school is in your future, and you are ready to apply. But with so many options to choose from, how will you decide on a list of just eight to ten programs?

This daunting task can be managed with a systematic culling process. Before you begin, you should have a pretty clear idea of the area of study you will focus on, and what type of degree you want (MBA, MD, JD, MS, Ph.D.). Also, having an open mind is important. Although school reputation may drive some of your decisions, choosing a program based upon reputation alone is not the best strategy because the competition may make some out of reach.

The list below should help you organize your thoughts – these are only some of the questions you may ask yourself, but hopefully it will get you off to a good start.

  1. Location. Are you only interested in US-based programs? Studying in another country can be a fantastic experience, but there are things to consider like language and culture differences, career prospects and cost. Even within the US, location can make a huge difference in terms of weather, culture and diversity. Think about what is important to you and focus on locations that will be a good fit.
  2. Population. Big and bustling city? Small, cute town? Rural country life? There are schools located in all types of communities that may or may not work for you.
  3. Size. More specific than general location, the size of the school/program can make a big difference. Do some research into the ratio of undergraduate students to graduate students as well as faculty to students. How big are the classes? Will you feel comfortable in a course with a couple hundred students enrolled, or do smaller lectures sound better? Do you want the opportunity to be a teaching assistant (to gain teaching experience)?
  4. Quality of Life. If you cannot picture yourself buried in books all the time, you should look for schools that encourage extracurriculars like clubs, sports, wellness and cultural activities. Don’t sacrifice activities that are important to you – find a school where you can easily continue participating.
  5. Flexibility. Some graduate programs prescribe almost every course you will take. Others have a broad range of electives, and there are also programs that allow you to design your own degree. Further, you may need to decide between research-based graduate programs and coursework-only graduate programs.
  6. Cost. Tuition can vary greatly from school to school. Housing costs will also differ depending upon location. If you are taking out loans to pay for your degree program, cost is a serious consideration. Some schools offer fellowships or grants (especially for Ph.D. students and sometimes for research master’s degree students), and others may have teaching assistantships available.
  7. Career Services. Lining up a job after graduate school can be stressful, and an on-campus, free career center is a resource many people find invaluable. You can also look into what percentage of students have jobs upon graduation, and how many are still looking within one year of degree conferral. You should also consider the types and locations of jobs that students enter post-graduation.

Once you start to narrow things down, talk to people about their own experiences. Your LinkedIn network probably has a lot of connections with graduate degrees: Check out where your connections attended graduate school and ask them about their time there. Talk to your friends who are currently in graduate school and find out what they like and don’t like. Your ultimate goal should be a list of schools that will make you happy no matter which one you end up attending, and going through this process is one way to get there.

About the author
Marc Zawel

As author of Untangling the Ivy League, Marc literally wrote the book on gaining admission to highly selective colleges. He earned a BA from Cornell University – where he met AcceptU’s co-founder – and an MBA from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, Marc chaired the admissions advisory board; he has also conducted alumni interviews for Cornell for more than fifteen years.

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