When trying to decide which college to attend, most high school students end up with a list of important factors to consider. Sometimes that list is physical and sometimes it’s just mental, but it usually exists, and it contains criteria such as location, academic rigor, cost, school size and even sports/clubs offered. After hours and hours of searching and comparing, college-bound students will take those factors into consideration and choose a school, believing they will never have to do so again.
For many students, that’s true, but others find themselves in roughly the same position four years later, when they decide to apply to grad school. Graduate programs are chances for students to earn advanced degrees and narrow their focus to an academic area that truly interests them. Many graduate programs offer smaller student-to-faculty ratios and allow students to work closely with faculty to pursue their area of study. They can be really exciting opportunities for students who love learning and have a desire to dig more deeply into a field that interests them, but grad school isn’t for everyone, and not every program is created alike.
For students who do decide to apply to grad schools, the list-making must begin once again. This list, however, will likely look different than an undergraduate list. It will contain items such as the quality of academia and the reputation of the program. School websites typically outline applicant requirements and typical course styles, and often highlight the work of recent program graduates.
This is all good information, and it needs to be considered, but what about those factors that were once important? It’s true that students looking into grad schools don’t need to care about what size the dorm rooms are or how good the school’s meal service may be, but some initial considerations still deserve to make the list.
One important factor that often gets overlooked is location. This is a huge deal when selecting an undergraduate school, but it tends to get lost in the wave of graduate program specifics. While graduate programs vary greatly in length, most are at least two years and others can be up to six or eight. With such a substantial time span at stake, the school of your choice needs to be somewhere you would want to live. Regardless of the quality of the program, it could be a huge mistake to discount the importance of location.
Another important consideration is the size of the school. Like location, school size is something that is almost always on an undergraduate selection list but is rarely on a graduate one. If you’re looking for a small school with an incredibly specific program, you may have a difficult time finding somewhere that meets your criteria, but it’s a worthwhile consideration nevertheless. If you’re looking for a bigger school, keep in mind whether you would prefer to study at a public or private institution; not every big school is a state school.
While school size may not seem quite as important for graduate programs as it is for undergraduate ones—as graduate programs tend to live in their own little worlds—the size of the school is still going to affect things like which resources are available to students and how long it takes to get from one end of campus to the other. Even if school size doesn’t really matter to you as an overarching factor, it is still something you should be aware of before applying to a program, as it could inform how you communicate with faculty and what the application process looks like: big schools tend to have a more streamlined process while small schools are often more individualized. Both are good in their own ways, but it’s important to know which type of system you are going to have to deal with as you apply.
It can also be a good idea to research the institution’s undergraduate mission statement or purpose. While graduate programs are in a different sphere, the tone of a university is often determined by its undergrad departments, and that tone will likely permeate the graduate programs as well. Be sure to research a school thoroughly before deciding whether it would be a good fit for your studies.
Once you have determined the atmosphere of a school, including its location, size and mission, you can turn toward the academic side of the spectrum. At this stage, it’s good to look into application criteria, acceptance rates, faculty, funding opportunities and job placement rates. These are the primary reasons for choosing a school, and they are vital components of the selection process.
Graduate students tend to work closely with faculty, so do some research! What areas of interest are represented by program faculty? What kinds of student research do they oversee on a regular basis? Answers to these types of questions can usually be found online, either through the university or simply by googling individual faculty members. Make sure you are going to enjoy working with the faculty in a program before you apply.
Funding and research are also important factors to consider. Most graduate programs offer grants for summer research, and often include travel funding as well. These programs tend to be highly competitive, but they are really great opportunities, deserving of some definite pre-application research and consideration.
Before making those final decisions and beginning the application process, make sure you have the numbers and details nailed down. How long is the program? How much does it cost? Are there internal or external fellowships that could help you pay for the program? Do you need to apply for those separately? Be sure to look at acceptance rates and job placement rates—how likely are you to get in, and how likely would you be to get a job after graduation if you attended?
There are a lot of factors to consider and questions to ask when considering grad school, and they can become incredibly intimidating. In the midst of the information overload, the key is to decide what matters to you and dig into some research. Taking it one step at a time will cut down on that intimidation and bring you progressively closer to landing a spot in a graduate program.