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Gearing up for Grad School: Your School List

Putting together your school list is an essential first step in applying to grad school. By choosing your schools before you do anything else, you will give yourself a roadmap to follow, you will know what your standardized test scores should be, and you’ll also know what your application deadlines are. It should be one of the first things you do when you start the application process.

However, there is much more to choosing grad schools than simply picking schools by their names, programs, or reputations. The schools that make the cut onto your list should be schools that will further your career goals, provide you with the support and opportunities you’re looking for, are located in places you wouldn’t mind living in for a few years (or longer), and fit in with your academic aspirations.

There are a number of steps you should follow.


It’s not just about where you go to school, it’s about what you’re going to school for. Are you aiming for a Masters? Considering getting a Ph.D.? In which fields are you interested? Start by answering those questions so that you can best start narrowing down your school options (since not every school will offer every type of degree or specialization).


Once you’ve decided on a degree and specialization, ask yourself the following questions:

  • When you think about your future career, what do you see? Will you teach? Write? Research? What kind of work do you want to do?
  • How do you learn best? Do you prefer a laid-back environment, or do you thrive on competition and pressure? Are you somewhere in between? What’s been your most productive academic environment?
  • Do you care about rankings? Is the “pedigree” of your school and your degree important to you?
  • How important is the social aspect of a school to you?
  • Where do you want to live for the next three years?
  • What are your goals? What do you hope to accomplish with your degree and your career?
  • What are your values? Is it important that your school be fully in line with the values you hold dear?
  • Will you work while you attend school?
  • Do you have a family? Are you okay with relocating them, or do you need to stay close to home?
  • How comfortable are you with being greatly in debt? Grad school can be expensive, and is usually financed through loans.

These questions will get you thinking about what’s important to you, and what you consider important an institution of higher learning.


The idea behind the questions listed above is getting you to think about:

  • Geographic preferences
  • School size and social environment
  • Academic environment
  • Specialty preferences
  • Financial requirements and needs
  • Career aspirations and personal goals
  • Work opportunities during school and post-graduation
  • Personal skill sets

Starting from the top aspect (geography) and working your way down will allow you to narrow down schools based on your preferences, ensuring that you are keeping with your ultimate, bottom-line needs.


Now that you’re armed with a load of knowledge about what you are looking for, you need to go out and find out which schools can provide you with the closest match to what you’re are looking for. In order to do this, you need to investigate them.

Use the following sources to help you as you research:

  • Campus visits by representatives of each institution: Nothing beats being able to talk to a school representative and get your questions answered directly.
  • School print and online material: Find out what the school considering worthy of putting in print.
  • Alumni: Get the deal right from those who have lived the student experience at each school.


Now that you’ve thoroughly researched each school, it is time to narrow down the list to the 5-10 schools to which you will apply. You may be able to do this very easily based on the information you’ve already gathered, but if you are still having trouble paring the list down, take some time to speak to alumni (again) and visit the schools (if you haven’t already). This should give you some additional insight into each potential grad school.


Once all the information has been gathered, it is time to make the final decisions. Most candidates end up applying to 5-10 schools, although you may end up applying to more or fewer schools. The final list should have the same overall make-up:

  • A few “definite” schools — These are the schools where you are almost sure to get in, based on numbers, credentials, and selectivity.
  • A number of “likely” schools — These are the schools where you feel fairly confident in your ability to gain acceptance, based on numbers and the rest of your application. The bulk of your list should consist of “likely” schools.
  • One or two “maybe” schools — These are the opposite of the “definite” schools. These form part of the final application list in order to avoid missing out on a potential opportunity. Every year, unlikely candidates are offered admission to schools where their credentials did not give them a chance of admittance—why miss out on the possibility by not applying?

Keep in mind, even with a step-by-step list, there will be things outside the norm you may have to consider. Use this list as a guide, and let it help you as you determine where your academic future will lie.