How to Decide Where to Apply for Graduate School

With so many advanced degree options, it can be difficult to narrow down your list of potential schools and choose the ones that are actually the best fit. Here are some tips to get you started.

Debby C.

By Debby C.

Posted March 13, 2024

Table of Contents

So, you’ve decided to apply to graduate school. A difficult decision most applicants face is trimming down the list of potential schools to the ones that are most right for you; those that align with your academic interests and career goals. It’s important to take into account both what the applicant is looking for from a graduate program as well as what the program offers.

In addition to an applicant’s personal motivations, other factors like ranking, geographic location, and cost of attendance can also sway the decision. Below are several of the most important things to consider when creating and finalizing your list of schools to apply for.

Important Factors to Consider


US graduate school rankings are done at the department level. Many organizations, like the US News & World Report, produce both university and department rankings and you’ll want to understand how these evaluations take place. In other words, rankings should be unbiased and reflect actual data provided by the universities and/or government agencies. Be skeptical of rankings where universities are promoted or shown as top-ranked with no data to support the claim. This is often a marketing tactic where schools have paid to promote their programs. Reputable sources for graduate school rankings include organizations such as the US News & World Report, The Princeton Review, and Forbes (among many others).


Another factor to consider is the programs’ accreditation. Accreditation ensures that the program’s curriculum prepares graduates for employment or research in a specific field of study. When a program is accredited, a recognized regional/national agency has evaluated and vetted the curriculum. For example, ABET is a certified organization that accredits college and university programs in applied and natural science, computing, engineering, and engineering technology.

Most schools will have accreditation information on their website in their “About” section or at the bottom of their landing web page. Since all accrediting agencies must be recognized by the Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, you can search these websites to ensure the programs and schools you’re considering meet accreditation standards.

Geographic Location

Most graduate programs last for at least a year, if not quite a bit longer. For that reason, the school’s location should be factored into the decision. Do you want to attend a graduate program in a specific country, state, or city? Do you prefer a campus in an urban or suburban area? Do you want to be close to family or a current/prospective employer? Use these questions to guide your list, but, how highly location is prioritized will depend on personal circumstances.


Nowadays, there are many more types of programs available. If you want to get an advanced degree while also working full-time, that’s now possible with part-time programs. If you can’t move to a new city, online programs will allow you to still attend classes. Maybe you are looking for programs that provide synchronous or asynchronous classes. If these circumstances are applicable to you, additional research will be required to figure out which hybrid, online, or part-time programs are the best fit for you.

Size of School, Department, and Cohort

For some people, the size of the program is a priority. How important is it to you that you get close and frequent contact with instructors? Class sizes affect interactions with both professors and students, and may affect how you feel you’ll learn in a given environment. Sizes of cohorts will also give you an indication of the competitiveness of the program. Smaller cohorts are typically more sought after and as such, are more competitive.


Tuition is usually one of the most significant factors for people considering graduate school. Look at the tuition schedules for public and private schools that you’re interested in to get a more comprehensive view of the cost of attendance. Tuition is often much more affordable at in-state schools than out-of-state.

And, although out-of-pocket costs are an important consideration in school selection, you also want to ensure that the program will provide value for the money you spend there. In other words, what is the quality of teaching and research at the schools you’re applying to? What is the graduation rate, how many graduates find employment in their field of study, and what are the average post-graduation compensation levels? Most graduate programs have this information readily available online.

How Many Schools Should You Apply To?

The students I have worked with typically apply to an average of eight master’s programs. If you’re applying to doctoral programs, you should cast a wider net and consider applying to at least ten schools given the competitive nature of these programs. Keep in mind that each school will have its own application portal and application fee.

Final Note

If you’d like support while creating your list of schools to apply for, reach out to me. We’ll work together to evaluate your personal and professional aspirations, review the options, and find the ones that are the best fit for you. Book a free intro call on my profile to get started.

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