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Chapter 23. Where and When to Apply

You probably know what you want to study as a graduate student, but where should you apply? The answer to this question is dependent on two main factors: which programs would be best for you, and which of these programs you can actually get into. This chapter will help you answer these questions—and many more you may have about the process of choosing a school for postgraduate study.

What Programs You Should Consider

Once you have made the decision to pursue graduate studies, you should take the decision about where to go to school seriously—it will have a major influence on your daily life for the next several years and will influence your academic and career paths for years to come. Many students allow themselves to be influenced by a professor, a mentor, or school rankings and then find they’re unhappy in a certain program because of its location, its workload, its cost, or some other unforeseen factor. If you complete your own research, even if it takes time and hard work, you will be happier with your own choice. Let’s take a look at some of the factors you’ll need to consider when choosing a school.


Keep your goals in mind when evaluating graduate programs. Before you take the leap, it’s important that you have a pretty clear idea where your interests lie, what grad school life is like, and whether you’re compatible with a particular program and its professors. Armed with this information, you should be able to successfully apply to the right programs, get accepted, and use your time in graduate school to help you get a head start on the post-graduation job search.

Students decide to enter master’s and doctoral degree programs for a variety of reasons. Some want to pursue a career in academia. To teach at two-year colleges, you’ll need at least a master’s degree; to teach and do research at four-year colleges, universities, and graduate programs, you’ll need a doctorate. Other people need graduate education to meet national and state licensing requirements in fields such as social work, engineering, and architecture. Some students want to change careers, while others expect an advanced degree to open up new opportunities in their current field.

Most master’s programs are two years long, and master’s students are generally one of two types: those on an academic track, where the degree program focuses on classical research and scholarship, and those on a practical track, where the degree program is actually a professional training course that qualifies people to enter or advance in a field such as social work or education.

Other options to consider if you’re pursuing a master’s degree are cooperative, joint, and interdisciplinary programs. In cooperative programs, you apply to, answer to, and graduate from one school, but you have access to classes, professors, and facilities at one or more cooperating schools. In joint- or dual-degree programs, you work toward two degrees simultaneously, either within the same school or at two neighboring schools. Interdisciplinary programs are generally run by a committee consisting of faculty from a number of different departments. You apply to, register with, and are graduated by only one of the departments; you and your faculty committee design your curriculum.

Doctoral programs are designed to create scholars capable of independent research that will add new and significant knowledge to their fields. At first, you’ll be regarded as an apprentice in your field. Your first year or two in the program will be spent on coursework, followed by “field” or “qualifying” exams. Once you have passed those exams, demonstrating that you have the basic factual and theoretical knowledge of your field down cold, you’ll be permitted to move on to independent research in the form of your doctoral dissertation. During most of this time, you can get financial aid in the form of stipends through teaching or research.

If you want to get a doctoral degree, you can get a master’s and then apply to PhD programs, or you may enter directly into the doctoral program. The first method gives you flexibility but generally takes longer, costs more in the long run, and means reliving the application process. However, some doctoral programs in certain fields of study require a full master’s degree for acceptance.


Although you should not place too much stock in school and program rankings, you should consider a program’s overall reputation. When you assess a program’s reputation, don’t just consider its national ranking but think about whether it fits your goals and interests. You can get information from a variety of sources, formal and informal.

Each year, various groups publish rankings of graduate programs: U.S. News and World Report on American graduate programs, Maclean’s on Canadian programs, and many others. These rankings can give you a general sense of the programs in your field and may include profiles of distinguished professors, but they tell you nothing about departmental politics, job placement records, or financial aid possibilities.

You should find out which programs are highly regarded in the areas that interest you. You can learn these details through professional associations (such as the American Psychological Association for programs in psychology fields), comprehensive commercial directories of graduate programs (available through school or local libraries), and the Internet.

Don’t forget to contact schools and departments directly. Most departments have a chairperson who is also the admissions contact; she can put you in touch with current students and alumni who are willing to discuss the program with you. The chair is usually willing to answer questions as well.

Try to speak to at least one current student and one alum from each program you’re seriously considering. You’ll find that many graduate students are quite outspoken about the strengths and weaknesses of professors, programs, and the state of the job market in their field.

If you’re an undergraduate, or still have contacts from your undergraduate experience, ask your professors for their take on the various graduate programs. You’ll often find that they have a great deal of inside information on academic and research trends, impending retirements, intellectual rivalries, and rising stars.

Remember, a program’s reputation isn’t everything, but the higher your school is regarded in the marketplace, the better your job prospects are likely to be upon graduation.


Two key questions you should consider regarding a school’s location are: How will it affect the overall quality of your graduate school experience, and how will it affect your ability to be employed once you are done with your studies? Some students prefer an urban setting. Others prefer a more rustic environment. Cost of living can also be a factor.

Geography may be an important criterion for you. Perhaps your geographical choices are limited by a spouse’s job or other family obligations. Perhaps you already know where you want to live after graduation. If you’re planning on a career in academia, you’ll probably want to choose a nationally known program, regardless of where it’s located. If, on the other hand, your program involves a practice component (physician's assistant, social work, education, or some interdisciplinary programs), you may want to concentrate your school search on the area in which you hope to live and work, at least initially.


To maximize the value of your graduate school experience, be sure that a department’s areas of concentration match up with your own interests. Knowing a program’s particular theoretical bent and practical selling points can help ensure that you choose a school that reflects your own needs and academic leanings. Does one school of thought or one style of research predominate? If so, is there anyone else working in the department with a different theoretical framework? Will you have opportunities to work within a variety of theories and orientations? What special opportunities are available? How well are research programs funded? Do the professors have good records at rounding up grants? In field or clinical work, what are the options? Are programs available in your area of interest?

Find the environment that works best for you. Don’t put yourself in a situation in which you don’t have access to the courses or training you’re seeking. It’s your education. Your time. Your energy. Your investment in your future. By being proactive, you can help guarantee that you maximize your graduate school experience.


One of the most important decisions you make in your graduate school career will be your choice of adviser. This one person will help you with course selection as well as clinical, research, or field education opportunities; he can make or break the thesis/dissertation process. So when you investigate a department, look for a faculty member whose interests and personality are compatible with yours. Since this single person (your “dream adviser”) may not be available, be sure to look for a couple of other professors with whom you might be able to work.

If one of your prime motivations in attending a certain program is to take classes from specific professors, make sure you’ll have that opportunity. At the master’s level, access to prominent professors is often limited to large, foundation-level lecture courses, where papers and exams are graded by the professor’s graduate assistants or tutors. At the doctoral level, professors are generally much more accessible.

Is the department stable or changing? Find out whether the faculty is nearing retirement age. Impending retirements may not affect you in a two-year master’s program, but this is a serious consideration in doctoral programs, which can (and often do) stretch on for over five years. If you have hopes of working with a distinguished professor, will she even be available for that time—or longer, if you get delayed? Will the department be large and stable enough to allow you to put together a good thesis or dissertation committee? Also, try to find out whether younger members of the department are established. Do they get sufficient funding? Have they settled in to the institution enough that there are not likely to be political controversies?


Although some people attend graduate school for the love of knowledge, most want to enhance their career prospects in some way. When you graduate with your hard-won degree, what are your chances of getting your desired job?

You’ll want to ask what kind of track record a given program has in placing its alumni. With a highly competitive job market, it’s especially important to find out when and where graduates have found work. If you’re considering work in business, industry, local agencies, schools, health care facilities, or the government, find out whether these employers visit the campus to recruit. Major industries may visit science programs to interview prospective graduates. Some will even employ graduate students over the summer or part-time. If you’re going into academia, find out whether recent grads have been able to find academic posts, how long the search took, and where they’re working. Are they getting tenure-track positions, or are they shifting from temporary appointment to temporary appointment with little hope of finding a stable position? Don’t just look at the first jobs that a school’s graduates take. Where are they in 5, 10, or even 25 years?

Your career is more like a marathon than a sprint. So take the long view. A strong indicator of a program’s strength is the accomplishments of its alumni.


Some graduate catalogs contain profiles of or statements by current master’s and PhD students. Sometimes this is an informal blurb on a few students—it’s really marketing material—and sometimes it’s a full listing of graduate students. Use this as a resource both to find out what everyone else in the program is up to and to find current students you can interview about the school and the program.

Because much of your learning will come from your classmates, consider the makeup of your class. A school with a geographically, professionally, and ethnically diverse student body will expose you to far more viewpoints than will a school with a more homogeneous group. If you’re an older applicant, ask yourself how you’ll fit in with a predominantly younger group of students. For many, the fit is terrific, but for others, the transition can be tougher. The answer depends on you, but it’s something to consider.

The student body, as well as the faculty, will have varied philosophical and political orientations. The theories and perspectives considered liberal in one program can be deemed conservative in another, and where you fit among your peers can have a lot of influence on your image and your opportunities. If you plan on an academic career, remember that your student colleagues will someday likely be your professional colleagues.


Forging relationships—with your classmates, your professors, and, in a larger sense, all the alumni—is a big part of the graduate school experience. One of the things you’ll take with you when you graduate, aside from an education, a diploma, and debt, is that network. And whether you thrive on networking or tend to shy away from it, it’s a necessity. At some point it may help you advance your career, in academia or outside.


Your graduate school experience will extend far beyond your classroom learning, particularly for full-time students. That’s why it’s so important to find out as much as you can about the schools that interest you. For example, what activities would you like to participate in? Perhaps convenient recreational facilities or an intramural sports program is appealing. If you’d like to be involved in community activities, perhaps there’s a school volunteer organization. Regardless of your interests, your ability to maintain balance in your life in the face of a rigorous academic challenge will help you keep a healthy outlook.

Housing is another quality-of-life issue to consider. Is campus housing available? Is off-campus housing convenient? Is it affordable? Where do most of the students live?

Quality of life is another important consideration for significant others, especially if your school choice requires a move to a new city. When graduate school takes over your life, your partner may feel left out. Find out what kind of groups and activities there are for families and partners. For example, are there any services to help your spouse find employment? Is child care available? What sort of public transportation is available?


In a full-time program, you can focus your energy on your studies to maximize your learning. You’re also likely to meet more people and forge closer relationships with your classmates. Many programs are oriented toward the full-time student, and many top-tier programs don’t offer part-time options. A part-time schedule may also make it difficult for you to take classes with the best professors.

There are, however, many compelling reasons for attending part-time. It may not be economically feasible for you to attend full-time. Or you may wish to continue gaining professional experience while earning the degree that will allow you to move on to the next level. If there’s a possibility that you’ll have to work while you’re in school, particularly while you’re in the coursework stage, check out the flexibility of any program that interests you. Are there night or weekend classes? When is the library open? What about the lab? Talk to students currently in the program, especially those who work. Part-time programs often take a long time to complete, which can be discouraging, especially when licensure or salary increases are at stake. However, there are some programs, especially master's programs, that are specifically designed for part-time students (for example, many business school and physical therapy programs). In such programs, classes can be taken on weekends or specific nights of the week. It can be worth seeking out these sorts of options.

Although many students in full-time graduate programs support themselves with part-time work, their primary allegiance is to the graduate program. Many students who must work during graduate school are employed by their schools. This is an option worth exploring. Since graduate studies tend to become the focus of your life, if you can manage full-time or nearly full-time studies at the higher levels, do it. You can graduate earlier and start picking up the financial pieces that much sooner—often with a more secure base for your job search in the form of good support from your adviser.

Most master’s programs are flexible about part-time studies, but doctoral programs are less so. Many doctoral programs expect a minimum amount of time “in residence”—that is, enrolled as a full-time student for a certain number of consecutive semesters. This requirement is usually listed in the catalog.


Some graduate programs charge per credit or per hour, meaning that your tuition bill is calculated by the number of credits you take each semester. Other programs charge per semester or per year with a minimum and maximum number of credits you can take per semester for that flat fee. In general, per-credit tuition makes sense for part-time students, while per-semester tuition makes sense for full-time students. Generally speaking, the most expensive kind of graduate program (per semester) will be a master’s degree at a private school. Loans are available to master’s-level students, but grants, scholarships, and other forms of “free” financial assistance are harder to find. Furthermore, most private schools apply the same tuition rate to in-state and out-of-state residents. State colleges and universities usually give in-state residents a tuition break. Other forms of savings can come from finding the cheapest living and housing expenses and from working your way through the program as quickly as possible.

At the doctoral level, tuition remission (you don’t pay any of it) and grants or stipends (they pay you) are common. Percentages of doctoral students in a program receiving full tuition remission plus stipend/grant money can range anywhere from 0 percent to 100 percent—every student in the program pays no tuition and receives some grant or stipend. In these programs, the major financial burden will be your living expenses over the years of coursework, language requirements, qualifying and field exams, research, and the dissertation.

Where You Can Get In

Once you’ve developed a list of schools that meet your needs, take an objective look at your chances of getting into them.

A good way to get a sense of how graduate schools will perceive you is to make up a fact sheet with your GRE scores (or projected scores), your overall grade point average (GPA), your GPA in your major, and your work experience. Outside activities and your personal statement will contribute to the overall “score” that admissions officers will use to evaluate you, but let’s stick with the raw data for now.

The next step is to find a current source of information about graduate school programs. There are several guides published every year that provide data about acceptance rates for given years, as well as median GPA and GRE scores. You can also request this information directly from a given department. The school of your dreams may not care very much about your GPA, but it might be very interested in your GRE scores. Make sure you find out what your target school prioritizes in its search for worthy applicants.

One of the best ways to gauge whether you’re in contention for a certain program is to compare your numbers to theirs. And remember that you needn’t hit the nail on the head. Median is similar to average, so some applicants do better or worse than the GRE scores or GPA cited. And remember all the other factors that add up to make you a desirable applicant. Comparing numbers is merely a good way to get a preliminary estimate of your compatibility with the schools of your choice.


Once you have some idea of where you fall in the applicant pool, you can begin to make decisions about your application strategy. No matter what your circumstances, it’s wise to choose at least one school that is likely to accept you, a “safety” school. Make sure it’s one that fits your academic goals and your economic circumstances. If your GRE scores and GPA are well above a school’s median scores and you don’t anticipate any problems with other parts of your record or application, you’ve probably found your safety school.


If your ideal program is one that you don’t seem qualified for, apply to your “dream school” anyway. You may be surprised! GPA and GRE scores aren’t the only criteria by which applicants are judged, and you may discover that you’re admitted in spite of your academic background on the merits of your personal statement, work samples, or other criteria. It’s always worth a try. Some people underestimate their potential and apply only to safety schools. This can often lead to disappointment when they end up at one of these schools and discover that it doesn’t provide the rigorous training they want.

When to Apply

With the number of graduate school applications received by institutions of higher learning on the rise, the issue of when to apply for admission has become very important. There are perfect times to begin and end the application process. You should begin at least a year before you plan to enter school (sooner if you’re a nontraditional candidate or are changing fields). Find out the following essential dates as early as possible and incorporate them into your own personal application schedule:

·        standardized test registration deadlines

·        transcript deadlines (some schools send out transcripts only on particular dates)

·        letters-of-recommendation due dates

·        application deadlines (submit your application as early as possible to ensure that you get a fair and comprehensive review)

·        financial aid forms deadlines (federal/state programs, universities, and independent sources of aid all have definite deadlines)


We’ve organized the following “seasonal” schedule to help you understand how to proceed through the admissions process.

Winter (18–20 months prior to start date)

·        If you’re a nontraditional applicant or plan to switch fields, begin investigating program requirements. Take courses to make up any missing portion of your background.

Spring (16–18 months prior to start date)

·        Browse through program catalogs and collect information on different grants and loans. Create your own graduate school library.


·        Request applications from schools. If they’re not available yet, ask for last year’s so you can get a feel for the questions you’ll have to answer.

·        Write a draft of your personal statement and show it to trusted friends and/or colleagues for feedback.

·        Consider registering for the GRE in the fall. This will give you plenty of time to submit your scores with your application.

·        Research your options for test preparation. Take the test included in this book to give you a good idea of where you stand with regard to the GRE.

Early Fall

·        Ask for recommendations. Make sure that your recommenders know enough about you to write a meaningful letter. Ask them first if they would be willing to write you recommendations and then ask how much lead time they would need. Once your recommenders have agreed to write recommendations, make sure to give them clear deadlines so you can avoid any timing conflicts.

Late Fall

·        Take the GRE.

·        Request applications from schools, if you haven’t already done so.

·        Request institutional, state, and federal financial aid materials from school aid offices.

·        Request information on independent grants and loans.

·        Order transcripts from your undergraduate (and any graduate) institution(s).

·        Follow up with your recommenders, sending a thank-you note to those who have sent their recommendations in already.


·        Fill out applications. Mail them as early as possible.

·        Fill out financial aid applications. Mail these early as well.

·        Make sure your recommendation writers have the appropriate forms and directions for mailing. Remind them of deadline dates.


·        Sit back and relax (if you can). Most schools indicate how long it will take to inform you of their decision. This is also a crucial time to solidify your financial plans as you begin to receive offers of aid (with any luck).

The timing described here is approximate, and you needn’t follow it exactly. The most important thing for you to do is make yourself aware of strict deadlines well in advance so that you’ll be able to devote plenty of quality time to your application. In the next chapter, we’ll go over the application process in detail.