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The ultimate guide to applying to a graduate program: Part 4. Choosing schools and organizing info

so it begins

You decided to apply to a graduate program in the US. Congratulations! This is an important step. You then start looking for information. Website after website, it all blends together.

Admissions, academics, funding, programs, requirements, test scores, transcripts, contacts, ratings, reviews, applications, acceptance rates, financial aid, deadlines, fees…


hide pain harold

Alright, alright, that was actually me (if you don’t know this meme, google Hide the Pain Harold).

The problem with information search is twofold:

  1. Information overload (too many things to consider)
  2. Every university presents information in different ways 

And let’s put the icing on the cake: relevant information is often hidden, vague, or not mentioned at all unless you directly contact the university.

If you want to stay sane, you need a system to organize all this, and I’d like to share how I did it so that you can go from Harold to this (yes I love memes):

happy face

But first, let’s talk about choosing your program.

How to choose your program or area of study

Choosing a program (or programs) of interest is a great first step to filter out schools that won’t be a good fit. It’s one of those non-negotiable aspects that determine whether each particular school of interest should stay on your list or be eliminated. You don’t have to choose a specific program right off the bat - an area of interest will suffice.

Making this choice is highly personal, so any advice I can give here is very limited. That said, try to keep in mind the following when making this decision.

  1. Whatever you choose will be a major part of your daily life for the next 4-6 years. It’s basically picking a job. You will think about this area a lot, do research, probably teach it. Would you be able to do it with an area you don’t like that much? Even if you do, this will burn you out. Whatever pragmatic motives you have in mind, don’t subscribe to years of doing something you don’t love. It’s very likely to backfire.
  2. Your area of choice can be related to your current degree but it doesn’t have to be. Just make sure to check if schools will accept you if you come from a different program. I’ve seen programs that explicitly state the requirement of having a prior degree in the same area; others accept students from a variety of backgrounds. While it might be unreasonable to switch from Literature to Mechanical Engineering (unless you know the stuff), transitions within the fields (e. g., Social Science and STEM) might be smooth and beneficial.

I got my Bachelor’s in Linguistics and Cross-Cultural Communication but my passion was teaching. While I looked into some linguistics programs, all of them were too theory-focused, so I lookrf for educational programs instead. I considered other fields of study but none of them appealed to me. This narrowed down the search to a great extent.

How to choose your graduate school(s)

While there is no right or wrong way to approach this task, it can be simplified by focusing on a few essential criteria and using effective organizing techniques. In other words, you want to:

  • Eliminate the options that absolutely don’t fit
  • Create a list of viable options for later consideration

In essence, the main task at this stage is to filter out as many options as you can. How do you do this? 

Think about a criterion that absolutely, a hundred percent has to be met in order for you to consider a school. The first obvious candidate is probably the program (area) you are interested in. Do you have any other in mind? For me, it was funding. I couldn’t afford studying in the US unless the cost was covered AND I got a monthly stipend. Furthermore, funding had to be provided for the entirety of the program. My third criterion was the university position in school ratings - I was looking for anything within the first 200 positions on the ranking list. The rest didn’t matter that much.

You might have completely different criteria. Whatever they are, focus on them when creating the initial list of candidates. Here are some factors you might want to consider.

(1) Does the university have your program (area) of interest?
(Duh, Irina, how much more obvious can you get? True - but I gotta mention it!)

(2) Does the school/program offer full funding?
I would recommend looking for programs with full funding only. After all, it’s several years of full-time work (unless you go part-time) - your earning capabilities might be limited. Most doctoral programs have full funding opportunities. Most Master’s programs don't. 

(3) What is the universituy acceptance rate?
Acceptance rate = the percentage of applicants who get in. The stricter the selection process, the lower the rate. Top-rank schools tend to have very low acceptance rates (5-10%). However, this number should be considered in relation to the size of the pool of applicants. Let’s look at the example below.

acceptance rate

At first glance, Harvard’s acceptance rate is much smaller, right? The percentages may discourage you from even trying to apply there. Before we jump to conclusions, let’s use some basic math to look at the actual numbers behind the percentages. How many students do get in?

We’ll use this formula:

N of applicants * (acceptance rate/100)

Harvard university: 37307 * 0.057 = 2126 students get in
Colorado college: 8060 * 0.171 = 1378 students get in


Yep, due to a larger total student population (around 30 thousand) and a larger applicant pool (around 37 thousand), Harvard accepts more students than Colorado (which has a population of around 2000 students and 8000 applicants). 

Of course, Harvard selection is stricter and comparing a small Liberal Arts college and a big university is not a very good idea in the first place, but you get the point. Acceptance rate gives you a good first impression but it should always be viewed in relation to the general student population and the applicant pool.

I was looking for schools with a more realistic acceptance rate but not too high - something in the middle. However, don’t be afraid to apply to schools with low acceptance rate. If you feel that your application is strong enough, go for it. After all, it is just another number.

(4) What is the university rank?
Now that’s a tricky one. On the one hand, it provides a quick glance at university prestige. On the other hand, prestige doesn’t guarantee a great education and a good fit, and these rankings are calculated using a variety of metrics that might have nothing to do with the quality of education and student life. Such rankings tend to consider things like academic reputation, employment rate after graduation, the number of faculty publications, and so on. A lot of them are geared toward undergraduate programs. If prestige matters, then this could be a great metric to use. If not, I would still put this info on your list just in case but wouldn’t worry about it too much.

What are some good places to look for this information?

You’ll find different university rankings. They might use slightly different criteria but tend to have a lot in common and generally yield similar results. So pick whatever ranking you like best and go with it. You can search them by using these key words:

  • USA university ranking
  • USA best colleges ranking
  • World college ranking
  • World university ranking

The best two websites I found were:

(1) CollegeStartClass: sort the list by ClassStart rank
(2) Niche: Best colleges in America

Keep in mind that a lot of this info is more applicable to undergraduate degrees.

(5) What is the graduate program rank?
If your priority is the quality of graduate programs in particular, you want to look up graduate program rankings. Here are some helpful websites:

(6) What specific professors and/or topics of research would you like to work with?
If you have a very specific research interest or are interested in working with specific professors, the best starting point would be this information. Find out where they work or what schools focus on the topic. 

Let’s say I am interested in the topic of self-regulated learning. I will start with Google Scholar and search articles using this key phrase. I keep seeing the name of Dr. Schunk, and his articles resonate with me. Some further search reveals that he works at UNC Greensboro (North Carolina). My next goal will be to determine if he accepts graduate students - I can email him directly or contact the program. Meanwhile, I will look at other criteria to determine if this university is a good fit.

I could also search info online about schools with a specific focus in my area of interest, although this information might be hard to come by because such focus might not be clearly articulated and stated online. 

(7) (For international students) What is the percentage of international students in that school? 
This one might seem not very relevant, but some universities accept more international students than others. While the reasons for that might be more pragmatic than the stated values of diversity, it might be a bit easier to get into those schools as a foreigner. It also means a higher chance of finding a community that can ease your homesickness. Take my words with a grain of salt because it’s just my speculations.

(8) What's the university's location?
This was a factor on my list due to personal reasons. While it might not seem a deciding factor, it can be quite important. Do you care about climate? Crime rates? COL (cost of living)? Rural vs. urban area? Nature and opportunities to go hiking? The size and population of the area?.. Even if you don’t care too much, it’s a good idea to check this info later when you make a decision.

The best and simplest way to organize search results

Now that you know the main criteria of your search, it’s time to organize the results. To do so, I suggest using a spreadsheet template with the following fields:

It’s a simple but effective solution to avoid brain explosion when you start your search process. While you may change the categories in the template as you see fit, it provides a great overview of any program. Feel free to download and use it.

Here’s what I ended up with back then (link to document):

As you can see, there was a lot of incomplete information - some of the fields I completed later on, some were left blank until the end. I used different colors to indicate when a school/program deviated from my criteria or aligned with them well. This file is not perfect but it helped me organize tons of information in a very efficient format, and later on I didn’t have to search for smaller details as they were all in one place.

I hope that this approach can help alleviate some stress as you are searching for your graduate programs. Don’t give up, you got this!

An extra tip: use the power of Reddit

University websites are, of course, the main source of information, but they are not exhaustive - especially when it comes to questions about cost of living, safety and climate of the area, etc. Sometimes you need to talk to people who have first-hand experience. To that end, Reddit is the best platform ever! It spans thousands of communities where people share their advice. 

For example, let's say you are applying to the Ohio State University and you want to know the typical cost of living in the area. You can search "The Ohio State University cost of living reddit" and find something like this:

reddit example search
Inside you will find a lot of useful answers.

Alternatively, you can search for communities specifically geared toward your school/area of choice. Visit Reddit to find the communities you are interested in.

Next up: Advice for international students: email etiquette in the US and effective communication with school officials.

Other posts of the series: