Deciding to go to graduate school is a big commitment. It’s a decision that requires energy, financial resources, responsibility and commitment.
That being said, if it’s something you’ve thought long and hard about and truly want to see through, a few questions are bound to have popped up. Questions like how many grad schools should I apply to?
So how many graduate schools should I apply to, you ask? If we’re being honest, there’s no clear-cut answer.
On average, grad school students apply to anywhere from three to eight schools. Yet, how many master’s programs you should apply to will vary according to your personal circumstances.
The rule of thumb is that you should only apply to graduate schools where you can dedicate the time needed to make your application stand out. Better 3 outstanding applications than 10 mediocre ones that get passed over.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s go over the deciding factors to help you determine how many graduate schools you should be applying to.
Divide and Conquer
While it can be tempting to apply to as many grad schools as possible to increase your chances of acceptance, this spray and pray method is actually hindering your prospects.
Because your applications will come across as generic and one size fits all. Instead of spamming every admissions office in the country, take a deep breath and write down a list of schools offering the master’s programs you’re interested in.
Divide them into three categories:
Dream schools: This category represents your top choices, the schools you’d love to attend but are not 100% sure of your chances of getting in because they’re prestigious and competitive.
Target schools: This category is for schools where your test scores or GRE are close to the median. This means you have a higher chance of getting in (compared to your dream school) but your seat is still not guaranteed.
Safety Schools: Also known as backup schools, this category is for grad schools where you know you’re pretty much a shoo-in for the program because your GRE or GPA are well above the average.
We recommend selecting two safety schools that you know you’re going to get into, two target schools where you stand a chance of getting in, and one dream school where your chances of acceptance are realistic.
Do You Meet the Requirements?
So you’ve got a long list of grad schools you’re interested in. Now it’s time to trim the list further by checking out if you meet the entry requirements.
Find out if your school of choice has a rolling basis of admission or if they have strict deadlines. Most master’s programs will have an early deadline (December to January) and a regular deadline (March to April).
Next, check out what you need to back up your application besides the mandatory statement of purpose. You’ll definitely need your official undergrad transcripts, test scores, and depending on the course, a portfolio of your best works.
Some schools expect three letters of recommendation while others are fine with one.
Ensure you can secure the documents needed to complete your application or risk losing your spot to someone who did their due diligence.
Figure Out Your Financials
We’re not saying money should determine the direction of your life goals. But let’s be honest, each application you send out puts a little dent in your bank balance.
This can range from $50 up to $100. That may not seem like much at first, but the more schools you apply to, the higher your cost gets.
Application fees aside, you should also ask yourself if you can afford the tuition and cost of living at the grad school you’re applying to. There’s no point paying hefty application fees only to find out the school is way out of your budget to begin with.
If money is an issue, enquire about the chance of getting a scholarship and check out if they offer financial aid of any sort. The last thing you want is to burden yourself with a huge debt when you graduate.
Pick Program Over Prestige
A lot of us fall into the trap of prestige over relevancy. Sure, an Ivy League brand name will boost your resume, but is the certificate you’re paying for going to work to advance your career or is it going to sit pretty on your mantelpiece?
Decide on the program that’s going to bring you the best bang for your buck. Check out the accreditation of the program and the professors teaching the course. Reach out to former alumni if needed and assess the program’s reputation for job placement after graduation.
Other things to look out for include teacher-to-student ratio, level of involvement required, and the graduation rate — the latter of which acts as a metric to measure the quality of teaching at a school.
Poking around a school’s website should be enough to yield the information needed and schools are usually more than happy to hook you up with recent alumni who can answer your questions.
Whether you choose to go to grad school in the Big Apple or somewhere more rural, location is going to be an important factor in deciding which schools you choose.
You are going to be dedicating two years of your life to the program and by proxy, the place. Are you comfortable in an urban environment full of cultural activities or do you prefer someplace more homely where everyone knows your name?
Another oft overlooked issue is the weather. Is it summer all year round or do you need to have four seasons?
If your school of choice is out of state, try to make a day trip to get a feel for the place. You don’t want to show up on orientation day and find out you loathe everything about the area. And with campus crime on the rise, you should check what safety measures campuses have done to make their student body feel safe.
The Bottom Line
While we’ve listed the criterion by which you should pick a grad school, we’ve not spelled out the exact number of grad schools you should apply to.
That’s because the decision boils down to you and only you.
Your final decision of how many grad schools you should apply to will depend on your chosen field, budget, education background, and other preferences.
We will say as a general guideline you should aim to apply to at least four to six grad schools that you qualify for following the benchmarks set above.
If all your choices are competitive, then be sure to add two more schools in the mix to play it safe.
The application process can be stressful, but take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone in your journey to ticking that goal off your bucket list. Good luck!