By Deborah Vieyra
The decision of which graduate schools to apply to can feel completely overwhelming. With all the available options out there, how many schools should you be reaching out to? Do your chances really increase with the number of schools you apply to? Perhaps most importantly, how do you decide which schools you should be focusing your energies on?
There is no easy answer to these questions, and different applicants will have different sets of personal circumstances that propel their application strategy forward. Having said that, there are various guidelines that can be useful for anyone looking to approach their graduate school application process from an informed perspective.
Let’s take a closer look.
On average, prospective students apply to anywhere from three to eight schools. While it may be tempting to apply to as many schools as possible to increase your chances of success, this should not be done with abandon. It’s important to remember that each application costs money. There’s the application fee to consider, the transcripts that you have to get for each school, the supplementary materials that you may have to supply. Not only does each application cost money, but time as well. Not all schools have the same set of requirements. Tailoring your application to the unique specifications of each option can feel like a full time job.
Don’t worry — you’re not alone in this. Many students are in the same boat. I’m going to take you through some considerations that will help you construct a game plan on how to tackle this process effectively.
Follow the money
Many schools offer full funding for certain programs, especially at the PhD level. Consider these above all others. The last thing you want to burden yourself with is a huge debt when you finish your program. Other funding sources to research at your prospective schools include internal graduate research funding, teaching assistantships, merit scholarships for top applicants and financial aid. It is also worth exploring whether the programs you are applying to are eligible for external fellowships.
Approach your research on funding options at the schools you are looking at in the same way you would approach academic research — don’t make assumptions. Get in touch with the relevant departments as well as with the administration of the schools you are interested in. There might be funding sources hiding below the surface that are perfect for you.
Opt for relevance over prestige
Of course, having an Ivy League school on your resume looks impressive, but this should never be the sole reason to apply to a school. Remember that your graduate school experience is going to shape your career going forward. Ensure that you find a program that will serve you and your specific interests best. In addition, the level of competition is far higher at certain schools than at others. If you choose to only apply to schools where the odds are stacked against you, you might land up having to postpone your graduate school plans.
Don’t spread yourself too thin
If you decide to apply to every possible option out of fear that you won’t get accepted at your top choices, you may land up submitting applications that do not truly reflect what you are capable of. Each application takes a lot of time and effort and if you spread your efforts too thinly, the quality of each submission may suffer. Make strategic decisions. Apply only to programs that you would really like to attend.
Good luck! The application process if often fraught with serious anxiety for many, and waiting times can feel eternal. Take solace in the fact that there are many prospective students in the same boat as you — and then do your research properly. Apply only to programs that feel like the right fit for you.
Deborah Vieyra is a Fulbright alumna from South Africa who completed her MA in Applied Theatre Arts at the University of Southern California. She now works as a writer, proofreader and performer in Vancouver, Canada.
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