How to Choose your Graduate Degree Program

Applying to graduate school is a time consuming and complicated endeavor. The thought of diving back into the search for programs, the gathering of information, taking required tests, to say nothing of the cost, is sometimes discouraging and always frustrating. We need all the help we can get just to get started, know what to do and stay organized.

After you’ve made the decision to return to school you need to find the right program to apply to. This isn’t a short process. If you live in a city with a viable program at your fingertips, that part of the battle is done. If you don’t and you’re looking for something very specific you need to go on the hunt. Because of the limited enrollment of graduate programs, along with limitations on enrollment due the difficult economy, you will need to cover yourself by finding at least three and, if possible, four programs.

Ask yourself what you are specifically looking for in your graduate program. Graduate school is the place to specialize and you will need to be focused on an area of study and research. When you’ve answered that question and are ready to begin your search, keep this criteria in mind for your choices: 1) a highly desirable program that you feel you have slim chance of being accepted to but might as well try; 2) a solid program where you feel more confident of being accepted; 3) one that may not be such a great program, you probably could be accepted, but it’s in a location that will give you other things you may be looking for; and 4) this is one to hopefully cover yourself during an economy when enrollments may be limited.

Of course criteria presupposes that there are that many and more choices of programs that suit what you need. Where do you find them? Sometimes an independent website that has an affiliation to your area of interest will maintain a listing of all graduate programs in a specific field. For instance, if you are looking for PhDs in Theatre the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR) website maintains a listing of all the PhDs in Theatre that exist in the U.S., Canada, Australia/New Zealand and Ireland.

You may or may not be able to find one site that gives you every program but there are sites like and Petersons that will have at least a partial listing from which to work. Maybe one of your academic mentors knows a site that has everything.

Depending on what you’re looking for, ask yourself where you want to spend the next 2, 3 (Masters/MFAs) or in the case of some PhD programs, even 7 years of your life. Location can make or break your educational experience. If you’re not ready to take on a large urban environment then no matter how wonderful the program is you will be unhappy. If you don’t like being stuck in a small town away from the bustle of activity that could become a factor as well. As you’re thinking about location also remember that graduate school is all consuming. Often there isn’t that much time or space to interact with your environment unless it’s a key part of what you need in your program.

As you gather your list of choices you’ll also be calculating the expense of applying. Application fees run anywhere from $50 to over $100 per school. Transcript fees are always going up and it will depend on the individual school. In relation to how many schools you’ve attended times the number of schools to which you’re applying times how many sets they want (some want two sets) the cost of your application process looks staggering. Some of us went in and out of school almost our entire adult life and have to gather transcripts that come from what some people might consider antiquity. Nonetheless, that’s what is requested. When it comes to an applicant’s individual life story there is only a “one size fits all” approach to the requirements for admission.

Remember to factor in the fee to take the Graduate Record Exam. Some Masters/MFA programs don’t require it. Most do. All PhD programs will want it, if for no other reason than the university’s graduate office requires it. Screw your stamina to the sticking place. The GRE is about how well your brain functions under torture. Again, it is a necessary evil and it’s good to get it over with as soon as you possibly can.

Organize yourself in the best way possible for you. When you are juggling the varied requirements for four graduate programs it’s extremely difficult to keep everything straight. You may want to create a spreadsheet with every requirement necessary to each program. You may want to create specific checklists for each program and connect them to large envelopes to place the documentation in. However you accomplish this don’t forget about the deadlines for submission. This is a non negotiable target. Some schools have separate deadlines and applications for financial assistance and teaching assistantships so don’t forget to look at the school’s Financial Aid webpage.

Applications are usually completed online at the school’s website. The application will inform you as to how they want further documentation submitted. Some have the online submission of letters of recommendation, some have specific forms the recommenders must complete and some just want the letters themselves with the other information you’ll send them. This is a very important element for your organization chart or checklist. Every school is different in how they want information submitted. Your recommenders will need every specific detail so they know what to do and what their deadline is.

Your Statement of Purpose is where you tell the graduate committee why you are applying to their program. Some schools have specifics they want you to address in your statement and some don’t. Discuss your area of research and your experience that relates to this interest. Find key points of their program that you are interested in. Highlight experience you bring with you to let them know you have something to add to their program. Discuss your plans after the completion of your degree. Your skills as a writer should tie all these elements together with some sort of throughline. Again, this is Statement of Purpose times three or four. Begin making notes as to what to include as soon as you possibly can.

A graduate degree is a high level credential. With the pursuit of anything so valuable comes a great amount of work not only to obtain the degree but also to obtain admission to the degree program. Try not to become so frustrated with your application process that you lose heart. Once you get all the documentation in you can relax knowing you’ve prepared significantly for your future.