How To Organize Your Graduate School Search

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Applying to graduate programs can be time consuming and expensive, so it might not be feasible to apply to every program that interests you.

Yet, with so many options for graduate study, it can be difficult to narrow down your options.

The following are some strategies for your hunt for the perfect graduate program!

As an undergraduate preparing to enter my fourth and final year, this summer is a good time for me to narrow down graduate school options.

Getting organized

If you are comparing several programs, summarize the key information about each program and keep it in a central location.  In a chart on my computer, I record the following information about each program:

  • university and program
  • location (which can have implications for funding options whether you stay home or go abroad)
  • type of program (e.g., coursework, major research paper, thesis)
  • duration of the program
  • application deadline
  • costs (including tuition, living expenses and other fees)
  • admission requirements (e.g., minimum GPA, undergraduate courses, etc.)
  • required application materials (including the number of reference letters, writing samples, research statement, CV, completion of standardized tests, etc.)
  • additional notes (e.g., faculty supervisors in the department, co-op options, etc.)
  • useful links to admission requirements, fees, etc. (since some of the websites can be difficult to navigate!)

Rank the programs

With all of this information in one place, I can more easily rank the programs.  For example, I can look under the “admission requirements” column of my chart and eliminate programs that require extensive professional experience in the field; I add these to the chart, though, so that I can keep them in mind for the future.  The chart also allows me to compare the costs of the programs more easily.

Reorganize the chart by deadline

Once you narrow down your options (based on the criteria that are most important to you), you can reorganize the chart by deadline so that you can start by working on applications that are due first.  When asking for references, you can refer to the “application materials” column to see how many references you need and from whom.

It is also worth checking the programs’ websites again to make sure that deadlines or other important information has not changed.  Over a year ago I bookmarked the website of a program to which I wanted to apply but, when I revisited the site a few months ago, I discovered that the program no longer exists!

A similar chart can help you organize your funding options.  You might include some similar columns (such as deadline) and some other information, such as eligibility requirements and the value of the award/scholarship/grant.

Planning ahead

Register for required courses

As an undergraduate preparing to enter my fourth and final year, this summer is a good time for me to narrow down graduate school options.  This is because I can register for courses like economics that are required for some of the graduate programs that interest me.  By planning ahead, I can take these courses during my fourth year, rather than competing a fifth or qualifying year before entering a graduate program.

Contact admissions to clarify requirements

By looking early, you can also email a graduate admissions officer to see what you really need to be considered for a program.

For example, one program I am considering requires that applicants have taken several senior-level political science courses.  I am completing an interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree but, when I sent them my transcript, they realized that my human rights courses would be sufficient because of how heavily they draw on political science.

Use different search strategies

Starting your search early will also leave you some extra time to search for programs in a few ways.  For example, I searched for programs by discipline, university, and department.

When I searched by university, I found a program offered through a policy and social work department that I had originally overlooked because my discipline-specific search had been too narrow; I never thought that policy or social work would be me primary field of interest, but the specific program really interested me.  In other words, although you’re trying to narrow down your options, you don’t want to do so unnecessarily.

Grad school resources

  • TalentEgg:TalentEgg’s Education section has information about and links to graduate schools and programs. More schools and programs are added every day. (Tip: Click “Show More Search Options” to browse more than just the featured schools.)
  • Departmental websites: Your current department’s website might have links to related graduate programs, such as on my department’s website.  If you’re not currently enrolled at a university or just want to investigate more options, you can check other university’s websites for similar lists of related graduate programs.
  • Career services: Universities should have resources to help you with your search for graduate programs.  For example, Wilfrid Laurier University’s Career Services provides a page of links to helpful resources.  Professional staff can help you find programs that interest you and review your application materials.  Your university likely offers workshops about preparing funding applications; you should inquire about these early, because they often happen in the fall.
  • Writing centres: Some writing centres will help you review your personal statement, writing samples, and funding applications.  They might also be able to direct you to writing research and resources.
  • Graduate studies departments: Even if you’re not applying to a master’s program at your current institution, your graduate studies department likely provides support with things like funding applications.
  • If you’re interested in Canadian university programs, you can use the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada’sdatabase.
Photo credit: recommendation packs by Julia on Flickr
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About the author

Elizabeth Baisley is currently studying for an Master of Arts in Political Studies at Queen's University, where she works as a teaching assistant. She recently completed her Honours Bachelor of Arts in Human Rights & Human Diversity at Wilfrid Laurier University's Brantford campus. Elizabeth's academic interest in the rights of marginalized populations translates into her volunteer work and extracurricular involvement in the fields of rights advocacy, immigrant settlement, literacy, health, environmental issues, and local democracy. In September 2013, she will begin her PhD in Politics at Princeton University.