How to Choose the Right Graduate Program: Narrowing Your Search

Amanda Miller, Heller Admissions Staff

September 10, 2020

Amanda Miller, Assistant Director of AdmissionsNow that Heller’s 2021-2022 Application is officially open, I’d like to take the opportunity to provide a guide to making a list of which graduate schools to apply to. I’ll be covering some similar topics as my previous post, but this series will be aimed at prospective students, taking you from the beginning of your journey right up to the application stage. Make sense? Great, let’s start.

US News and World lists 1,168 institutions offering graduate programs in the US; many of those institutions have more than one graduate school, and within each school, there can be as many as thirty programs within each school. So when you start your search, there are more than 6,000 individual graduate programs to choose from. Narrowing this search is the first step: most admissions professionals will tell you to apply to between 4 to 6 programs per round.

So how do you move from 6,000 to 6? Well, the first order of business is to identify the type of program you want. It’s obvious that if you’re interested in economics, an engineering program isn’t going to be your best bet. But within each field, there can be a lot of variance in the type of degrees offered. You might be interested in an Master’s in Public Administration, but have you looked into a Master’s of Public Policy? Or, if you’re interested in Public Health, have you been limiting your searches to MPH degrees? Programs like Heller’s MS in Global Health Policy and Management might be an equally good fit, or an even better fit.

Research at this phase can be crucial. I recommend working backwards, by searching for degrees held by people in your desired field. There are a few ways to go about this: Identify a few people in your desired field across all stages of their careers, and look into not only where they went to school, but what type of program they were enrolled in. If you have close relationships with these people, you might even reach out to them personally for their recommendations. Or, if you’re currently working in your chosen field, connect with a hiring manager and ask them what types of degrees they typically see, or what trends they’ve noticed for people entering the field at your desired level. US News and World offers a graduate program search tool that can give you a list to start with, once you know the field you’re interested in. GradTrek‘s search tool is also a good place to start. Depending on your answers, this will likely narrow your search to between 20 and 50 programs.

Once you’ve narrowed that down, your next steps are to determine your priorities. At the end of the day, why do you want to go to graduate school? Do you want to form connections? Look for schools with smaller populations, where faculty will have more one-on-one interactions with students, and you’ll be able to form closer bonds with your cohort. Gain new skills? Check if your program has a practicum or internship component. Deepen your theoretical knowledge? Look for schools with course descriptions that match the holes in your current knowledge.

That should yield you a list of about ten. These are the programs that you’ll want to deeply research. We’ll talk about how to do that next week!