While most people recommend applying to 4-6 graduate programs, I completely disagree. In my opinion, the magic number is 9.
Grad schools are competitive, and if you don’t get accepted to any, by the time you find out, you will probably have missed the application deadline for most programs.
That means you have to sit-out for an entire year. So, only applying to 4 programs is taking a huge risk.
How Many Grad Schools Should I Apply To?
The number 9 that I recommend is broken down into 3 categories: dream schools, fair-shot schools, and sure-thing schools.
1. Dream Schools
Of course, the 3 dream schools are the ones that you would really like to go to, but maybe don’t have the typical qualifications for admittance.
Maybe your GRE, MSAT, or LSAT scores are not quite high enough, but you shine in other areas, such as being involved in research at the undergraduate level or perhaps you have participated in a couple of impressive internships.
However, let’s be clear, a dream school is not a school that you have no shot at. It is a school that has high standards, has everything that you want, but that you can still be admitted to if everything works in your favor.
Don’t even bother applying to Harvard unless you can meet their requirements. That will be a complete waste of time and energy.
2. Fair-Shot Schools
As the name implies, these are schools that you have a very good chance of getting into, but they’re just not on the top of your list.
They are good programs, maybe not Ivy league, but still very reputable. There are a lot of very good programs that are not Ivy league.
So, do the necessary research on graduate programs and identify at least 3 that have admission requirements that match your record; this means your GPA and graduate exam scores are in-line with their standards.
3. Sure-Thing Schools
These are the 3 schools that list requirements that you exceed. They are reputable programs but their standards are not in the top tier.
There are a lot of these programs as well. Don’t get me wrong, these are not low-level programs, they just don’t have the reputation of the other schools. You can still get a great education and work with outstanding faculty.
However, don’t just choose 3 schools for the sake of choosing them if you don’t really want to attend. That is also a waste of time and energy. There are a lot of fantastic programs out there that never get mentioned on famous lists from news agencies.
How to Find Graduate Programs
One way of identifying graduate programs that match your interests is by looking at research publications.
Simply go to the library (or online of course) and conduct a search of studies on topics that interest you.
Keep your search to studies that have been published in the last 5 years. Don’t worry, you don’t have to read all of those studies. Take a look at the authors.
In addition to listing the names of the authors, the university those professors are at is also listed, right under their name. There you go. Now you know which schools to examine further.
Ways to Strengthen Your Application
1. Research Experience
The number one thing to keep in mind is that faculty at most universities live and die by their research publication record. Therefore, if an applicant has a lot of experience helping their undergraduate professors conduct research, it carries a lot of weight.
Faculty want grad students that will help them conduct research, which in-turn builds their career. Yes, grades are important, but research experience is much more impressive. A lot of applicants have good grades, but not that many have research experience under the supervision of a professor.
So, how do you get research experience? Start by making a very good impression on your professors. Participate in class. Spend extra time on your papers, then spend more time on your papers before turning them in. Occasionally, talk to your professor after class. Ask a question about something that your found confusing in the book.
At this point, don’t try to impress your professor with what you think are profound insights into an area of study that experts have somehow overlooked in their 20-year research career. There is plenty of time for that later. Right now, you just want to get your foot in the door.
Then one day, ask to schedule a meeting with one of your professors. Don’t do the “pop-in.” Asking to make an appointment is the way to go. At the meeting, express an interest in becoming a research assistant. Of course, there is no pay involved, but the experience will be invaluable.
Let them know that you expect to start at the bottom; you don’t expect to be lead author and you are certainly not there to give your professor some suggestions on what kind of research they should be doing. Showing humility is a good thing.
If the answer is yes, then your good to go. Congratulations. However, if the professor says there are no opportunities, then be gracious and move on. You can try to approach another professor.
2. Letters of Recommendation
Grad schools typically ask for 2 or 3 recommendation letters. Unfortunately, most of those letters all look the same: he’s a good student, she asked good questions in class, etc. etc.
However, if you were fortunate enough to get involved in undergraduate research, this will give your professor something very unique to say in the letter of recommendation.
If your professor can write a paragraph about the research skills you possess and your personal qualities of being responsible, diligent and thorough, those are meaningful statements. Other applicants won’t have those comments in their letters. Again, research experience gives you big advantages.
3. Personal Connections
Yes, sometimes it is who you know. Find out where your undergraduate professors went to grad school.
These are the professors you should try to help with their research. Later, when you are applying to schools, they might be willing to make a call for you. Having a professor call another professor and say “hey, this student is serious and has done a great job on my research team” can be just what you need to take you over the top.
4. Writing Your Personal Statement
You will have to write a personal statement (PS) for each program. A personal statement is a short essay that describes your background, why you would be a good fit for that program, your career objectives, and why you really want to attend that particular program.
These essays tend to all look the same as well. So, you have to make your application stand-out. Remember, the admissions officers and faculty will be reading dozens of these letters, maybe a hundred, so this is your opportunity to make an impression that really sticks in their mind.
I can’t stress enough the importance of having a good PS. Strike that word “good.” Your PS needs to be a lot better than good.
Here is a link on how to write a great PS; and this one from an admissions officer.
5. Research the Programs Thoroughly
Your personal statement should also include a section on why you are so attracted to that program.
This is extremely important and another opportunity for you to stand out. Believe it or not, most personal statements fall short in this area.
Consider adding 1-2 paragraphs about the key features of the program that attract you the most, such as:
- unique aspects of the curriculum
- specifics about research opportunities, facilities and/or equipment
- mention some of the faculty’s research that interest you
- program internship or practicum requirements
- partnerships with off-campus organizations or industry
- guest lectures or visiting professional series
- career services
- even extracurricular and co-curricular activities/events available to students
You don’t have to include all of the above. But you must be specific. General statements like “the program has great connections to the industry” will not help much.
Identify the exact partnerships by using the names of those institutions. This information may be difficult to find, but it will help your application stand-out and shows that your interest in that particular program is genuine.
I have helped hundreds of students write their personal statements. Now, ask me how many of those students actually follow-through on this suggestion.
The bottom line is that you only have one shot to make an impression. If you are applying to really good programs, it will be extremely competitive. Everyone will have good grades.
Everyone will have good letters of recommendation. There may be 300 high-caliber applicants, but the program will only accept 5 or 6. Those are tough odds.
So, spend the extra time working on your application materials like the PS. But more importantly, start 18 months in advance by working with some of your undergrad professors if you can. You can tell how valuable that advice is by the number of times it’s been mentioned here.
Conclusion: What if you don’t get in?
If you don’t get accepted to the program that you want, then try to get a good grasp on why. It could be grades, graduate exam scores, poorly written PS, mundane rec letters, or something else.
But, the good news is that you have a whole other year to build your resume and try again. Get the research experience you need. Take on another major that is related to your prime objective.
Continue working with one professor and/or start with another one. Get some tutoring for the grad exams. Find an internship. If you are determined you can do a lot in a year.
Good luck, and may the cosmos work in your favor.