Grad School Application Checklist: 4 Months Out

Make sure family pressure or word of mouth aren’t driving your decisions on where to apply.

By + More

This is the ninth installment of our series on what you should be doing in advance of submitting your graduate school applications. Four months before applying, it's finally time to decide where you are going to apply.

As a dean of students at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and at Teachers College, Columbia University, I regularly held open office hours. Many times, students came to see me who were very unhappy about their student experience. Nine times out of 10, they had not done their due diligence before applying, and as a result, had chosen to attend Booth or Teachers College for all the wrong reasons (family pressure, prestige, or word of mouth).

In most cases, they could have made a better choice if they had simply taken some time to decide what really mattered for them as graduate students, and which program genuinely met those criteria.

[Learn why these graduate students picked their schools.]

If I had to choose which month on my 12-month checklist is the most critical, it would be this one. This is where the rubber meets the road.

Here are some tips for deciding where you will submit applications.

1. Review what is most important to you as a graduate student: Across the top of your spreadsheet are the criteria you consider most important in your decision to attend graduate school. Take another look at these, and decide which two or three are most important.

For instance, is it the learning style (i.e., case study method versus lecture)? Location and facilities? The size of the student body? The strength of the alumni network?

[Don't fall for these grad school myths.]

2. Determine how your options rate for each of your criteria: Take a close look at your research spreadsheet. Which of your options have the highest evaluations, based on all of your research, campus visits, students and alumni with whom you spoke, and admissions presentations you attended?

If you have been doing your homework, you will already have an idea of which programs have made a stronger and more positive impression on you.

3. Remember that this is your decision: While others may have valuable input, this is your education, time, money, and life. There is no right or wrong answer about where you decide to attend graduate school. You should be making decisions based on what is right for you.

Obviously, there is no limit to the number of schools to which you can apply. But remember that you will need time to complete the applications. You need to know how many you can tackle and do a good job on each one. In my experience, most prospective students choose to apply to between five and eight programs.

[Get tips on paying for graduate school.]

Be careful about applying to only one institution. If you are absolutely certain that this is the only option, be absolutely sure to prepare yourself for whatever decision you receive.

It is also important for you to keep all of the information you have gathered on all of your options until you have made a decision about where to attend and have actually enrolled there. Should plans change in some way and you decide to hold off on your graduate studies for another year or longer, or if you decide to leave the institution at which you enrolled, you will not be starting from scratch when you resume the search process.