Figuring out what schools to apply to can be tricky. In most cases, there are a ton of options. It’s almost better (sometimes) if there exists only a small number of programs that would fit your needs and interests. Applying to only a handful of what most likely are highly competitive programs can be risky; however, I’ve seen it work for a number of our scholars. Even if you have lots of options for schools to apply to, the trick is to establish meaningful contact with as many individuals at that school as possible. I’ll come back to this key point in a moment.
Any way you slice it, you need to be these things:
- open-minded and proactive
- searcher of opportunity willing to look beyond the usual places
- positive and receptive to feedback and suggestion
- expressive of your interests, needs and strengths
- respectful and appreciative
Here are baseline scenarios of scholars finding awesome programs that I’ve personally witnessed play out over the years:
- Scholar starts out on Peterson’s or gradschools.com and conducts an exhaustive search of every program out there that can possibly fit their interests; they check out faculty bios and then get invited to a slue of interviews and open houses in which they can scope things out as well as sell themselves to the right people
- Scholar checks out the major search engines, but mostly searches the literature and reads articles by people (some of whom are professors) doing the kind of work they would like to do; then they check out where the primary author is based and then apply to that program; their faculty mentor also mentions a couple different colleagues that they should explore and ends up “putting in a good word for them” via not only their recommendation letter, but by personal phone call
- Scholar starts out totally set on a particular type of graduate program only to find that after looking at a pretty significant number of websites (and maybe even emailing or talking to some prospective faculty advisors), they don’t like the “feel” of things; then they freak out (just for a bit) and talk to more faculty and mentor-type folks about alternative avenues for achieving their goals; then they realize that there is this whole other set of programs that can make them happy
- Scholar scopes out programs but doesn’t love any they are finding; then they present at a conference in their discipline and meet some “cool folks” from some school that they vaguely checked out only to have their application moved to the “top of the pile” because they hit it off with the “right people” at the “right time”
- Scholar approaches finding the right program just like a business endeavor, making extensive lists of options and contacting as many people as possible to discuss the possibility of them gaining admission to their program (mostly informational phone appointments and sometimes Skype); scholar ends up learning about a newer faculty member just getting established at an institution they didn’t even know about, and couldn’t really, since they weren’t even listed on the website yet; turns out that this professor is doing the exact kind of work that the scholar wants to do
- Scholar establishes a geographical limit on where they are willing to move (based on family, spouse, etc.) and then looks at every school within that area to see whether they have a program; if they do, they apply and it usually works out because their energy is more solely focused than it would be with nationwide possibilities being considered
- Scholar finds a “reach” school that they absolutely love and gets accepted into a Summer Research Opportunity program there the summer before they apply; they end up hitting it off with their future mentor, have a great research experience and pretty much get selected because they were able to actually demonstrate their potential as a future researcher and Ph.D. student in person during that entire summer
My best advice? Keep an open mind and put yourself out there as much as possible. Don’t be afraid to email faculty and have conversations with them on the phone (they are just people after all). Visit as many schools as you can – both to “sell yourself” and to get a really good “feel” for the people and place. This process is just as much about you “being sold” on a certain program, people and place.
As you search the web and email faculty, be open to recommendations you might receive and/or ideas you might glean from one program’s website that leads you to another. Sometimes this kind of searching can open up new options in related disciplines – sometimes a particular kind of program can be housed in a certain department or school in one place and in a totally different area in another. Being mindful of these different possibilities can lead to what will be the best fit for you.
If you know you are giving it ample energy and attention, add some faith to the mix and you’ll be set. Thinking of the grad school search as a maze of sorts or something along the lines of the Amazing Race (going from one clue to the next) can be useful. Know that you’ll end up at a good number of roadblocks and no-go’s as you maneuver your way through, but if you keep moving forward with an open mind, you’ll find your way. You might even find your way to a school that you never before thought you would even consider!
And what about applying to programs that might feel “beyond your reach?” Well, it goes back to establishing meaningful contact whether it’s via phone, Skype or in person. The more you have, the better your chances of admission. Of course you’ll put together the best application you can, but connecting with prospective mentors as well as other faculty who may be involved in the selection process can really make it happen. Someone who is particularly strong on paper still may beat you out for a funded spot, but at least you raised your chances of being considered along with this “super duper” applicant on a more leveled playing field. Beyond your credentials, by having made contact, faculty can reference your “likeability” and their “feel” for your outlook and orientation on life – this is often the stuff that really matters and can get you to where you really need to be.