Benjamin Sawyer is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Michigan State University and Development Editor for GradHacker.  You can follow him on twitter at @ben_sawyer.
After taking into account the costs of pursuing a graduate degree , you now move on to one of the most stressful parts of your graduate experience: deciding which program is right for you. As a graduate student in the seventh (and final) year of my doctoral program with a remarkably large group of friends who have pursued graduate degrees, I have spent a lot of time talking to those applying to graduate school in a variety of fields and listening to what did and didn’t work for them, as well as the regrets that they had once the process was over. I therefore offer the following suggestions to all those who are now ready to proceed with the application process:
1) Familiarize Yourself with the Field You Want to Enter
One of the first things to keep in mind is that the reputation of a university as a whole does not equal the reputation of a university’s departments. In other words, just because most people imagine a university to be a “good school” doesn’t mean that it has the best grad program for you. Therefore, if you want to spend the next several years of your life engaged in a particular type of research, make sure you know the best programs for that type of research. Though rankings systems such as US News and World Report  can give you some idea as to the best programs for a particular program or specialty, there are very real reasons to be wary of using these reports as an end-all guide to programs (for example, US News and World Report’s rankings of doctoral programs in the social sciences and humanities  "are based solely on the results of peer assessment surveys sent to academics in each discipline”), so make sure you talk to your undergraduate advisors and do your own research on the nuances of a given program before you decide to spend your time applying.
2) Investigate the success rate of graduates from different programs
A graduate program can have the best faculty in the world, but that won’t matter much if you end up unable to gain the support to finish your research and land a job that will satisfy you. Thus it is wise to consider the success of past graduates in both securing the financial means required to complete their degree and their success on the job market following the completion of their degree. While the latter is fairly easy to find out, the former requires knowing the types of resources that are available to graduate students in your field, university, and department. For example, those in the humanities and social sciences can look at the list of students who have received Fulbright IIE , Fulbright DDRA,  SSRC  and other such grants as a gage of which school’s students have seen the most success in attracting significant external funding (though one should always factor in the size of a program when doing this). Also, most departments and universities will provide information on the types of internal fellowships and awards they offer to their students for research and writing, as well as those who received them, on their websites. Get to know this information, and don’t hesitate to ask any questions of grad directors or other professors if you can’t locate this information on your own.
3) Attempt to make contact
Once you’ve narrowed your list, take a minute to send out an email to the professors that you’ve identified as potential advisors. Though the information you’ll get from this can be limited, it can also be quite helpful. For example, some professors may not be taking graduate students, and knowing this could save you time and a $60 application fee. Other professors may give you more info about the program that may make you reconsider applying. In my personal experience, however, the general “thanks for writing, I’m taking graduate students” email that I got back from most professors made me feel that taking the time to apply to that school was a good idea, and helped to curb some of the feelings of confusion and doubt that goes along with this process.
In addition to contacting professors, I also would suggest that applicants take a minute to email a senior graduate student who is currently working with the professor they’ve identified as a potential advisor. Graduate students who have been in the program for a while can give you a lot of insight into the daily life of graduate students in that program, and their info is usually posted on their department's website. Though I know I do not speak for all graduate students, I do not think I am alone in saying that I’ve always been happy to answer any questions that applicants have had about my program and advisor.
4) Cast a wide net
I will admit that all those I’ve spoken with do not share this opinion, but I still believe that it’s better to apply to too many programs than too few. As a former applicant, I know that application fees can add up, but I still think that having more options about where you’ll spend the next 2-7 years of your life will end up being worth the extra $250 you’ll spend on another 3 applications. Though you should be realistic as to which programs will consider you (you’re probably not getting into a top school with a 2.7 GPA and a bottom-end GRE score), don’t not apply to a program because you’ve decided that you’re not smart enough to be there or because you think a top program won’t consider you because you went to a less-known undergraduate institution. If you have a strong application, apply where you want to go. As most grad students will attest, the results of the application process rarely turn out the way you expect, and the only way to ensure you won’t be accepted to a program is not to apply.
Choosing a Program Now that You've Received Your Acceptances
Okay, now we’ve fast forwarded 4-6 months and you, my friend, are the bell of the ball. You’ve received a few acceptance letters from programs and advisors who are very excited to have you take on their good name, and now you must pick the lucky winner. Of course, you’ll want to evaluate the programs based on the criteria listed above; you’d be crazy to turn down a top-ranked program with a solid graduate success rate and an excited advisor when your only other option is what you considered a “fallback.” But given that applicants often find themselves facing a choice between one or more equal schools, here are a few suggestions that may help you make the right choice.
1) Consider your funding package carefully
There are a variety of issues to consider when figuring the actual value of your funding package that may not seem obvious at first. As a completely random example, consider that Michigan State University offers you a stipend of $13,000 a year, and UCLA offers you a stipend of $18,000. Though the $5,000 more that UCLA offers you may sound great, the difference in the cost of living between Los Angeles and East Lansing probably makes the real value of the UCLA stipend less than that offered by MSU. Then again, the University of California schools offer graduate students the opportunity to register as “in absentia” during quarters spent researching away from the university, meaning that students living abroad can maintain their status as an enrolled graduate student and keep their university-provided insurance for nearly no cost. These factors affect the overall cost of attending graduate school, and are well worth taking into account when picking a program.
Of course, there is always the chance that you will not be offered a funding package. For professional degree programs such as a MBA or a MLIS program, this is fairly common and nothing to be alarmed about. For those in the humanities, social sciences and other programs not being offered any funding guarantee is (in my opinion) a good cause to jump straight to number 4 below.
2) Consider the university’s location
Though I don’t think that a university’s location should determine where you apply, I think it is a valuable way to break a tie between places you’ve been accepted. I say this for two reasons. First of all, there are a number of perks that come with attending a university that is located in a major metropolitan area, or is close to other research universities. These include access to multiple libraries, and the expanded opportunities that come from university collaborative such as the Committee on Institutional Cooperation . Second, you’re not just picking a school, you’re picking a place to spend several intense years of your life. If cold winters and gray skies get you down, you should probably choose University of Texas-Austin over Northwestern. If you hate crowded urban spaces and traffic, you might want to pick IU-Bloomington over the University of Southern California. Though this may seem superficial, enjoying the place where you live makes it much easier to take the stresses that come with daily life as a graduate student.
3) Visit the universities
One of the best parts about being accepted to graduate programs is that departments often provide accepted students with the financial means to attend recruitment events. Attend all of these that you can. These are great events that provide you with a chance to meet your potential advisor and colleagues, to get to know those who may be in your cohort, and to see the town in which you may soon live. Though this may end up doing little to change your personal rankings, the experience will almost certainly make you feel much more secure about your decision to attend that graduate school. In some cases, however, a visit will make you realize just how bad an idea it would be to attend that program, in which case you should not be afraid to……
4) Take a year off if you need to
There’s no reason to fear taking a year off. I’ve heard people say “if you take a year off, you may never go back,” and I’ve always said that if that happens, you’re probably better off (as Craig Ferguson said about comedy , I’m convinced you should only go into academia “because you can’t not do it”). I have a friend who got into his first choice program in physics, went to visit, and decided the program wasn’t right for him. He took a year off, reapplied the next fall, and is now happily studying at a university that is much better for him. I highly recommend that anyone in a similar situation do the same, especially if the only programs that have accepted you have offered funding packages to the majority of those accepted, but have offered you nothing.
In conclusion, I think what should be clear here is the importance of gaining as much information as possible about the schools you are considering. Though it may be exhausting, this information gathering process will ultimate help ensure that the first step of your graduate school experience is a mighty one.
I am, of course, just one graduate student, and my knowledge is shaped by the fact that I am a historian. If you have something to add to my analysis please share in the comments section below!