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Choosing Target Schools — Factors to Consider

What this article covers:

In order to select the right target schools, you must understand that the main variable in the equation is you. Each candidate has a unique set of desires, fears, and constraints that she must consider. Therefore, in order to craft a strategy that is both strong and flexible, you must spend considerable time studying yourself (past, present, and future) to correctly identify your own true north and set your compass accordingly.

In selecting target schools, we recommend a two-part approach. First, you should examine the reasons you chose to pursue graduate school. Rank and weight them according to how important each is to you. Second, take an in-depth look at the relevant school evaluation criteria and prioritize them. Once you’ve completed these two tasks, you’ll find comparing schools to be significantly easier.

Why do candidates pursue graduate degrees?

Individuals pursue graduate degrees for a myriad of reasons. Frankly, most candidates are motivated by the same ones, although each in different proportions. These are just a few.

Training: The desire to receive a formal education in the intended discipline of study. Training encapsulates the courses a candidate will take as well as the extracurriculars and mentorship they will experience. All of these factors can help a student gain mastery of their subject matter.

Network: Candidates seek to construct a set of personal contacts, in their field and in related fields, who may be able to help them in future pursuits over the course of their careers.

Credibility and Access to Opportunity: Candidates are specifically seeking the recognition provided by their degree and their school of choice combined. Many candidates will enter fields in which employers hire only from a certain type or caliber of program. Others will enter fields in which a broader range of graduate schools are acceptable, in which case this factor will be less relevant.

Most candidates will pursue a graduate degree for one or more of these principal reasons. However, the emphasis or prioritization can differ greatly even among candidates who plan to apply to the same school or pursue the same post-graduation career. Prior to choosing your target schools, it’s important to understand the extent to which each reason is motivating for you.

For example, if you are going to school for the purpose of learning a particular skill, you are going to have different priorities from someone who is largely pursuing a degree for the credibility. You must decide your own priorities as an early step in the target school selection process.

For most candidates, the type of degree they are pursuing will significantly shape their priorities. For example, both law school and business school applicants often rank their reasons as credibility and access to opportunity, network, and training, in that order. Applicants to other schools, like those pursuing PhDs in engineering, often list training first or second.

Furthermore, even if two candidates have identical rankings, how they weight each factor may be very different. Two applicants who list network first, credibility and access to opportunity second, and training third may differ in that one weights network as 75% of their motivation, while the other weights it at just 45%, with more importance dedicated to the other two factors.

To have a sound strategy for pursuing a graduate degree, an applicant must have a firm grasp of his overall reasons for attending, as well as each reason’s ranking and weight. Beyond this analysis of your motivations, there are some specific criteria that you must understand in order to choose effectively between various alternatives.

Thus begins the second step of our two-part approach. Let’s delve deeper into the evaluation criteria that allow candidates to distinguish between schools and programs. Once you’ve thought deeply about and prioritized these numerous criteria, it will become clear to you which schools you want to pursue, and which you should avoid.


This category is automatically top of mind for many candidates, and the excessive emphasis placed on it by applicants, their families, and admissions officers themselves can be burdensome. Nevertheless, ranking is a very important criterion that often intersects with credibility and access to opportunity, both in the eyes of the general public and, more importantly, for practitioners in your particular field.

Using the official rankings listed by established entities like U.S. News & World Report or The Princeton Review, and even looking at anecdotal references from field experts, is very important. This should undoubtedly be a part of your strategy if you are hoping to secure a position that’s highly prestigious or work at an organization that’s highly selective. For a law applicant, this might be a clerkship at the highest level, while an MBA applicant might pursue a position with a venture capital or private equity firm, and a scientific PhD applicant may be interested in a highly prestigious research position.

To suggest that rankings do not matter to your target school strategy is just as disingenuous as saying that rankings should be the sole criterion in making your decision about which schools to target. Be aware of the rankings, but prioritize their importance mindfully relative to your education and, perhaps even more critically, your career.


Debating how ambitious you should be with your target school list? Check out this video on how to manage risk during school selection.

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Ability to Get Accepted

A focus on ranking without particular attention to your ability to actually get accepted is equally nonsensical to ignoring the rankings completely. A proper assessment of your competitiveness compared to the general applicant pool, as well as the selectivity of your target schools, is important. While most undergraduate applicants receive standard advice on how to manage this risk (choose a stretch, a target, and a safety), the soundness of this advice does not necessarily carry over into graduate admissions.

In this undergraduate framework, stretch schools are the ones where it may prove exceptionally difficult to be accepted due to a combination of a low overall acceptance rate and the weaknesses in a candidate’s actual profile. Target are schools ones where the candidate has a solid chance at acceptance based on those same aforementioned criteria. And safety schools are ones where a candidate will almost certainly be accepted because she is overqualified in terms of the factors schools consider important.

A graduate school candidate’s strategy may differ from this framework depending on his reasons for seeking a graduate degree and the value of his undergraduate degree. If a candidate has an undergraduate degree that will garner them ample professional opportunity, they may consider only elite graduate schools, because they view graduate school as somewhat of a luxury.

Conversely, a candidate may lean in the opposite direction if they have a valuable undergraduate degree and are mostly pursuing a graduate degree for the training they will receive (in which case even moderate and low-tier schools will provide a near-equivalent product).

A candidate with a weaker undergraduate degree may feel like their graduate school degree is their last chance to garner some of the credibility and access to opportunity that their college education did not provide. This candidate may therefore be strict about pursuing a higher-tier graduate degree, just as the first candidate did, despite the fact that their motivations are completely disparate.

It appears then, that although the ability to get accepted is always an important criterion for every applicant, following the typical undergraduate school selection process and allocating risk across various program tiers may not be the strategy that makes the most sense for a graduate applicant.


Candidates should examine this criterion from many angles; not only the size of the school itself, but the size of the city or campus the school is embedded in, the size of various subgroups within the school, and the size of individual classes. Furthermore, there are questions of preference and questions of need.

Some candidates will flourish in a smaller environment, while others need the stimulation of a bigger campus. Some will desire a big campus, but prefer it broken down into smaller sections or cohorts. Part of this strategic assessment is based on preferences, as described above, but it is also based on what an applicant needs.

Is a large and robust network important to you because you plan to work extensively overseas and want to personally know people everywhere? Or is it more important to you to have deep relationships with a few people? In this case a smaller school may suit you well. Moreover, class instruction size, which is essentially the same factor on a much smaller scale, may be most important to you. Again, a candidate’s own true north is the guiding light for size.

Location & Setting

Location and setting can be critically important for both a student’s enjoyment of her graduate school experience as well as the opportunities available to her during and after graduate school. Studying at a school within your preferred setting (e.g., urban or rural) can promote a better overall experience and increase your performance. This increased performance will likely result in greater value being derived from graduate school, so it’s an important strategic factor.

However, the professional rather than preferential considerations are more tangible. A particular setting, like a specific city or region, may offer the opportunity to pursue a particular industry, as industries often aggregate within particular geographic areas. For example, if a candidate has an interest in pursuing positions in the oil industry after graduation, getting a graduate degree in Texas may be quite helpful.

Comparably, if an applicant wants to pursue a career in the biotechnology industry, the area around Greater New York City and down through the southern New Jersey corridor, with its array of schools (i.e., Columbia, Rutgers, New Jersey Institute of Technology) and biotechnology companies, will be professionally helpful.

Once he’s selected an appropriate geographic area for his intended career, a candidate can be more picky and focus on the student experience when choosing between schools within this area. In regards to location, candidates should focus their school search on their personal happiness in addition to their future career opportunities.

However, this first aspect is all too often confused with good weather or opportunities for entertainment when considering location. A well-chosen location will improve the student experience and imbue a long-term positive impact; something that has little to do with summer sun.

Who Hires & Who Recruits

Companies and organizations of all kinds often hire from specific schools with whom they have a historically close relationship, and this choice is deeply tied to location. It may be the result of an executive who is an alum (undergraduate or graduate) and prefers to hire those with a similar background to hers, but the reason behind the relationship is somewhat irrelevant. Regardless of the reason behind it, this is an important criterion that should be researched in regards to each school and prioritized by a candidate, accordingly.

Generally, the hiring and recruiting factor should be ranked very highly within the list of criteria that you establish for picking a graduate school, and for one simple reason: the length of your livelihood will far exceed the time you spend studying for your degree. Therefore, the ability of a given school to provide opportunity post-graduation is of critical importance, even relative to the myriad of factors that affect your in-school experience.

Cost & Affordability

For some candidates this is the most important criterion and for others it ranks near the bottom. Regardless of cost’s importance to you as a candidate, a sound cost strategy is vital in school selection and will be inherently tied to your return on investment. Candidly, before you approach the impact of cost in deciding on a target school, you need to assess the impact of cost from the degree and program type perspectives. This is because a Master’s in Data Analytics and a Master’s in Education, as an example, will differ substantially in post-graduate compensation, payback period, and return on investment. As a result, you may be willing to go further into debt for that Master’s in Data Analytics than you would for a Master’s in Education.

Additionally, pursuing a graduate degree from an online or one-year master’s program will cost substantially less in both tuition and opportunity cost than pursuing a two-year, full-time program. But even if two programs have the exact same duration, they may differ substantially in cost based on location, public or private status, and prestige (higher-tier programs often pay their professors more money, which will increase tuition costs).

For many upper-echelon schools, candidates are accepted need-blind, meaning that their chances of acceptance aren’t affected by whether they can actually afford to go. So although financial constraints may not be a hurdle in admissions, they may result in substantial debt accumulation.

Often, the consideration of cost hinges on two questions. First: Can you literally afford this graduate school? Often a stipend or a scholarship can defray the cost. And second: Do you believe that the benefits, both tangible and intangible, warrant the cost of this graduate school? In some respects, the first question is the easier one to answer. It’s a binary choice, and the relevant factors can easily be mapped out in excel and studied with a pure focus on the numbers.

In contrast, the second question in nuanced, and depends upon your personal reasons for attending as well as how you weigh the other criteria (i.e., Who Hires & Who Recruits, Location & Setting, Ability to Get Accepted, etc.) You need to be reflective yet practical, ambitious yet realistic. It’s an area where applicants are often confused and should reach out to those whom they trust and can offer insight and perspective from experience. Admit.me is just one such resource.

How to Decide

Your strategy for selecting target schools will depend on how you utilize this two-part approach and how you incorporate the various criteria we’ve mentioned. Beyond knowing that you should select between a handful and a dozen schools (medical applicants withstanding) in order to optimize your admissions process, you must be clear on two things: First, your own motivation for pursuing a degree, and second, how the various criteria are prioritized in your own ranking system. It is very unlikely that every one of your target schools will check every box. Your goal should be to simultaneously evaluate your many desires in regards to your entire set of possible schools, while ensuring that your ultimate choice meets your most closely held needs.

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