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How to Research Schools

Researching schools may seem like a mundane task, but overlooking the importance of this process can lead to less-than-ideal admissions outcomes. The goal of researching schools is to find a set of schools that fits your interests, long-term career needs, and admissions timeline.

If you don’t put in the work now, you’ll find yourself rushed and maybe even completely adrift later in the admissions process; especially if you earn a lower test score than expected, lose a recommender, or simply come to realize that you’re not as qualified an applicant as you thought. Thorough, thoughtful research can dampen the negative impacts of all sorts of admissions roadblocks. With that in mind, let’s get started…


Know Thyself

The most important thing to know about researching schools is that finding schools is the easy part; the hard part is defining the types of schools you want to apply to and why. The details of determining exactly what type of schools you should apply to is the topic for another article, but there are some things you need to make sure you’ve identified before you started researching:

  • Long-term goals: What you’re looking to get out of your graduate school program (e.g., network, functional expertise, career catalyst)?
  • Achievability: One of the areas that applicants really struggle with is figuring out what’s achievable. In most cases, a candidate aspires to attend a target school for which his profile is simply not strong enough. You need to be realistic with yourself about which schools you can get into based on your GPA, test scores, and work experience. It’s OK to have an aggressive school search list if that’s what’s important to you, but understand that a more ambitious list of target schools does not guarantee better admissions results.
  • Boundaries: Set your timeline for when you would like to go to school (e.g., definitely now, hopefully now, later, etc.) and what schools you’re willing to apply to. You also need to think about what types of programs you’re willing to consider and in what locations. If you don’t set these boundaries you may end up chasing a number of schools that don’t really fit your needs; set your boundaries and stick with them. You’ll thank us later.
  • Priorities: What are my priorities with respect to my schools’ features (e.g., location, brand, price, program, etc.)?

Get Organized

Once you’ve determined the direction you’re going, it’s time to set off on your research journey. Ground yourself with your favorite organizational tool; it could be a simple document or spreadsheet, an organizational app, or even a good old-fashioned notebook.

You should keep detailed notes of your school search using your chosen organizational tool and continue to leverage it throughout the research process. Keep in mind, your school search is certain to change throughout the application process and may even change drastically, depending on how you well you do with your standardized tests. Here are a few organizational hacks that you may want to use:

  • Use an online organizational tool, so you can access it from anywhere. The application process is very intense and it’s always helpful to spend your downtime knocking out simple tasks like researching schools. You can better utilize your time throughout the day if you can easily access your admissions spreadsheet during your lunch break or on your commute home, for example (just not while you’re driving!). With this strategy, you’ll finish your research quickly using short, effortless bursts.
  • Keep your Admit.me profile updated with your schools of interest. You can visit the Admit.me main school page at any time to see all of the schools in your target list. In addition, the main school page has general statistics on each school, application and acceptance deadlines, and links directly to each school’s individual page. Visit an individual school page to get background information, add the school to your list, and interact with the school’s feed.
  • Keep a well-organized list of helpful websites in your browser bookmarks. This ensures that you have easy access to online resources like Admit.me, University admissions pages, and other helpful links (e.g., financial aid, rankings). Keep in mind that the more organized this list is, the more likely you’ll be to actually use it. So keep it neat. 


If you're still not sure how to get started, watch this video on how to utilize the school selection framework.

Watch the Video



Cast a Wide Net

Once you’ve established the archetype for your ideal school and decided how you’re going to organize your search, you can begin brainstorming schools! Most applicants have a few schools already in mind, so start with that. Don’t restrict yourself based on likelihood of success just yet.

If you want to go there, write it down using your organizational tool of choice; you can always edit the list later. Think about the factors that are most important to you and leverage multiple sources of information to find schools that fit those criteria. Consider searching for the following if you need help creating your initial list:

  • Best schools for your target industry
  • Best schools for your function
  • Schools within a particular location or region
Keep in mind, popular websites will popup in your search results regardless of their quality, so be skeptical. That said, there are many credible sources out there, so you shouldn’t have trouble finding some.
You can use the global graduate school rankings as a method to supplement your school list. Rankings should not be the sole resource you use for determining your school list, but it’s a great way to add to your list of schools within your specialty area. Remember, the goal here is to create a comprehensive list. We suggest having at least 10 schools on your preliminary list, unless you have a very specific focus that naturally limits your options.


Use Multiple Sources

One of the keys to crafting a good graduate school list is using multiple sources. You may find it a bit overwhelming to absorb so many different opinions, but you’ll also find a lot of crossover in your search criteria, which is a good thing! A few sources you can use to research schools:
  • Online Rankings: U.S. News, Businessweek, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and QS are some of the most popular ranking sites, and Admit.me has its own rankings as well.
  • Alumni: Leverage alumni from different schools to find out more about their experiences. While they tend to be very complimentary of their alma mater, alumni also tend to be honest about the things they didn’t like. Don’t hesitate to reach out to them.
  • Local School Meetups: Many schools conduct national or even international tours, stopping at major cities around the world. Find out which schools will be visiting your area and get on the mailing lists of those you’re interested in, that way, you can arrange to be free when your target schools come to a city near you. 
  • School Tours: There are several companies, like QS, who make it their business to bring schools to you. Companies like these aggregate popular graduate schools and conduct fairs around the world. Take advantage of these opportunities to meet with several schools at one time and learn from the various school presentations. 
  • Search Engines: Whichever one you use (we’re not taking sides here), it can be a convenient way to fill out your list.

Visit schools

There is no real substitute for visiting schools in person during your school research process. If you can make it happen within the constraints of your schedule and budget, do it. Before you visit a school, reach out in advance and schedule a class visit and/or tour. Tours, while usually student-led, are also usually an extension of the school’s admissions team, so they tend to be polished and somewhat guarded. Regardless, they can provide valuable background information.
One good way to find the inside scoop on a school is to stop by the graduate school building or campus coffee shop and just talk to people. People tend to get talkative when free coffee is involved, so consider it your good deed for the day to foot the bill for a helpful student!
Visiting schools will give you insights into those schools that you simply won’t be able to get from any website or printed material, but it comes at a cost. If you can’t make a visit, many graduate schools have virtual tours or YouTube videos, which are the next best alternative to a school visit. You can see the campus, get student perspectives, learn from alums, and find out about last year’s cohort all through these visual online mediums.

Start With the End in Mind

The last thing you need to do with respect to your school research is to think about your target schools in the context of your career. Ultimately, you’re pursuing graduate school to move towards a new position in your career. While it’s nice to go to a highly ranked school, if that school is not placing graduates into the career you ultimately desire, it’s really a nice waste of money.
If you have a good idea of what you want to do with your life (good on you! we still don’t...), use a career tool like LinkedIn to find people who have the job you want. Do some research into the schools they attended. If there are any commonalities with your list, that’s a good sign. And you might find some additional schools you want to add to your list.
Finally, go to the career services websites of the schools on your list and see where they are placing candidates. If the placements are in line with what you’re looking for (e.g., the right employers, research roles, academic positions, etc.), it’s probably a good school for you. Also, don’t hesitate to reach out to recruiters at companies you might like to work for and see where they do their campus recruiting. Most of all, don’t look past this critical component during your school selection. After all, graduate school is about getting where you want to go and that includes finding the right job!

Narrow it Down

Congratulations! You now have everything you need to conduct an effective school search. Once you’ve taken all the steps outlined above, you should have an extensive list of possible schools. In fact, it may feel a little overwhelming because you have so many! But don’t worry; the next step in the process is to narrow down your list to a more manageable size.
The actual size and scope of your final school list will depend on your urgency regarding graduate school. If you feel you have to go to school this year, you’ll need a more extensive list that includes at least one safety school you’d feel comfortable attending. If you feel like school can wait, then you can be a little more selective, considering only a short list of schools that truly meet your needs. Stick to these guidelines and you can whittle down your list to the most relevant schools and well-suited schools moving forward.

MBA Target Schools Grad Article

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