Avoid the Biggest Mistake Prospective Graduate Students Make

By Dr. Don Martin, Ph.D.
Posted 2012

By far, the biggest mistake prospective students make is not doing adequate research before they apply to graduate school.

As a dean of admissions and a dean of students, I often held open office hours, when students could come in to meet with me to discuss just about anything. Occasionally I would hear complaints about their experience in my graduate program. Some were very upset, believing they were misled about what to expect when they became a part of our community.

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When asking how they came to decide to join us, some of the answers I heard greatly concerned me, including:

  • "My parents went here."
  • "You're ranked in the top 5."
  • "You're the Ivy League."

I wanted to say, "And? You came to visit? You contacted current students and recent graduates? You did some research about the institution on the Web? You thoroughly reviewed information on the curriculum and faculty? You spent time thinking about what you really wanted out of your grad school experience?"

Graduate school is not something to take lightly. It involves a major investment personally, intellectually, socially, emotionally, and financially. Be sure to allow yourself time to do your due diligence, and get all of the information you want and need.

In my 30+ years of working with prospective graduate students, it seems that in many instances, decisions are made very quickly about where they'll apply, and the criteria are either word of mouth or graduate school rankings.

Sometimes a student chooses a graduate program based solely on the name of the institution, its location, or because someone they know and respect went there. The student does not conduct any additional research whatsoever. It is little wonder that individuals who choose their graduate program this way are often unhappily surprised and severely disappointed.

This is your life, your money, your education, and—most importantly—your future. Just because someone you know had a great experience at an institution is not a guarantee that you will. Just because it is a top-ranked program does not mean it is the best program for you.

While useful, the downside of rankings is that they leave out hundreds of outstanding graduate schools, with long lists of satisfied, successful, and loyal alumni. And there is absolutely no reliable statistical correlation between where someone attended graduate school and his or her ultimate professional success.

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It is wise to take about a year to do your graduate school research. If you are considering starting a program of study in the fall, you will want to start your search two years ahead of time. Why two years? Typically, graduate schools start accepting applications just under a year before the intended start date. In order for you to have time to thoroughly evaluate all of the information you receive and read, you will need at least a year before applying to gather and review that information.

Attending a more prestigious institution may initially open some doors, but your ultimate success will depend on what you bring to the table in terms of communication skills, motivation, resilience, and determination. Do not just pick a graduate program because of what someone else thinks; pick those programs to which you'll apply because they resonate with what you are seeking. In the end, you will be a happier student and alumnus, and most likely, more fulfilled in your chosen profession.

Originally published at USNews.com on September 7, 2012.

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