What they won’t tell you about choosing the right graduate institution

graduate admissions strategy
By Jinoh

If you're reading this post, you are probably an experienced student. You’ve overcome standardized tests, have had plenty of extracurricular experience, and perhaps even mastered your interview skills. However, one seemingly challenge awaits: choosing the right graduate institution for you. While this challenge seems innocent enough, there is the daunting decision of choosing an institution that will shape an important period of your life.

When choosing a graduate institution, many online resources will often repeat the importance of the following qualities: rankings, prestige, and potential career options. While these institutional aspects are undoubtedly important, I have found that for myself, other factors have played a bigger role in the quality of my education and my success.

In this blog post, I’ll share which factors I have found to be uniquely important when choosing the right graduate institution.

1. Location, Location, Location

If you are about to matriculate into a graduate program, you are most likely a young adult in your twenties or thirties. While the quality of your education and your life at school is important, your life outside of school is equally, if not more, important. That being said, the location of your graduate institution can be very important in determining the quality of your day to day life. Before considering graduate program rankings or prestige, you want to ask yourself some key questions:

  • How important is the geographic distance of the graduate institution to your current support networks (friends and family)?
  • Do you prefer city life or rural life?
  • How affordable is the city your graduate institution is in?

As you progress through your twenties and thirties, maintaining and using your support network becomes ever so important. I have found it critical to keep in touch with friends and family, and find that the process of doing so even helps me progress through my graduate career. Additionally, the city surrounding and affordability help determine what your lifestyle is like outside of your studies (trust me, you aren’t going to be spending 24 hours a day, 7 days a week devoted to school). Think about what elements of your lifestyle are important for you, and how the location of your future graduate institution can be most compatible.

2. Program Culture

Another important aspect of choosing the right graduate institution is the culture of the program. Admittedly, this may be hard to ascertain prior to attending, but through program visits and interviews, most programs offer a small glimpse. You can respectfully ask current students and faculty for their thoughts as well.

When assessing program culture, you generally want to be aware of two factors: what the student culture is like, and how closely the faculty are integrated with the program. For the former, you want to be on the lookout for any personality red flags that may exist in the student body. For the latter, you want to keep a close eye on how much the faculty members you interact with are invested in the program you are considering. This may be the most useful factor in determining potential career options, despite what online rankings may say.

3. A Certain Gut Feeling

After carefully weighing the above factors, plus a variety of other qualities you’ve gleaned are important from other resources, one program may still stick out to you, despite what anyone else recommends. I’m here to tell you: this is perfectly okay! Sometimes there’s an intangible quality about a place that draws us to it; I know there was a little bit of that for me when I chose my graduate institution. Whatever your gut feelings tell you, have confidence in those instincts and things will work out!

Jinoh attended Columbia University, where he graduated with a Neuroscience and Behavior major with a 3.8 GPA and departmental honors. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Neurobiology at Harvard.


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