How To Organize Your Grad School Search

You’ve made the decision to go to grad school; now it’s time to find which graduate program is right for you. To start, you’ll need to research the universities that offer your degree to identify which will be the best fit for your educational needs and professional aspirations. But considering the number of established programs available, it’s possible you may find this process more daunting than fun.

Instead of being overwhelmed by potential options, take the time to properly prepare and organize your grad school search. Doing so will help keep your research in order and help you make a more informed decision when it comes time to choose which program to pursue.

An effective way to start your grad school search is to create an application spreadsheet that will help you organize all of the information that you’ll need throughout the process. Below, we walk you through the process. We also explain how breaking your grad school search into three key phases can help you choose the graduate program that is right for you.

Start with a grad school application spreadsheet

One of the most challenging aspects of the graduate school search is organizing all of the information that you have about each of the programs you are considering. Instead of bookmarking dozens of webpages in your browser or downloading dozens of documents to your computer, a grad school application spreadsheet will help you preserve all of this information in an organized and efficient way.

Whether you’re more of a Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets person, your spreadsheet should include all of the information that you need to make a decision about your program. Structure your sheet so you have the factors that matter most to you listed out across the top row and the programs you’re considering listed out down the far left column. Then go through your research and fill in the blanks.

These factors will vary from person to person, but some of the most critical pieces of information to include are:

  • School name
  • Program name
  • Length of program
  • Application due dates
  • Application fee
  • Tuition
  • Testing requirements (GRE, etc.)
  • Name of admissions counselor
  • Name of key department faculty
  • Number of letters of recommendation required

You might also choose to include information about whether or not the school offers a particular concentration or learning track that you are interested in or what the internship/co-op opportunities look like. Additionally, it can be a good idea to organize key links in this spreadsheet, such as links to the following:

  • Application requirements
  • Tuition/financial aid information
  • Admissions resources
  • Application page

A spreadsheet like this is visually cohesive and gives you the opportunity to save links you may want to refer to later on. When it comes time to dig into the details of these programs—like how much financial aid is offered and the courses listed on the program pages—you’ll be grateful you don’t have to go digging through all your research again to locate each page.

Another benefit of creating a structured and visual representation of your data is that you will be able to quickly spot trends among programs. For instance, you may find all your program options offer financial aid, making that less of a determining factor in your decision between schools. On the other hand, you may see that one program on your list doesn’t offer in-person classes like you’d prefer, whereas all others do, effectively narrowing your search.

No matter the results, laying out your information like this can be an efficient way to see which of the programs you’ve encountered fit your criteria and which fall short.

The 3 phases of your grad school search

When embarking on graduate school research, many students are overwhelmed by the process and don’t know where to begin. After all, there is endless information available, which can make narrowing down your choices difficult.

It’s best to begin by taking a step back from the research part of the process and organizing your approach to the search itself instead.

Structure your search process in three distinct phases, each of which will use specific tools, techniques, and organizational methods to maximize efficiency. Doing so will keep you focused, productive, and working toward your final goal in an orderly and effective manner.

Phase 1: The broad search

When you first embark on grad school research, gather as much information about the programs or institutions you’re interested in as possible. It’s important to be proactive in this stage, and one practical way to do so is to subscribe to each program’s and college’s email list. You may also consider reaching out to each university’s enrollment coaches to connect with an expert about your goals and learn exactly how that particular university can help you meet them.

Organizational tip #1: Dedicate an email address to your search.

Although particularly relevant in this first stage of your grad school search, one of the best things you can do for yourself at any phase is to create and utilize an email address dedicated solely to your grad school journey. Use this email not only to subscribe to different institution’s mailing lists, but also to manage letter of recommendation requests, correspond with financial aid or admissions offices, network with professors and alumni, and actually apply to the programs themselves. Having all of these communications in one place will prevent important information from getting lost among everyday messages and promotions, and keep you organized during your search.

Another way to approach this “broad search” phase of your research is to use the power of the search engine. Google certain obvious keywords—such as your desired area of study, an institution name, or even your desired program location—but also remain open to approaching your search terms from a more unique angle.

Specifically, you should consider tailoring your search to include the factors that are most important to you in your educational experience. For instance, search programs by class size (i.e., “master’s in leadership programs with small classes”), program structure (i.e., “online master’s in project management programs,” or “part-time data analytics master’s programs”), or even the name of an industry leader you admire who you know teaches in your area.

Institutions that invest in these aspects of their programs will likely have a lot of content on the web to highlight it, which will make them easy to spot among the masses, even in this kind of broad search. 

For example: Northeastern University is known worldwide for experiential learning opportunities, where students are able to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply it hands-on to real-world scenarios through co-ops, global research, and service learning. Since “experiential learning” is a core value of the university, it is often referenced on the web as a highlight of the university’s offerings. For that reason, if a student were to search for “master’s programs that offer experiential learning opportunities,” it’s likely that Northeastern would come up in the results, effectively aligning the student’s preference with a program that offers it.

By searching in this manner, you will begin to narrow down your results to include only the programs that best fit your needs. This approach can save you time and energy in your search while simultaneously keeping you focused on only those programs that actually align with your goals.

Phase 2: The structured comparison 

Once you’ve completed your broad search and compiled a list of all the programs that may be of interest to you, you can begin to conduct a structured comparison of each program on your list.

At this stage, your goal should be to weed out any programs that do not meet your requirements. If you have a budget, which programs fall too far outside of it? If you are looking for a program that offers a hands-on learning experience, which programs do not offer internships or co-ops? If you are set on pursuing a particular concentration, which programs do not offer those concentrations? Likewise, which programs do you simply not meet the requirements for?

Remove these programs from your list so that you are left with only those programs that you could actually see yourself entering.

Organizational tip #2: Don’t delete anything.

If you’ve decided that a program doesn’t fit your requirements, resist the urge to delete it from your spreadsheet. Instead, simply “hide” the row, or move it to a second tab in your spreadsheet. That way, if you change your mind, you will still have the information and will not need to re-create it.

Phase 3: The detailed exploration

After weeding out the universities that may not be the best fit for you through the use of your structured spreadsheet, it’s time to really dig into the details of each remaining program option to help determine which is the right fit.

Organizational tip #3: Create a summary sheet for each program.

Develop a one-page summary sheet for each program that lists the most stand-out aspects from your research alongside relevant factors such as financial aid and program structure. You can write this sheet in any format that works best for you (paragraphs, bullet points, a series of notes, etc.), but it should represent the important aspects of each program that will matter most when making your decision.

Some aspects to highlight in your summary sheet include:

  • Any elements that set the program apart (such as a notable faculty member, an exciting university partnership, or an innovative capstone project)
  • Application deadlines and requirements
  • Links to relevant sites (such as the program page, financial aid application, or course catalog)
  • Tailored, program-specific questions you’d ask in a networking or admissions interview scenario

After putting together this in-depth analysis of your research, it’s likely you will walk away with some perspective. Whether that perspective is as concrete as one program’s stand-out elements spilling into three pages, or as abstract as feeling most excited when writing about one particular program, taking the time to write out these summary sheets gives you the opportunity to evaluate each program on a case-by-case basis.

Consider This: Filling out these sheets will help you realize what factors are most important to you in a program and inspire you to explore how that factor is represented in other programs. For instance, if you notice that the opportunities to work as a teaching assistant excite you most about Program A, but Program B has the financial aid, class size, and class structure you’re looking for, you may consider reaching out to Program B’s faculty or alumni to ask about what teaching opportunities there look like. 

It’s possible the opportunities in Program B are just as good as Program A but are just less advertised, or that Program B doesn’t typically offer such extensive opportunities but would be willing to work with you to make it happen. Either way, had you not taken the time to evaluate your options and realize how important the teaching aspect was to you, you may never have thought to inquire about it further.

These program-specific summary sheets are incredibly beneficial both at and beyond the research stage of your graduate school search. When you’re actually applying to these programs, for instance, you will be able to refer back to these sheets to keep track of deadlines and required materials for submission. You can also reference the questions you have already drafted for the university during an admissions interview or networking opportunity as well. What’s more, you may find that the stand-out elements you’ve highlighted in each program can be incredibly helpful in crafting a statement of purpose that is specific to that program—a factor that goes a long way in helping you stand out among other applicants.

Deciding to bet on yourself

Although picking a program may seem like the biggest choice you have to make, the reality is that the hardest decision has already been made: You’ve decided to invest in yourself and your career through the pursuit of a graduate degree. So whenever you feel overwhelmed in your search, simply take pride in the fact that you’re already on the journey toward reaching your professional goals; all that’s left to do now is to pick which path will take you there. 


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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in June 2023. It has since been updated for relevance and accuracy.