How Many Grad Schools Should You Apply To?

You’ve made the decision to pursue a graduate education—congratulations!

The next step is to actually apply to programs. This raises the question: How many grad schools should you apply to? The answer to this question is important for a few key reasons.

You want to apply to enough programs to ensure that you are accepted to at least one program. If you apply to too few graduate schools and are not accepted into any of those programs, you will either need to scramble in order to find programs that are still accepting applicants, or else you may be forced to delay your education by a semester or even a full year, depending on the university.

On the other hand, you don’t want to apply to too many programs either. Each program you apply to will require you to conduct research to understand the application requirements and whether or not you could realistically be accepted, which takes time and energy. Then, you’ll need to actually complete the application, which may include writing an application essay and other components that will require a further investment of time and energy. Finally, there are real monetary costs associated with applying to graduate school programs—in the form of application fees, as well as transcript fees when you request a transcript from your undergraduate alma mater. You may also need to pay additional fees to have test scores (such as the GRE) sent to multiple universities.

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Simply put, in an ideal situation you will apply to just the right number of schools to feel relatively comfortable knowing that you will be accepted to at least one program, without spreading your time, energy, and money too thin by applying to too few.

How many graduate programs should someone apply to?

Unfortunately, there is no clear cut answer that applies to every situation.

That being said, most experts recommend that individuals apply to a minimum of four graduate programs, and a maximum of around six. This range makes sense for a number of reasons:

  • The GRE will automatically send your test scores to four colleges of your choosing, which means you can apply to four graduate programs without needing to pay an additional fee.
  • This is a reasonable number of programs to realistically consider side by side, making it easier for you to organize your search and weigh your options.
  • Applying to four to six programs should not spread your attention or energy so thin that you do not give each application the attention that it deserves.
  • Applying to four to six programs will give you enough wiggle room to apply not only to your top choices, which may be highly competitive, but also to include at least one or two so-called “safety schools” where you believe you will have a greater chance of being accepted.

Determining How Many Grad Programs to Apply To

While the four to six range outlined above should work for most students, the fact remains that the ideal number of programs will vary depending on your unique situation. It’s important to consider a handful of factors when determining the number of programs that you will apply to.

1. How competitive are your top choice programs?

If you are only interested in applying to top-tier programs at elite institutions, it’s critical to recognize just how competitive the application process will be. Many elite programs only accept a small percentage of total applicants each year. If you will be applying to many elite universities, it may be a good idea to apply to more than the four to six range outlined above, to increase the likelihood that you will be accepted to at least one.

2. How competitive is your field of study?

Some graduate fields of study are known for being extremely competitive. This competition can be driven by a lack of programs, or by the fact that programs are by nature designed to accept only a small cohort of students each semester.

Speech-language pathology is a field, for example, that is known for being extremely competitive. Many aspiring SLPs take this fact into consideration when deciding how many graduate programs to apply to. What may be considered an excessive number of applications to students in one field of study may in fact be appropriate in another.

3. How important is a graduate degree to your goals?

For some people, a graduate degree will be required to take the next desired step in their careers. For others, a graduate degree is a “nice to have”—something that will help them advance in their careers, and which they intend to earn, but which isn’t a requirement.

Consider your career goals and how important actually earning a degree is to making that goal a reality. If the degree itself is critical to your plan, then it may be a good idea to apply to a few more programs to increase your chances.

Tips for Getting It Right

1. Do your research.

Make sure you thoroughly research each program that you are planning on applying to, so that you will understand how competitive the application process is likely to be. Likewise, consider speaking with your undergraduate advisor or someone else who has worked in your chosen field to get a sense of how competitive the industry as a whole is. This information should influence how many programs you apply to.

2. Build in safety.

Most people organize their college search into three main buckets of programs:

  • Dream programs, or reach programs, which you would ultimately like to attend if the opportunity presents itself. These are typically more competitive.
  • Target programs, which, while not as prestigious as your dream programs, are perfectly adequate. These will typically be programs that you are most confident about your chances.
  • Safety programs, which you believe you will have no problem being accepted to.

By including one or two programs from each category, you dramatically increase the likelihood that you will be accepted to at least one program.

3. Make each application shine.

Each application you submit should be outstanding. If you only have the time and energy to fully commit to submitting four stellar applications, then that is probably where you should allocate your energy. It will be better in the long run to submit four amazing applications than it will be to submit six or eight mediocre applications.

For more information about what a graduate education looks like at Northeastern University, visit our program catalog.