Finding the Best Program Match

Identifying the best programs for you to apply to is a formidable task. You should start as soon as you begin to think about graduate school. By learning about graduate programs, you will have a sense of the nature of individual programs (for example, small or large, reputation, specialties, graduation rates). Similarly, if you are familiar with the requirements of a program, you can also align your current coursework to strengthen your preparation for graduate school. Please consider the following activities:

  • Use your own department, professors, and graduate students as resources. Often, departments will maintain bulletin boards where graduate programs are advertised. You might also ask undergraduate advisors what schools that students have often applied to. Ask your professors about the schools and programs that they attended and would recommend. Graduate students can provide information about the schools they considered, advice about applying, and what it feels like to be a graduate student.
  • Look online at schools and departments. Determine if the program offers an M.A., Ph.D., or both. What are the requirements for admission? How many full-time faculty make up the department? Note each faculty member's research interests. Review the courses offered to determine if there are many that would interest you. How many graduate students are there in the program? Study their research interests and the topics of completed theses and dissertations. Review the degree requirements. In general, learn as much as you can about the preparation, application process, and the program from the website to determine how well your interests align with the program's offerings.
  • At your home campus, visit the career center. Often there are counselors who can provide guidance about identifying graduate schools and programs. Usually, career centers also house graduate school guides where you can learn about school and departmental rankings.
  • Ask questions about the programs/schools you are considering. How many students are admitted each year? How many apply? Is it common for all students to receive fellowships? What must you do to be considered for a fellowship? Ask about the placement record of recent graduates. What preparation makes a student competitive? What is the average number of years it takes students to complete their degrees? How is the department committed to diversity? Can you contact a graduate student in the department?
  • Consider your research interests within the graduate discipline of your choice. Your interests should closely align with the those of the departments/schools that you are considering. For example, if you are interested in Caribbean literature, the program should offer graduate courses on the topic and there should be a minimum of one faculty member with this research interest. Identify how many professors are full-time in your department of interest. Also, what are other departments or affiliated departments in which you could take classes?
  • Make a list of five to ten schools to which you will apply. Think big and apply to top schools also. Keep in mind that if you only apply to two to three programs, you reduce your chances of being admitted to any program. Graduate students have often said they wish they had applied to more programs. Select ones that are reach schools, and schools to which you would likely be admitted. Review the publication What's Next? to identify additional University of California schools to consider, and visit the website at
  • Visit schools on your list, if possible. Campus visits assist you in getting a feel for the program and school you are considering. Talk to graduate students and attend a few graduate seminars while you are there. Also, be sure to talk to the graduate faculty advisor about applying to the program and your research or program interests.
  • Review national rankings. Each year certain publishers, such as U.S. News & World Report, offer national rankings of colleges and universities in the United States. Most of the rankings apply to undergraduate programs, but some also apply to graduate programs. Keep in mind that rankings are only one piece of information to consider, however.