Choosing a graduate program: what they don’t tell you


Think about purchasing a home…

It’s an enormous investment and when you’re in the market, you invest a lot of yourself in that search. You chat with friends and family who have recently gone through the experience. You can do a ton of research online. You can even download apps that will show you listings that fit your exact criteria. On top of that, you can get a real estate agent who you trust and will work hard to find your dream home.

Now think about enrolling for a master’s degree

It’s not quite as expensive as purchasing a home (hopefully!), but it’s another important and very personal search. You can once again ask for the advice of your loved ones. You can search online, read lists of rankings and reports, and discuss it with a representative from the College or University.

But when there’s a selection of programs that will suit your needs, the search suddenly becomes infinitely more complicated.

The tricky part (and the part nobody really talks about) is that local colleges are really working hard to develop high quality, relevant, and affordable degree programs and they’re doing a great job. They’re making their programs more affordable, more convenient for working adult students, and easier to access.

It creates a good news/bad news scenario for potential students: having options is amazing but it can be a huge challenge when it’s not clear which one to pick.

Does this sound familiar? What can you do to move forward with choosing a graduate program?

Think real estate: you’re the buyer and the potential graduate programs are the motivated sellers. Just like a real estate agent would steer you away from properties outside of your criteria, you can take this approach when finding your master’s degree program. Of course it’s not easy to separate yourself from the search process. A real estate agent doesn’t have to live in the house they sell to a client—they don’t need to live with the result. You however will be deeply tied to the result of your master’s degree search, so how do you shift your approach?

We put together our tips for executing your search for a master’s program with the focus and determination of a real estate powerhouse.

Here are five steps to becoming your own college search agent.

1. Criteria – what are your “must haves”?

To think like a college search agent, you’ll need to be highly aware of which features are the most important to you. Is it affordability? How quickly do you want to start? Do you want to study online or on campus or both? How soon do you want to earn a degree? Do you want a broad program that’s applicable in any field or a niche area of study? Are you willing to take a GRE or GMAT?

2. Rank it.

Distractions happen. We have all gone to the grocery store and purchased items that weren’t on our original list. Maybe you had the intention of buying the generic version and ended up with the name brand instead. In most cases… no biggie. But you don’t want this to happen with your college search—you can potentially lose time, money, and experiences that you would’ve really valued.

The beauty of developing your criteria and ranking it is that you build up a natural defense against these distractions.

3. Stick to your guns and limit negotiations

Referring back to the real estate analogy for a moment… if having a yard is a must then a good real estate agent is not going to show the client a house on a postage stamp-sized lot.

Let’s say that your top priority is to finish a degree in less than two years. You’re also interested in programs that offer diverse electives, but that’s further down your list. If you happen upon a program with amazing elective courses that you’d love to study but the program takes four years to complete, you’ll need to stay true to your criteria. It’s a tough call, but it allows you to stay focused on your goals.

Only consider the most relevant “listings” so you don’t end up giving your attention to master’s degree programs that won’t ultimately make you happy. Critically examine your criteria alongside the features of the potential master’s degree programs and aim to narrow it down to two or three.

4. Narrow it down and inquire

When your list of potential schools is whittled down, it’s a great time to reach out.

With your refined criteria and your ability to stick to these parameters, you’ll be able to forge a really productive conversation with representatives from your master’s degree program.

Be sure to have your criteria handy. If you’re speaking with someone on the phone, have it nearby. If you’re meeting face-to-face, bring it in a padfolio. We already addressed how it’s easy to get distracted. It’s also easy to forget to ask a question that’s important to your decision.

5. Make your choice!

At this point, you should have one or two programs that fit your needs. Use your criteria (or at this point, your gut instinct) to make your final choice and submit your applications.

And of course, congratulate yourself! You found your master’s degree program and you didn’t even have to pay a finder’s fee (college searching is so much better than house hunting!).


With the added structure you get from thinking like an agent, you can feel confident that you’re moving in the right direction as you narrow down your options.

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