How Many Grad Schools Should You Apply To?

By Anna Davies · September 21, 2023 · 6 minute read

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How Many Grad Schools Should You Apply To?

If you’ve decided to apply to grad school, you may be wrestling with a few questions, including how many schools you should apply to in total. The answer will depend on your personal situation, but a general rule of thumb is to apply to somewhere between four and six grad schools, including at least one reach school as well as one or two safety schools.

Read on to learn more about how to choose which grad schools — and how many — to apply to, plus options for financing your graduate degree once you get in.

Follow the Money and Consider Cost

When deciding where to apply to grad school, it can be a good idea to consider the quality and reputation of each program, as well as the potential cost. Even if you didn’t take out loans for your undergrad education, you may need to for your graduate-level studies. Indeed, according to the Education Data Initiative, grad students currently shoulder a significant portion of student debt — a full 46% of federal loans issued each year. Federal loans can reach the six figures, and many graduates of grad programs may not have earning power to pay back these loans comfortably until years or even decades after their degree is conferred.

If you’re in the early stages of considering going to grad school, here are a few questions and actions that may help you navigate the choices available to you:

•   Talk with people who have gotten a similar master’s degree. What did they wish they had known?

•   Talk with the department or departments at the schools you’re considering and ask about graduate scholarships, fellowships, and other programs that may lower program cost.

•   Consider your career path. Look on various salary sites for median salaries for your proposed field of study.

In the early stages of heading to grad school, you may also want to determine how you’ll pay for graduate school, as this may impact the school you choose to attend. Here are a few suggestions for crafting a plan to pay for your graduate education.

💡 Quick Tip: You can fund your education with a low-rate, no-fee private student loan that covers all school-certified costs.

Talk with your family

Some students have found that their family may support some or all of their grad school journey. Contributions such as free housing or the use of a family car add up as well, so it can be important to factor those in. For example, some students may look at programs where they can live at home, so they don’t need to pay for housing and travel expenses. If this is the case, make sure everyone is very clear about expectations so there are no surprises later on.

Apply for Federal Student Aid

Be sure to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Unlike undergrad education, direct subsidized loans are not available to graduate students. Your loans will also be considered in conjunction with any federal loans you took out as an undergrad when it comes to determining the number of federal loans you’re eligible for as a grad student. Talking to the financial aid office at the schools you’re considering attending can also help you understand what loans, scholarships, and other programs may be available to you.

Recommended: What is the Maximum Amount of Student Loans for Graduate School?

Consider Private Loans

Some students may find they need more money than they are offered in federal loans, and that’s where private graduate student loans student loans. Private lenders generally won’t lend more than what it costs to go to school, and rates and terms will vary. Note that because private student loans lack the borrower protections that federal loans offer (like Public Service Loan Forgiveness or deferment options) it’s generally recommended that borrowers rely on these after tapping all federal aid options.

Consider Relevance And Practicality

In addition to prestige, it’s also important to consider degree relevance and how it may be practical for your future career path. Looking at salaries from people who graduated from that program or with that degree can help you assess what the future after graduation will look like. Sometimes, students can become so focused on getting into a grad program and affording the program that they may forget that the first year out of grad school may require a few months to find a job and find footing in a new career.

Asking yourself some questions can help you further drill down into the best programs to apply for:

How Much Will Expenses Cost?

Room, board, and travel all add up. Considering those costs can help assess overall expense. It can also be helpful to consider the cost of living, too, which can vary based on where the program is based.

Recommended: 6 Ways to Save Money for Grad School

Can I Work and Study Simultaneously?

Some programs may be structured for grad students to do both; others might be created primarily for students who can devote all their time to their studies. If you’re self-funding your grad school experience and are currently employed, it may be worth speaking with your HR office to see if there are any options for your company to fund your studies if you are planning to study and go to school at the same time.

How Long Is the Program?

Different grad programs have different time frames. While some, such as law schools, may have relatively standard coursework for traditional students, other programs may offer different structures depending on the school. And it may make sense to see how long or how short the degree can take depending on life circumstances. It can also be helpful to know if an internship or other hands-on experience is essential for the degree, as that may influence feasibility with fitting the degree in with other work.

Recommended: Is it Possible to Take Online Classes While Working?

Consider All Information

When applying to grad programs, getting as much data as possible can be helpful in determining the next steps. Talking with professors, people currently working in the industry, current students, and faculty at several schools you’re considering can all be helpful in assessing how well you may fit in a program — and why a program may be the best fit for you. Because graduate departments tend to be smaller than undergrad departments, you may find it easier to have these sorts of conversations.

It can also be helpful to speak to graduates of a program and to talk with mentors and employers about how a grad degree may enhance your career. While some career paths demand a grad degree, such as an attorney, social worker, or doctor, there are other career paths where a grad degree may not be necessary — or may be subsidized by an employer when they consider it essential. So having a range of opinions can be helpful when it comes to homing in on the best grad school programs for your needs.

💡 Quick Tip: Master’s degree or graduate certificate? Private or federal student loans can smooth the path to either goal.

The Takeaway

When figuring out how many grad schools to apply to, you may want to shoot for somewhere between four and six. The idea is to apply to enough schools to ensure that you are accepted to at least one program, but not so many that the time, effort, and cost (application fees can add up quickly) becomes too much.

When narrowing your list of target schools, keep in mind both the quality and cost of different programs. And even before you get accepted, it can be a good idea to fill out the FAFSA, and start making a plan for how you’ll cover your graduate school expenses.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.

Photo credit: iStock/MicroStockHub

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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.


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