The choice to enter graduate school is one that is generally not taken lightly. It is a huge commitment both in terms of time and finances. Full-time graduate students must bear the burden of tuition, supplies, and off-campus housing, in addition to paying off student loans from undergraduate study, while part-time students endure a longer program length while balancing class and homework responsibilities with work commitments.
Graduate programs exist in fields of business (MBAs), fine arts (MFAs), health care (MSNs, MDs, DDSs), science and engineering (MSME, MSEE, PhD), education (MSed, EdD), and many, many more. Most graduate schools can be broken down into three qualities that students can examine before applying: academic quality, likelihood of acceptance, and personal choices.
Likelihood of acceptance is a simple category, in most cases. Most schools report how selective they are, or the number of applicants and how many they accepted in a given year. Most schools also report items such as average GPAs and median test scores (such as from the GRE, GMAT, MCAT). Based on their own qualifications, a student can fairly reasonably establish a list of schools to which they would likely be accepted. While no set of data can completely reflect a student's odds for acceptance – most students are surprised on occasion, by either a long-shot acceptance or an out-of-nowhere rejection – such data can give students a general idea of where they are headed.
The quality of an academic program can be a fairly subjective area. While rankings organizations judge quality quite frequently, their criteria might not mean anything to some prospective students. What seems rigorous and intensive to one might be rote and boring to another. Quality criteria can be found in faculty research interests and publications, facilities, student support, and job placement of graduates.
Every aspiring graduate student should make a list of their own personal criteria in a school, such as location, curriculum, fellowship and teaching assistant opportunities, graduation requirements, length of program, and part-time or online study options. Because graduate school is such a major commitment, it is a decision that should not be made in haste.