Amost anyone who puts in the necessary time and effort to explore the options for graduate studies in his or her discipline or field of interest will come to at least two conclusions: There are many programs and schools to choose from, and there is considerable variability among them in terms of their specific appeals.
You can only attend one graduate school at a time, so you want to end up in a place that’s right for you. Is it better to put all your effort into applying to only the program at the top of your list, or should you apply to as many programs as possible? How many is enough, and how many is too many?
You definitely want to place some reasonable limit on the number of graduate schools to which you will apply. Consider the costs of applying to a large number of schools. For each application, you will have to pay for transcripts, standardized test scores, postage, and probably a nonrefundable application fee. The application fees are astonishingly high for some programs. You will need to follow up on each of your applications to make sure that all the materials have arrived. This will involve a great deal of time—the more programs, the more time.
There is also a limit to how much you can improve your chances of being accepted by simply increasing the number of programs you apply to. As you first increase the number of applications, the odds of being accepted into a suitable program increase, accordingly. However, the law of diminishing returns begins to set in at some point. If you apply to too many programs, you may not be able to spend enough time on any of the applications, and you will probably end up with some that fall short of the quality that could have been there.
Apply to more than just one
This is advice one hears often, but many students still make the mistake of putting all of their hope into getting into one particular school. One reason why this is almost always a mistake has to do with how the selection process generally works. The decisions of admissions committees and graduate advisors are products of human judgment, based on consideration of several factors, some of which are objective, whereas others are subjective. The point is that getting into graduate school can be capricious even for students with really good grades and with lots of other things going for them. No student should take for granted that he or she will be accepted into any particular program.
If you are currently thinking of applying to only one graduate school, it may be a good idea to re-check your reasons. Here are a few of the shortsighted reasons one often hears:
“I am only applying to that school because I want to live in that city.” It is often the case that the city is very close to home, and perhaps it is even the student’s hometown. The school in question may have a perfectly appropriate program for the student, and if that is the case, then she should certainly apply there. But if geographical location was all that went into the decision, the odds are high that she is missing programs offered at other schools that are significantly better matched with what she is looking for in terms of specialized research and training.
“I plan to go there for graduate studies because the school has such a great reputation, which is sure to help my career, afterward.” Do not fall for the common misconception that a high-profile school will offer superior education and training compared to a lower-profile school. The general reputation of a school is often based on historical or other factors that can be totally unrelated to the quality of graduate training it offers in your field. It is a common misconception that someone with a Ph.D. from a high-profile university has better career prospects than someone with the same degree from a lower-profile school. It just doesn’t work that way in very many cases. The career outlook for someone with a Ph.D. is determined mostly by that person’s competence and expertise, and not at all by the name of the school where he or she studied.
“I have researched their program and they offer exactly what I’m looking for.” Sounds great, but what if you don’t get in? There is no way of knowing exactly how you will be evaluated by any particular admission committee. In many cases, the prospective graduate advisor is the one who will ultimately decide on your application, and there could be any one of several possible reasons why that person might not accept any particular applicant. Even if you are truly outstanding in some ways, those might not be the ways that matter to your prospective advisor.
Apply to more than just one, but not to every program you come across
Although you would be wise to apply to more than one program, there is no advantage in applying to a large number of indiscriminately chosen programs. You will not improve the odds if you are unrealistic about which programs you apply to. Choices must be made on the basis of your research into what each of them has to offer, how well they match your interests and goals, how competitive they are, and how your own credentials (including grades) are likely to stack up against the competition.
Students with weak grades and mediocre standardized test scores may not have much chance of getting into one of the more competitive and high-profile programs in their field. Applying to several such programs will just lead to more rejection letters and a bigger blow to the student’s self-esteem. It is not be worth the time and effort, or the application fees. But there are dozens of other programs for which your application might be quite competitive. If you do your research properly—which mostly means thoroughly exploring the graduate-program websites—you should have little problem figuring out which programs are realistic for you, in light of your qualifications and the competitiveness of the programs.
You also have to consider the amount of time any person will be able or willing to spend writing letters of reference and filling out recommendation forms on your behalf. If there are substantial differences among the programs you are applying to in terms of their focus areas, then you want your referees (a term for those who write letters of reference) to have time and interest in writing letters that are somewhat customized to suit each program. It might be easy enough to ask for a small number of letters, but asking a busy professor to write two dozen letters will likely just get you two dozen short and ineffective letters, if it gets you any at all. Your referees might politely reassure you that they don’t mind filling out your recommendation forms, but I can assure you that this is rarely a pleasure, and more often it is a chore. You do not want to impose more than a few recommendation forms on anyone.
So, how many programs?
Although several caveats have been mentioned, we have not really discussed the exact number of programs you should apply to. That is because the decision should really be made by you, and will depend on your chosen field and on other circumstances. As a general guideline, you should probably be applying to at least four or five different programs that you are well-qualified for, and probably no more than ten. If you are applying to the more competitive professional-degree programs, then you might want to apply to a few more.