How to Evaluate and Compare Schools’ Graduate Programs

Daphne Heflin
Daphne Heflin
Elementary school principal; Ed.S. in Educational Leadership and Administration
Man sitting at a desk reviewing notes and using a laptop.

You’ve completed your undergraduate degree. Perhaps you’ve started a family, raised a family, worked in a professional role for a while, or experienced something different, and now you may be considering next steps. Since you are reading this article, you are likely considering graduate degrees, programs, and institutions and want to make informed decisions that will best suit you and your needs. Consider the information and action steps below as you evaluate and compare schools’ graduate programs.

What Should I Consider?

When thinking about the answer to the question, “What should I consider when comparing graduate programs,” think about the things that are important to you. What do you want and need in a graduate program? List your “must haves” along with things that you consider to be very enticing perks. I suggest creating a spreadsheet or table to list those important, enticing components you want in a graduate program.

You may find that your list is extensive so you doubt if you’ll find a program that meets all wishes on your list. In this case, begin to prioritize. You may want to place numbers beside the items on your list or rewrite your list in a different order with your highest priorities at the top. Look for programs that meet your top priorities or top desires and needs. Examples one might find on my prioritized list are:

  1. Affordable
  2. Accredited
  3. Available online
  4. Timeframe for completion is less than two years
  5. Accessible faculty and support personnel

Cost and Financial Aid

Most people will want to consider cost and financial aid options when comparing graduate programs. Basically, there is an option for everyone who needs support; options include scholarships, fellowships, grants, and loans and may be federal, personal, institutional, or from other agencies or sources. For specifics, contact the educational institution’s financial aid department, search the web, or search the institution’s website.

As you consider costs and applying for financial support, include both tuition and non-tuition costs. You may have residential costs, meal plans, books, lab supplies, or other costs specific to your area of study. Any cost, if not considered from the start, can cause a financial impact on individuals and/or families.

If you decide to apply for financial assistance, you will want to be mindful about deadlines for any required applications or assessments. You may also want to prepare a resume and purpose statement in advance, as they will be helpful throughout application processes and interviews.

Program Reputation

The graduate program you are considering has a reputation. The question is, “What is its reputation?” Start by finding out if the program of study and the institution are accredited. Being accredited means the program or institution meets standards of excellence in areas such as academics, integrity, ethics, student experiences, etc.

Additional information about programs’ and institutions’ reputations can be gained from campus visits, conversations with alumni, conversations with current students, and reviews found on the institution’s website. As you talk with former and current students, ask for honest reflections on the things that are important to you like accessibility of faculty, responsiveness of department leaders, friendliness of other staff and students, location, facilities, communications, support services, and any other factors you may hold in high regard as being crucial to your program.

Research, Practicum, and Other Educational Opportunities

Experience is one of the best teachers. In other words, you learn from real-life scenarios and opportunities in your chosen field. You learn to solve problems and to apply theory and knowledge from your coursework. Thus, practicum, internships, research opportunities, and other fieldwork are important and should be considered when you are comparing graduate programs. If the program you’re considering offers real-life opportunities, consider the amount of travel required, additional costs, additional time requirements, the ability to hold a full- or part-time job simultaneously (if this applies), and the like.

Career Opportunities

Determine which career paths are attractive to you and will be available to you upon the completion of your program. Will available career paths lead to security, stability, and lend themselves to family life or other lifestyles that are important to you? Many institutions assist alumni in locating job opportunities. Is the institution you are considering equipped to support you in your efforts to find a job or career in your chosen field of study? This type of institutional assistance may or may not be a priority on your list, but it’s worth considering.


People need people. As a graduate student, you will need various degrees of support from others. Consider the accessibility of faculty when you are comparing graduate programs and institutions. Faculty support is helpful for answering questions, guiding you in your assignments and requirements, providing you with feedback, and more.

Ask others about the friendliness, knowledge, and accessibility of faculty. Reach out to faculty and determine how quickly they respond and the degree to which their responses help. Also, inquire about office hours and preferred means of communication. Do they match your hours and preferred means of communication? If not, are you willing to be flexible?

Now that you’ve read the tips, advice, and questions above, you may be thinking, “That’s seems like a lot of work prior to choosing a graduate program.” You are worth it…you are worth the effort it takes to make the best choice for you! Your future hinges on your decisions, which is why comparing graduate programs is warranted and should serve you well.

Start your journey to find the right degree for you by exploring and comparing our available programs here!

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