A principle goal of our randomized national survey of current graduate students (see an introduction and our methods here) is to better understand the application strategies of successful students. Such insight would be useful to graduate programs seeking to deepen the quality of their application pools.

Our survey respondents self-reported that they applied to anywhere from one to 30 different graduate programs, with a surprisingly large fraction, 22% of students, applying to just a single program. Approximately three-quarters of our current graduate respondents applied to 6 or fewer programs.

The median number of programs our survey respondents applied to is only four and they were accepted by a median of two programs. Overall, the respondents were accepted by an average of two-thirds of the programs that they applied to.

We segmented our respondents on the basis of the award level for the programs they are currently enrolled in and this data is shown in the accompanying figure. The application number increases for students applying to more comprehensive degree programs with an inverse relationship to acceptance rates.

For example, the median number of applications prepared by our respondents enrolled in a master’s program is only 3. The master’s students were accepted into an average of ~80% of the programs to which they applied. Doctoral students applied to twice as many programs as master’s applicants and they were accepted by more than half of the programs they applied to.

Together, these data indicate that successful graduate students don’t apply to many programs, and they are accepted by the majority of programs they apply to.


What this means for graduate programs

There are hundreds of worthy graduate programs at strong universities in any given academic specialty. Students have many options, and the best applicants are sought by many programs. These survey data show that a typical prospect will apply to only a very small group of programs that would otherwise be of interest to them.

This, of course, makes sense. Applying to graduate school takes a lot of effort and the costs quickly add up. However, even if it were easy and inexpensive for students to apply, prospects can’t possibly explore every conceivable option. Students instead invest their time and effort into researching the relevant programs that pop up on their radar, eventually applying to the small handful that seem to match their needs.

Programs that receive many applications should resist the temptation to become complacent with their overall application numbers. They are likely missing out on scores of top prospects simply because these candidates are unaware the program exists. If a program’s goal is to build a deeper and stronger application pool, the first step is to get on the applicant’s radar.

But even this is not enough. Programs must also effectively communicate their value proposition. That case can be made by taking the known assets and advantages of their program in consideration with the unique interests of a prospect. One can’t expect that value proposition to be immediately obvious to a prospect.

In the end, the goal is to convince prospects who, as a general rule do not apply to many program, that it is worth their time and effort to prepare just one additional application.

Check out the other articles on our current graduate student survey:

Survey of Current Graduate Students

Graduate Student Survey – Demographics and Fields of Study

Getting Into Grad School – How to Improve Your Chances

Are Grad Students Happy?

How to Choose the RIGHT Graduate School