How to Test-Drive a Graduate Program

Side view mirror on the road

Choosing a graduate school is not so different from purchasing a car (hear me out on this one).

Both are “purchased” with the hope that they’ll get you from Point A to Point B, and they’re both significant investments.

And trying to decide from among the hundreds of graduate programs out there can sometimes feel just as overwhelming as walking onto a dealership lot filled with row after row of new cars.

That’s where the test drive comes in. Test-driving a car allows you to get a feel for the vehicle because no matter how much research you do, nothing compares to sitting behind the wheel and getting out on the road.

Similarly, browsing websites and attending information sessions are a great first step, but there’s more you can do. We spoke to admissions officers and current graduate students to gather their top suggestions of how to “test-drive” a graduate program and decide if it’s a fit.

So, once you’ve checked off  “attend an Idealist Grad Fair” from your to-do list, take some of these next steps for a test drive!

Talk to current students or recent alumni

One of the best ways to get a feel for the student experience is to talk to current students or recent alumni. Ask questions that a website or brochure can’t answer, such as:

  • When you were researching schools, what factors drew you to this program?
  • What are your career goals, and how has the program helped you achieve them?
  • What has your experience been like with extracurricular activities? For example, part-time internships, volunteering opportunities, or student groups.
  • What do you wish you’d known when you were in my position?

If you contact the admissions office, they may be able to connect you with students or alumni who have volunteered to speak with prospective students. Some schools, such as the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, post students’ profiles online so you can find students who share your interests and contact them directly.

You could also try finding current students or recent alumni in your existing networks. If you’ve decided share your graduate school plans with colleagues and your desired program is in your field, ask coworkers if they’ve attended the school or know someone who has. You may even have a coworker who has taught a course at the graduate program you’re considering.

And don’t forget about the digital networking space. You can search your LinkedIn network—and the entire site—to find people who list the school on their profile. It’s easier to get a response if you reach out to someone you already know, but don’t be afraid to send a cold email. You could send something simple, like the following (substituting your desired program for the Harry Potter references):

“I saw that you attended the Potions master’s program at Hogwarts University. I am considering that program, and I’m wondering if you would be willing to answer a few questions about your experience. My career goal is to be a potions maker in an organization similar to yours, so any guidance you would be willing to provide about how your master’s program helped you achieve that position would be greatly appreciated. Could I send you some questions via email, or would you be willing to chat on the phone?”

Pro Tip: If you decide on a cold email, make sure that it can be read in under 15 seconds.

Talk to a professor

Professors can give you insight into the dynamics of the department and what kind of students is likely to succeed in, and enjoy the program. Talking to a professor can also help you ensure that the faculty’s interests align with your interests and long-term goals.

College search company Peterson’s recommends contacting the admissions office before reaching out to a professor. They can help you find the right professor to talk to based on your interests and the professors’ availability.

Before talking to a professor, read up on their background and research areas (you should be able to find all of this information on the school’s website). Some questions to ask once you’ve made the connection are:

  • In your opinion, what are the strengths of the academic environment?
  • On an average day, how much time do you spend with students?
  • Is there anything about the program you would change if you could?

Sit in on a class (or two!)

Observing a class is a great way to see a program in action. You’ll see how the professors and students interact, and afterward, you can talk to current students about their experience.

Ask whether you may be able to drop in on a class when you contact the admissions office, sit in on an information session, or attend an Idealist Grad Fair. Or you can make plans to visit the campus (more on that below) and sit in on a class as part of the visit.

Before you talk to someone at the program, look at the curriculum and pick a few classes you would be interested in observing. Some programs may only offer the introductory level classes or classes where professors have volunteered to host prospective students while others may let you choose any course, so be prepared for any of these options.

When you’re observing the class, here are some things to keep an eye out for:

  • What is the professor’s teaching style? Does it jive with your learning style?
  • What is the balance among lecture, class discussion, group work, and other learning formats?
  • What kinds of experiences and perspectives are students bringing to the discussion?

Visit the campus

A graduate school visit is typically more personalized than the undergraduate visits where you may have joined alongside dozens of high school students and parents, traipsing across campus back when you were searching for your perfect undergrad experience.

Beth Soboleski, Director of Admissions and Recruiting at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, says she or someone else from the admissions team usually meets with students, one on one. Soboleski adds that the format of a visit to the Ford School is flexible; you can visit before or after you’re accepted, sit in on a class, talk to a student who shares your interest, and just get a feel for the campus.

If the graduate program you’re considering is far away, you may want to wait to visit until you’ve been accepted to the program. Some schools offer a more formal event where admitted students connect and get to know the program as a cohort.

There’s a lot to look for during a campus visit—I suggest writing down your thoughts while you’re there so it will be easier to compare programs a few weeks or months later.

Pro Tip: Bring a copy of our guide to “The Grad School Campus Visit” to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything!

Of course, the final thing to consider is whether you can picture yourself on and around campus, attending classes, and living nearby. If the answer is yes and the program fits with your career goals, your test drive may be over, and your graduate career just beginning.

What have you tried in order to get a sense of prospective programs—or jobs—before making a decision? What do you look for on your “test drives”?

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As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.
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