Choosing a graduate or undergraduate institution is a daunting process. Trust me, I know. I recently received my Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard University in May and now serve as the coordinator of a Gender and Sexuality Resource Center at a university.
Not only do I remember the trials and triumphs of my own graduate school selection process, but my students also remind me every day of the complexity involved in navigating higher education. On top of deciding what to study (and why), prospective college and graduate students must also determine where to go, how much they can afford to spend, and how long they can take to earn their degree—to name just a few of the choices at hand. And, of course, this comes after making the initial decision: whether or not to go to school—which, for many of us, is a communal process. Community is of paramount importance, as mentors help us discern what programs may be the best for our academic lives and career possibilities.
However, applying to school is also a deeply personal process, one that should radically center your unique needs and desires.
Below you will find what I consider to be the top five most important things to consider when choosing an undergraduate or graduate program. This list is informed not only by what I believe to be universal needs, but also my intersectional needs as a Black woman. I encourage you to think about your holistic needs (gender identity, proximity to family, disability status, socioeconomic background, etc.) as you browse my list. Further, I encourage you to take some time to sit down and write your own list as well.
Applying to school is a very personal process, I invite you to own your unique wants and needs as you decipher what is best for you during this wonderfully beautiful process of change and self-discovery.
As a Black woman, location is of paramount importance. Because I am vulnerable to both gender and racial discrimination, I think critically about the spaces in which I choose to live. For undergrad I attended University of California - Berkeley. As a Black LGBTQ person, I greatly enjoyed my time at Berkeley—but, this does not mean that the experience was devoid of trauma.
When considering a graduate program, take into account the identities you carry and the ways in which location may exacerbate or alleviate the subjugation that you experience.
If like me, your top-choice school is in an area that may be problematic for your intersectional well-being, research the community outside of your school. Going into Harvard, I knew Boston was notoriously cited as a space of extreme racial trauma for Black people. Yet, with this knowledge, I still understood that Harvard offered me the best package deal, particularly concerning financial aid and academic advisor options. As such, I mentally prepared myself to dig extra deep for community. Boston did not hand me community; I searched for it with intentionality and tenacity. From this search, I learned that unlikely spaces contain robust intersectional communities.
If you find yourself in the same predicament as me, I encourage you to put yourself out there! Often, there are niche gatherings just beyond an institution (such as a Black Women’s Healing Group or monthly LGBTQ mixers) that can serve as a conduit for the creation of community. Remember that wherever you are, home is also. We carry home in our hearts and we house belonging in our authentic truths. So get out there, be brave, be courageous, and be vulnerable, it's worth it.
Though I advocate for critical engagement when considering the location of your school, make sure that you do a deep dive before writing it off. There just may be communities that align with your values that are hidden under the surface. Remember that even at schools in your ideal location, building community takes time. Do your research, but once you are there, be patient. Community will come.
This is particularly important for potential graduate students as graduate students work intimately with faculty members.For example, many master’s students work closely with their academic advisor concerning the direction and completion of their thesis. For doctoral students, the relationship with one’s advisor is especially important. Due to the fact that doctoral students need their dissertation approved in order to graduate, an unsupportive advisor can result in delays in graduation and decreased mental health. Unfortunately, a handful of my friends in doctoral programs left due to a hostile relationship with their advisors.
Though some things are simply beyond our control, I believe some advisor issues can be mitigated by using discernment throughout your process of choosing an institution. For graduate students, both master’s and Ph.D. students, I urge you not attend an institution that will not provide academic support. Delineate between being a fan of a potential advisor and their ability to be a mentor.
Choose a school that allows your advisor ample time to support you. Big-name universities and research universities are important for future job security, yes, but long term happiness is important, too. When choosing a graduate program, do not be afraid to examine unlikely schools, you may find hidden gems that you never knew existed. And of course, do not be afraid to contact current students and ask them about their experiences
Though I focus on graduate students here, even when applying to undergrad, faculty still remains important. As such, potential graduate and undergraduate students alike should learn more about faculty at various institutions. Are there faculty at your institution who study things that you care about? For marginalized students: are there faculty that look like you and carry your identities?
When choosing a school, think critically about your healthcare needs. Ask yourself questions such as: Do I have chronic pain? Does my school provide women’s wellness visits? How expensive is my school’s medical plan, and do they waive the fee for certain students? Does this school provide counseling and psychological services?
During my time in undergrad, I unexpectedly developed chronic pain and my school could not support me. As such, this advice comes from personal experience. I encourage you to ask critical questions about your healthcare needs and I also implore you to take full advantage of the health services that your university provides.
Campus diversity is particularly important for students of color but is also of paramount importance for the social health of all students. Does your school have an African American Student Center, a Chicanx/Latinx Student Center, an Asian Pacific Islander Student Center, or anything similar such as a Multicultural Student Support Center? Though it is a grim reality that many schools lack the necessary resources for student support, it still remains that many schools contain at least one or two resource centers.
Think deeply about what support resources your school has to offer, as this can be a great metric through which to project what your student experience may be at a particular university. Further, by examining identity-based and academic-based support resources, you can garner a clearer picture of the values of the university. For example, if your university lacks support for student-parents and you are a student parent, it is important to ask yourself if you want to attend a school that may not value your holistic life. Remember you choose the school as much as the school chooses you.
Last, but certainly not least, is the importance of financial aid. For many of us, FAFSA is our first point-of-entry when considering how to afford college and graduate school, but many schools have their own internal scholarship systems. I encourage you to call your top school choices and ask about what scholarships and fellowships they offer on campus. Also, consider asking if they have top applicant scholarships.
This is of particular importance for master’s students. I often hear master’s students resigning to take out loans before they even research the schools that they want to attend. There is a myth that master’s degrees are not funded, but many schools provide partial are full tuition for master’s degrees. When it comes to financial aid, I encourage you not to listen to the financial myths and take your financial future into your own hands. As a special note, many schools have information on scholarships and fellowships on their website, so make sure you take stock of how many you qualify for.
Ultimately, it is my hope that this list gives you a starting place from which to thoughtfully consider this awesome new transition. It is my hope that in browsing this list you were reminded that you have agency in this process. Choosing a school is not just about academics, it is about your holistic well-being. As you continue to discern your ideal college, remember to periodically turn inward and center yourself along the way.
Questions or feedback? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Ciarra Jones is an author, facilitator, moderator, and student affairs professional. She received her B.A. in American Studies from UC Berkeley and her Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard University. Currently, Ciarra resides in Southern California where she runs the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center at a local university. You can find Ciarra’s writing on Huffington Post, Medium, and Black Youth Project.