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Before you start filling out the miles of paperwork that go into graduate school applications, consider your scores. (Depending on the major you are working towards, you will be required to take GRE, GED, MCAT, or LSAT, to name a few.) If you have average scores, chances of getting into top schools (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc.) are not that great. However, if you have your heart set on a school of that caliber, do not hesitate to apply. Often, community service, extra-curricular activities and prior performance within the field will weigh-in heavier than the graduate exams.
If you do poorly on the exams, do not get discouraged. Standardized tests are difficult for many people. Consider taking a prep course for the particular exam you are preparing to take or purchase a prep book like, Cracking the GRE published by The Princeton Review. These courses/books help you focus on the skills you need to improve upon as well as teach you strategies for answering questions that seem vague.
In addition, your letters of recommendation can help explain extenuating circumstances. Having a professor who knows your work well and can advocate for you is a great asset.
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Once your scores are dealt with, the next question that comes into play is location. Where do you want to go? How many graduate schools should I apply to that are out of state or out of the country?
If you love to travel and want to visit other areas of the country, then the number of graduate schools to consider increases as opposed to someone who wishes to stay within a certain area or region of the country.
Of course, there is a great deal to consider about the location. Besides looking at the area geographically, you will need to decide if you want to live in the middle of a big city (think MIT in Cambridge or Columbia University's Department of International and Public Affairs in New York City), or in a more rural area, which slims down your possibilities a great deal.
Another consideration is whether or not the degree you wish to acquire can be received locally. For instance, if you wish to become a reading specialist and live in Massachusetts, then the University of Massachusetts Amherst would be a good choice for you.
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Depending on your major, the number of graduate schools for you to apply to may be expansive or meager. For instance, a graduate degree in education may be found in most universities around the world. However, there are only a few graduate schools that offer an advanced degree in costume design or historic preservation.
Weeding through a long list of possibilities can be overwhelming. It is best to narrow your search by looking for institutions that offer degrees especially geared to your specific interests. For example, of all the universities that offer masters or doctoral degrees in education only a few offer an education degree focusing on social justice and/or peacemaking.
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Show Me the Money
Another major factor is cost. Graduate school applications usually are sent along with a fee. In addition, all graduate degrees cost a great deal of money. The schools that offer the best financial aid packages should be the ones given first consideration in your search. Spend some time researching the types of aid the schools you are interested in offer incoming students. Do they have graduate assistantships? How many do they offer?
Financial aid can be tricky, so it is important to carefully read all the fine print. Ask questions if you are not sure of something. There is nothing worse than a surprise bill just before graduation because you didn't fulfill all the requirements.
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How Many Is Too Many
If you consider the factors above, then the question, "How many graduate schools should I apply to?" will be much easier to answer. Experts say sending out between five and ten graduate school applications is reasonable. However, if you research the schools well, I believe between three and five is sufficient; anything more is simply costly and confusing.