Now that summer is in full swing, it’s almost time to start thinking about school again—particularly if you’re looking to spend the fall applying for graduate programs.

Applying to grad school is different than applying to undergrad. Most significantly, there’s a lot more specificity in what you’ll study and in the programs you’ll apply to. And it will be, at least, a one- or two-year commitment, if not up to seven or eight (or longer!).

Picking the right schools to apply to is a key first step. When you’re deciding where to apply, keep these 5 considerations in mind to help you narrow your choices.

1. Consider programs, not the institutions that house them

Big names are seductive, and attending a celebrated institution for graduate school certainly can’t hurt you—but there might be a better fit out there. Each program holds its own reputation, often external to the institution itself, and many world-class programs are housed in smaller-name universities.

Look for programs that have supported students in the recent past with similar research interests to yours. Departments are evolving and changing just as scholars are. Find one in which you can be nurtured in your growth, but also one that may very likely grow with you and through your presence and participation.

2. Identify at least 1 faculty member who could be your advisor

Like any other career, having a mentor is an indispensable part of navigating graduate school and academia. In graduate school, however, your advisor will serve as both mentor and examiner. At every program you apply to, there should be at least one faculty member you could see as a possible advisor—and you should make an effort now, during the summer before you apply, to reach out and, if possible, to conduct informational interviews to gauge that person’s interest in taking you on as a graduate student.

Your future advisor should have some specialty in your area of interest, and he or she should be knowledgeable in the fields you are interested in, even if you plan to take an otherwise untraditional research path. If a program offers a few possibilities of people you could see as potential advisors, email them all! This program could likely be a good fit.

3. Pay attention to broader faculty options, too

While an advisor is one of the most important components of your impending graduate career, it’s also important to have other faculty members who are interested in and supportive of your work. You do, after all, have to take classes, and you’ll have to pull together a thesis, orals or dissertation committee that will include faculty in addition to your advisor. If there are 3-5 faculty members—or more—who are working in fields similar to your area of interest, that’s a good sign that you’ll be able to find the kind of support you’ll need.

4. Network with other grad students

The best way to find out exactly how a program functions—with all of its internal politics and biases—is to speak with current and past students. They’ll offer an unbiased and often juicy perspective on how day-to-day life is in the program. Be sure to ask about course loads, exam requirements, as well as the quality of student life.

Often, once you get a chance to speak with your faculty of interest, they will gladly provide contact information for their current students. Talking with them will give you a good idea of expectations that will be placed on you, as well as what demands you as a student will be able to make of the faculty member.

5. Standard of Living

It’s a common myth that graduate students have to go wherever programs take them, or to whomever offers the most funding. However, you do have a choice. If you want to live near your family, search for and apply to graduate programs in that area of the country.

Also, don’t limit yourself to the stereotypes that surround your discipline. In my field of art history, I always felt that I needed to be in New York City. But I did my Master’s work in Storrs, Connecticut, a small college town, and I handled more art there than I have in the years since, living in New York. Plus, I received financial, academic, and emotional support there that have indelibly shaped me into the scholar I am today.

Graduate school choices demand careful evaluation, balancing your career expectations and goals with your personal plans and lifestyle decisions. This isn’t just school anymore; it’s the first step of your career. It’s a chance to expand and capitalize on your interests. And you should enjoy the process!

Photo courtesy of Jhayne.