So, now that you have my best piece of advice, here is my second. You need to think about what your radius is. What I mean is this, there aren’t colleges in every town, let alone two. If you are going to apply to multiple places then you need to be prepared that this might mean moving, or at the very least, commuting. Knowing this, you need to think about what your radius is, meaning how far can you travel?
For different people this will be very different. Some of you have families, kids, a job. Your radius may not be bigger than the town you’re in, or places that you can commute in a day. If that’s the case, then don’t worry. Now that you know, find out how many colleges there are in that radius that have graduate programs. One thing that will help, every college that has graduate programs will have an Office of Graduate Studies. On the website for that office will be a list of every graduate program and graduate degree that the university offers. Use this list to take a look, not only at the programs that you know about, but also look for programs that you may never have thought of before. Though you may have a real strong idea of what program you want to go to, keep an open mind, there may be a lot of paths to getting to your final destination (I’ll write more about this later).
If your radius is so big that you are having trouble narrowing things down, one way to do it might be to think about places you would never want to go, or never want to live. For me that was most of the mid-west and a lot of the South. Nothing against those areas, but I just knew that culturally and geographically they weren’t for me. But that still left a a lot of places that could potentially be really interesting. The other way to look at it is that this may be a once in a lifetime opportunity to go to a place you’ve always wanted to go. New York City, Paris, Berlin, Portland, who knows! A grad program can help you lessen the risks of a big move like that a little bit. The grad school will be your home base, a place to anchor you to a new city, and to give you resources you might not otherwise have if you were just moving on your own.
Lastly, if your radius is so small that it only includes one university or one program that can work too. The one thing that you will need to prepare yourself for is that you may need to apply multiple times. If you only have one place to apply, then you may need multiple shots to find the right circumstances to get you in. But remember, grad schools are institutions like any other in our society, they yield to persistence and pressure. In other words, if you keep it up, if you have the attitude that you will keep knocking on their door until it breaks down then it will happen. It may not happen right away, but as first generation students, stubbornness and persistence are qualities that we have a ton of. We got ourselves through our undergrad degrees through sheer acts of will and determination. This is no different. You can do it.