How difficult is the program?
Don't associate difficulty with admission with difficulty of the program itself, though the two are often correlated. Some degree programs are just easier to get through regardless of their ranking or other positive features. Below, I consider this issue in regards to MBA, LL.M., Ph.D., Masters, and the relationship between difficulty and ranking.
MBA: INSEAD, Harvard Business School, and Darden, which at least based on what my previous clients have told me, seem particularly hard. Given the real variation in curriculum, this is partially a function of fit. Be honest with yourself and realistic about what you want to do. For example, HBS is great for some, but a disaster waiting to happen for some of its admits who will be invited not to return after the first year (maybe they can come back in a year or two, maybe not). Those not invited to directly return for the second year of HBS likely would have survived elsewhere, but due to weak communication skills, an inability to have anything useful to say in class, or weak quantitative skills, their two-year path to management greatness has been sidetracked, perhaps permanently.
An LL.M. at Harvard Law School also seems quite hard comparatively because international LL.M. students are not given extra time to complete their exams like they are at many other Masters of Law programs in the US. While most who are admitted to HLS are likely to go and do well (My clients admitted to HLS have consistently been some of the smartest legal minds I have encountered), it is at least worth keeping this mind. When selecting where do your Masters of Law, as with degree programs, ask current students and alums to get a sense of how difficult the program is.
Ph.D. programs: The rates of attrition in Ph.D. programs are high, so really think seriously about whether you should be applying for a Ph.D. or a masters program. Inside Higher Ed has a very good recent article on Ph.D. attrition rates.
Ranking does not necessarily tell you how difficult a program will be to get a degree from. Especially keep in mind that some mid-ranked graduate programs in the humanities and social sciences may often have more stringent requirements for obtaining a Masters than their higher ranked rivals. Often such mid-ranked programs have a reputation for providing the kind of master’s level training that gets their graduates into better Ph.D. programs.
Make sure that the faculty, classes, and other resources will support you and motivate you.
Are the program content and teaching methods used compatible with you? Think about what you want to learn and really look deeply into the program to see that it really will be focused on what you want to study. In some disciplines, teaching methods are more consistent, but in others, such as MBA, there is huge variation in what is acceptable. Do an honest self-assessment of what kind of learner you are in order to determine what will work best for you. For more about learning style, see here.
What are the faculty like? See my earlier post on how to learn about faculty.
What is the quality of the school's research infrastructure (libraries, research centers, and/or laboratories) for your intended field of study? Especially for those planning on doing intensive research, ask yourself whether the school is really equipped to meet your research agenda. Those applying for degrees in the sciences most obviously pay especially close attention to this issue.
To what extent will leading people in my intended field of study come to the school to deliver talks or hold short courses? One thing that often sets a top program apart is the frequency of visits by leading people in your field.
What kind of educational exchange options are there? If educational exchange is something that you are looking for, obviously you need to consider this issue. Many of my past MBA clients have reported wonderful experiences doing exchange programs.
Ask yourself whether you will be sufficiently prepared when you start the program.
If you think there is a gap between what you know and what you need to know when the program commences, ask yourself whether you can fill the gap. Even if you have obtained admission, ask yourself this question. Many admits will be covering those gaps in the summer before school starts and you should as well. If you are in the application phase, put together a plan for how you will cover any prerequisite gaps and decide whether your application needs to address this issue.
Fit with fellow students
One of the best reasons to visit a school or at least to interact with alums is determine whether you like them. To a greater or lesser extent, your fellow students will impact your graduate experience both in and out of the classroom. Make sure that you feel good about the alums and current students you encounter. Regardless of attempts to diversify, all institutions have a tendency to attract certain kinds of people, so just make sure you are left with the feeling that you would want to be friends with the alums and current students you encounter. Consider what it will be like to be in classrooms, engaged in discussions, in groups, and asking for help from the students in your program.
Trust No Single Perspective
Finally, when looking into these issues, don't simply accept one perspective on the school. You should never let your decision to apply or attend be based simply on the judgment of one other person. Ask around, look around, and ultimately trust no one but yourself to make the decision.
Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to.