Q: Ok, so there's no school that's the best...how do I know which one is right for me?
A:This is a very difficult question to answer because what is a perfect fit for one person may be a bad choice for another. But that's the point here -- just like people, programs are different and you need to find the program that is right for you. Does that mean there's no way to offer advice to everyone for good ways to find programs that are great for you? Not at all.
Most people can increase the chances of making good choices about graduate school by asking some of these questions:
1) I think the most important question to ask is, what do I really want to get out of graduate school? I'm always amazed by how few students can actually answer this question. When you consider just how big a commitment graduate school is (think about non-stop work for the next 5-7 years), it's worth taking a little time to consider what you're really trying to accomplish. Being able to answer this question will help you identify the type of schools and programs that are right for you and will help you reach your goals.
For example, if your goal is to become a world renowned therapist, you might want to seek out a school with a high profile, is accredited, has faculty that have proven clinical track records, and a school that focuses on clinical or counseling psychology. However, if you're more interested in conducting research, you are probably better off looking at schools that do really well with obtaining funding, have faculty members that consistently and frequently get published, and offer a wide variety of experimental programs.
2) Another thing you need to do is get brutally honest and realistic about your qualifications. No matter how much you want to get into Stanford, you need to accept that your chances are very slim if you have a 1.9 GPA, no research or clinical experience, and haven't taken a lot of undergraduate psychology courses. This isn't to say that it can't happen, but the odds are against it.
You will be much better off if you can find a school that matches you properly than going after a school with the best name. Graduate school is a long marathon and you want to give yourself the very best chance for success, not failure. So sit down, take a good long look at your records, your experience, and yourself - then start looking at schools realistically. It might be hard now, but you will be much happier later on.
3) Once you really know who you are and what type of candidate you are, consider the other students that have gone to the schools you might be interested in. Have the schools accepted many students that are similar to you? Look at previous students' academic backgrounds, GRE scores, demographics, etc.
4) Do you want to work with specific faculty members? Many students apply to schools because they know about certain faculty members and want to work directly with them. I've heard of this working out well, but it often ends up being bad. Many times this limits your exposure to other topics that may be very interesting to you. Also, it's important to know that should you enter a school to work with someone specifically, you will be with that faculty member for several years in what I consider a serious relationship. Would you enter into a romantic relationship before you've met the other person? (hrm, maybe you shouldn't answer that ;-)
5) Do you want financial assistance? Many graduate schools offer students financial assistance through research assistantships, teaching assistantships, fellowships, etc. Although this is typically reserved for PhD programs, it's not always the case. If you need or want financial assistants, make sure you find out what the schools offer.
And let me tell you, if you take an assistantship, you will work very hard. Not only will you take a full load of courses, have to do all your own homework, research, studying, etc., but you will likely have to help faculty members with research, and then fulfill your assistantship responsibilities which might include teaching several classes, grading papers, holding office hours, and much more. You will often receive a tuition remission and a stipend as compensation, but you will work very hard for it. This can be a great thing and can prepare you very well for the day you leave school so don't be afraid of it - just realize what's involved and consider it as you look at schools. (More on finances later.)
6) Ask about the number of other students that succeed in the program. By succeed, I mean successfully graduate from the program and then go onto either post-doc position, get licensure, obtain jobs, etc. Would you rather go to a school that accepts a high percentage of applicants but a low graduate rate or a school that might be harder to get into but has a higher graduation rate? Your goal is to succeed, so you make sure to give yourself the best chance of doing just that.