Almost as soon as you begin the process of choosing a graduate school, you will realize there are certain aspects of a graduate program that are vitally important to you.
You will certainly want to learn a particular subject, and might want a precise specialization or research interest to be available. You might want a certain location for personal reasons, or access to a city or a region of the country that is optimal for your field. The price and the competitiveness of different programs are also factors in the decision-making process, although in the early stages you should give yourself a wide range of options in both categories. Deciding on these basic requirements while you compare graduate schools will help you eliminate programs that don't fit the basic criteria you want.
Even after you've eliminated programs that don't fit your basic criteria, you will still have choices to make. You need to know how to investigate and compare programs.
Sources for comparison
One good place to start is the program's website; you should always browse through the information available there. Read about: the institution's graduate programs, the faculty, the admissions requirements, the program features, the facilities, the location, and any other information you can glean from the website. Some will be more useful than others. Do not hesitate to request further information or ask for a contact at the school if you have questions that the website does not answer. If you can get contact information from alumni of the programs you are considering, those people can often be the most help in determining the benefits and challenges of a particular program.
For direct comparison, you may also be able to find rankings in newspapers or magazines that compare different programs. Various books may also offer advice.
Your professors are also one of your most important sources for information. If you pursued an undergraduate education in their field, they will probably be more than happy to share their knowledge and advice; they were once in your shoes and want to help you as much as possible. Ask them what schools or programs have the best reputation and facilities in that field. Ask them what professors are well known for their work in that field. You could even ask them for general advice on the application process itself. If you currently have a graduate school advisor, that person is obviously one of the most important people you can talk to in order to obtain more information.
Professionals already working in the field you plan to study can also offer a wealth of information. Most people will be happy to take at least a few minutes to help an interested student. Find people working in the field (including professors at other local schools) who would have knowledge of different graduate programs.
No matter whom you talk to or which sources you use, always make sure to take a balanced and realistic look at the information provided so that one lopsided opinion doesn't influence you more than it should. Weigh what people say to you. And overall, enjoy the process. While it can seem overwhelming at first, it's vital that you give this selection the time and energy it deserves in order to find the best fit; it's your graduate education.