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There are many moving parts to take into consideration when planning your education. If you decide to pursue your education beyond a bachelor’s degree, planning becomes even more complex. From determining what graduate degree to pursue to finding the money to pay for it all, preparing for graduate school requires focus and diligence. This guide is designed to help prospective graduate students tackle some of the biggest tasks they’ll be faced with when preparing to pursue a graduate degree, including choosing, applying for, and financing a graduate program. We’ve created this guide to help you make the most of your post-graduate experience, from beginning to end.
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A graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara College of Law, Michael Hoffman nurtured his love for research and writing while a practicing attorney in Los Angeles. Now a freelance journalist and aspiring screenwriter, Michael researches and writes on a variety of topics including education, finance, health and the law.
Increasingly, the path to a successful career passes through the corridors of a college or university graduate department. According to the Council of Graduate Schools, first-time graduate school enrollment increased by 1.8 percent from fall 2011 to fall 2012. Although not necessary for many professions, a master’s degree, doctoral degree or post-graduate certificate program, generally speaking, may be the crucial factor in landing a desirable entry-level position for employees first entering the job market or for those looking to advance their career by returning to school following years working in their chosen field.
Understanding the fine points of choosing, applying for and financing a graduate program is imperative, but most experts agree that the real key to graduate school success is in ensuring students are in the degree program that best suits them. Finding the right program requires a substantial investment of time and effort by the prospective student in researching schools and programs and determining their own interests and career goals. This guide was developed to help students make the most of that time and effort by providing them with useful tips, valuable information and the advice of experts.
Beyond the question of whether or not to attend graduate school, other important questions must be asked and answered before embarking on a graduate degree program.Here are just a few:
The best place to start your graduate school search is by asking yourself one simple question: â€œShould I go to graduate school?â€? Before you automatically answer â€œof course, shouldn’t everyone?,â€? you should seriously examine your ultimate career goals and motives for attending grad school before you commit at least two years of your life and thousands of dollars to a graduate degree program.
Here are a few of the best reasons to attend graduate school:
There are also, of course, lots of misguided reasons to choose graduate school, including:
Ultimately, the decision to attend graduate school is highly individual. Once you’ve carefully weighed your graduate school options and have elected to pursue that master’s or doctorate degree, you’ll still be faced with some crucial decisions.
There’s a lot more to choosing the best graduate program than simply looking at rankings, applying to the schools at the top of the list and going with the first one to send an acceptance letter. While a program’s reputation is important, it’s only one of several factors to be considered. The challenge for the student is to determine the most important factors to him or her personally and then delve into the details of those factors. Our experts suggest paying particular attention to the following factors:
Applying for graduate school takes work, perseverance and patience. Carefully planning ahead and staying organized can keep the graduate school application process from becoming overwhelming. This is not the time to cut corners or rush–the importance of submitting a strong application can’t be overstated. It’s the main means by which a student sells himself to the admissions committee, so it is worth putting in the necessary time and effort to get it right.
Every school has its own application form and supplemental submission requirements. Thankfully, the basic required ingredients are remarkably similar from school to school and consist of the following:
Some programs may additionally require a GRE Subject Test which covers material in a specific field of study. Students should be sure to contact prospective graduate schools as early as possible to learn what standardized exams are required for admittance. Most test takers invest substantial time into preparing for these exams and often invest in preparation classes or guides.
Tests should be taken early, in the spring or summer, so that results are known in time to influence a student’s program choices. Even if the programs you are applying to do not require standardized test scores, fellowships, scholarships and other funding sources may require them.
Below is a suggested sample schedule for students applying to enter graduate school in the fall or for those returning to school:
The following is a small sampling of the resources available online for graduate students seeking funding for their educations:
As with every aspect of graduate school preparation, the best course of action to take when it comes to funding your education is to investigate all options as soon as possible. The information provided below should help you get started.
Stafford loans. Federal Stafford loans are among the most common and lowest cost loans available to graduate and professional school students. Stafford loans are fixed and limited but come with relatively low interest rates. In most cases, students do not have to begin paying them back while enrolled in school. To apply for Stafford or any other federal loans, students must submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) application.
Graduate PLUS loans. Graduate PLUS loans are federally guaranteed loans that pay up to the total cost of attendance (including living expenses) minus any other financial assistance received. These loans come at a higher interest rate than Stafford loans and are based on the applicant’s credit history. Repayment begins on final disbursement, but students may be eligible for deferment of payments while in school.
Perkins loans. The Federal Perkins Loan Program provides money for students based on financial need. Graduate students can borrow up to $8,000 per year for a maximum total of $60,000 (minus any previous undergraduate Perkins loan debt). To be eligible, students must be attending a school participating in the Federal Perkins Loan Program.
Returning to school to earn a graduate degree after spending several years or decades in the workforce has become the norm in many fields of study. This is due to several factors including a tighter job market, the need for more advanced (often computer-based) work skills and the growing availability of quality distance-learning degree programs. While students returning to the classroom after a long period away will find they bring with them a number of advantages over their younger counterparts, they may also face several unique challenges. The following is a list of tips for returning students to make their transition back into academia a little smoother.