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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.

Expert Sources and Partners

  • Linda Abraham

    Founder

    Accepted (Consulting Service)

  • Marilyn G.S. Emerson, M.S.W.

    Certified Education Planner

    Emerson Educational Consulting

  • Susan Hallatt

    Director of Graduate Admissions

    University of Charleston

  • David Petersam

    President

    AdmissionsConsultants

  • Miriam E. King

    Senior Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs

    University of Baltimore

  • Robert L. Sanders

    Associate Dean For Graduate Studies

    Cratis D. Williams Graduate School Appalachian State University

Meet the Author

michel hoffman

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.

Introduction and Value Proposition

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.

Exploring Your Options

“Don’t be dazzled by rankings. It’s much more important to apply to graduate programs where you are competitive and that support your specific goals while meeting your personal needs. Once you have been accepted to more than one program, then you can consider brand and ranking, all other factors being equal.”

— Linda Abraham

QUESTIONS POTENTIAL GRADUATE STUDENTS SHOULD ASK THEMSELVES BEFORE CHOOSING A DEGREE PROGRAM

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:
  1. What do I wish to achieve by attending graduate school?
  2. Can I afford the time and money it will cost?
  3. Do I have family obligations (such as a spouse or children) that will be affected by my education and, if so, what is my plan to deal with them?
  4. Should I go to school full-time or part-time?
  5. Should I continue to work?
  6. Should I consider an online degree program?

The Big Question

The best place to start your graduate school search is by asking yourself one simple question: “Should I go to graduate school?â€? Before you automatically answer “of 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:

  • A graduate degree is necessary for entry into a chosen field. Some of the fastest growing careers requiring a graduate degree today include marriage and family therapist, physical therapist, occupational therapist and healthcare social worker. Other career fields that typically require a master’s or doctoral degree include law, medicine and education administration.
  • A graduate degree is important for upward mobility and increased earning potential in a chosen profession. While not necessarily required for entry into a field, a master’s or doctoral degree may lead to upward career mobility and/or higher pay. This isn’t always the case, however, so if earning more money and moving up the corporate ladder are your only reasons for heading off to graduate school, be sure that your profession requires a graduate degree for promotions and raises. Occupations where a higher degree may mean more cash and mobility include marketing, software engineering, database administration, management and business administration.
  • A graduate degree is necessary to make a wanted career change. Sometimes an associate or bachelor’s degree in a broadly inclusive subject provides a good starting point for entry into the job market. However, many workers soon realize that their initial choice of occupation offers limited growth or job satisfaction. The answer to transitioning to a better career path may be a master’s or doctoral degree.
  • Passion for the subject. Passion is often overlooked, but it may be the best reason of all. Earning a graduate degree in a subject you’re passionately interested in can be your greatest reward, and it could lead to professional benefits that are entirely unexpected.

There are also, of course, lots of misguided reasons to choose graduate school, including:

  • Uncertainty about the future. This is among the very worst reasons to go to grad school. If you’re uncertain about your future goals and desires, committing to years of study on the chance that you’ll like where you end up could be catastrophic, especially when so much money and time is involved. A better choice would be to get out into the world and try a few occupations. Graduate school will always be there once you’ve discovered the right career path.
  • The economy/job market is bad right now. Most experts agree that when the economy is shaky, the number of applications to graduate degree programs increases. This phenomenon can be traced to students believing that spending a few years at graduate school is a safe and ultimately profitable way to wait out a bad job market. This is seldom true, however. Going to grad school to wait for the economy to bounce back is more likely to leave students years behind in job experience compared with their working peers and drop them into a job market at the same time as a lot of other new degree holders who had the same idea.
  • Avoiding financial or other obligations. Graduate school may be a way to avoid confronting some of life’s inevitable decisions, but they will just be waiting for you a little further down the line.
  • Meeting the expectations of others. Friends and family may be pushing you to fulfill their expectations of what success means, but since you’re the one who will have to put the time, money and effort into the endeavor, don’t purse a graduate degree for anyone but yourself.
  • Making more money. Earning more money is a compelling reason for getting a post-graduate degree, but only if you are seeking to enter one of those professions where a master’s or doctoral degree will really make a difference in your earning power.
  • It’s a cold, cruel world out there and the college classroom is warm and welcoming. Graduate school is an expensive way to avoid the real world, and you’ll still have to face that same world when you leave grad school—whether or not you earned your degree.

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.

Finding the Right School and Program

“Know the program you want and how you want to use that education when you graduate. Without this preparation, many graduate students find themselves in a master’s program that isn’t what they thought it would be, or worse yet, they don’t have any concrete plans for either going on to get a Ph.D. or a job. PLANNING THROUGH TO THE END IS EVERYTHING.”

— Susan Hallatt

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:

  • Program characteristics. If you’ve done your homework and have a solid idea of the specific type of work you want to do once you’ve graduated, you need to locate the graduate programs that will provide you with the education and skills that will get you there. Prepare a questionnaire or a spreadsheet and fill in the answers to the following questions for each program:
  • What is the program’s teaching philosophy? Does it focus more on theory or research? If your ultimate goal is a job that deals with research or application of theory, you may find it hard to get hired if your degree program was theory-based.
  • What sub-field does the program emphasize? This goes beyond the degree title. Determine what specific approach a program takes to your field of study. Find out what kind of research faculty members are doing. The type of research they’re doing is likely to be type you’ll be doing. Remember, the better a student’s understanding of the intricacies of their field, the easier it will be to find the program that best suits their specific interests.
  • Cost and availability of financial aid. There’s no way around it–graduate school is expensive, but tuition and other costs can vary substantially from program to program. Students need to be realistic about what they can afford and aware of how long it will take to pay back the loans they take out. Students must additionally take into account the types of financial aid available for various programs and also consider what work-study or assistantship opportunities exist.
  • Location. Environment is important, especially when a student will likely be living in it for several years. Location is bound to affect a student’s academic performance, and if he or she hates the big city, for example, a graduate school located in a bustling, urban setting may not be the place to land.
  • Online or on-campus. This is closely related to location. Schools are increasingly taking their highly-reputable graduate programs into the virtual world, and that means a lot more flexibility for students. If a student’s field of interest lends itself well to the distance learning format, then an online program may be the way to go. It’s important to make sure, however, that any program under consideration is fully-accredited, just like its more traditional counterpart.

Tips and Resources

  • Start early. The application process for graduate school can be lengthy, and if you’re doing it right, doing the proper research for programs will add several months on top of that. Some experts recommended students start their research at least six months before applying to grad school. Students who start the process early will not only avoid a last-minute rush, but they may also save money in application fees for programs that don’t really suit their needs.
  • Start broadly. Begin with a list of 15 to 20 schools, if possible, and do some initial research on each. Fortunately, there are lots of good resources out there to start with, including printed guides and online services. For example, U.S. News & World Report offers graduate school rankings by subject based on subjective data and expert opinions. Remember, however, that rankings provide only a starting point in the search. They should help students begin to narrow their initial list of potential programs.
  • Research specific curricula and courses. A great way to find out if a degree program is suitable is to look at its curriculum and course descriptions. To do that, check out the program’s catalog. The variety of courses available and the diversity of offerings will help you begin to see where you might fit. A student is likely to do better in the program with a curriculum and courses that pique his or her interest the most.
  • Network and communicate. Lists of potential programs should be getting shorter by this point, because students should start deepening their research and engaging in person-to-person contact.
  • Students should get in touch with the admissions offices and specific departments at prospective schools. Ask detailed questions and look for concrete answers. The quality of answers received will speak volumes about the quality of a school’s program and how its students are regarded.
  • Talking with faculty in a student’s current undergraduate program can also provide a wealth of information. Faculty members often stay in touch with former students who have gone on to graduate school and can provide an inside track on programs at other institutions.
  • Try to speak with current and/or former students in the programs you are most interested in. Social media sites and apps can help with this. Students should be able to get the real skinny on the benefits and flaws of programs from their peers. The best way to find out what the daily educational environment will be like is to talk to connect with other students.
  • Visit. Once that list of potential programs has been narrowed down to those likely to be applied to, it can be helpful to take the time for an in-person visit to those program’s campuses.

Applying to Graduate School

“Students should understand that there is a big difference between applying as an undergraduate and applying to a graduate program. On the undergraduate level, students are applying to the university as a whole and are accepted or rejected by university admissions based on general requirements. On the graduate level, students are applying to a specific program and the decisions regarding who is accepted are made by the department based on the alignment between the department’s admissions requirements and the student’s qualifications. It’s important, therefore, that an applicant know as much as possible about the particular degree program he or she is applying to.”

— Robert L. Sanders

WRITTEN STATEMENT QUICK TIPS

Statement of Purpose:
  • Be clear, concise, and compelling.
  • Read the instructions several times and follow them to the letter.
  • Understand your readers and what they’ll be looking for.
  • Cite specific examples that highlight your interests and accomplishments.
Personal Statement:
  • Be clear and concise.
  • Tell your story in your own voice.
  • Demonstrate your familiarity with the program and why it’s a good match for you.
  • Explain what you wish your ultimate contribution to the field to be.
  • Show your uniqueness and passion.

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:

  • Application form. Be prepared to supply basic information, like your name, address, other contact information and educational background. Students must be keenly aware of all application deadlines. A missed deadline can be a fatal blow to acceptance.
  • Transcripts. Transcripts are perhaps the single most important supplemental documents students are asked to provide. Transcripts provide an official record of your grades and your GPA, but they also inform prospective programs of the types (and difficulty) of the courses you’ve completed. Students would be wise not to labor under the delusion that a high GPA is all that matters and that the admissions committee won’t notice that all the classes taken were in easy subjects. This is graduate school, and they will notice.
  • Standardized test scores. Most, but not all, graduate programs require applicants to submit scores for one or more of the standardized admissions tests for graduate school. The most common of these tests is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test. Administered by the Educational Testing Service, the GRE General Test is designed to measure a student’s verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing skills. It is typically taken by prospective graduate and business school applicants. Other standardized exams often required include the LSAT (law), MCAT (medical) and GMAT (business).

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.

  • Letters of recommendation. Letters of recommendation act as personal references. The best letters are written by faculty members who have been directly involved with a student’s undergraduate education. Applicants should select their letter writers carefully. A strong letter of recommendation from a senior faculty member in the applicant’s chosen field that describes specific positive qualities can mean the difference between acceptance and rejection.
  • Students should determine the letter format and guidelines for each school they will be applying to and provide those requirements to their letter writers. Making it as easy as possible for references to write letters of recommendation is strongly advised and should include providing letter writers with the following:
  • A copy of the applicant’s statement of purpose, curriculum vitae or resume
  • A list of the schools and addresses of the recipients along with the deadlines for submission
  • Stamped envelopes pre-addressed to each program’s admissions committee or email addresses if email is the preferred form of submission
  • Make all requests for letters at least two months in advance of the submission deadline, and be sure to follow up with your references to confirm that the letters were mailed on time.
  • Statement of purpose. Almost all graduate school applications will require one or more written statements or essays in which you’ll be asked to describe yourself, explain your interests and discuss why you want to attend the program you’re applying to. The content and structure of each school’s written statement should be spelled out in its application packet.
  • Two of the most common written statements are the statement of purpose and the personal statement. They often include similar information, and you may be asked to submit one or the other. The statement of purpose is typically a relatively short, concise statement in which the applicant presents his or her academic background, education, career goals and reasons the graduate program will meet those goals. Admissions committees are seeking candidates who have well-defined research interests that match those of the department applied to, so the writer should state those interests clearly and concisely.
  • Personal statement. The parameters of the personal statement are normally broader than those of the statement of purpose. The personal statement is where the admissions committee finds out exactly who the applicant is–not just as a program candidate, but as a person. It should describe the candidate’s background and life experiences, personal challenges and goals, motivations for pursuing a degree, and more. The personal statement is the applicant’s chance to persuade the admissions committee of his or her passion for the field of study and why he or she is a good match for the particular program. It’s where the candidate sets himself or herself apart from all of the others.
Application Tips
  • Start early. As with the graduation school preparation process as a whole, it is important that students give themselves plenty of time for the application process in particular. The process can take months, so plan ahead carefully.
  • Seek help. This is particularly important when it comes to written statements. Even graduate students need to take the time to compose a first draft of their statements and follow that with several rewrites. Be sure to have the statement read over by faculty members before submitting it with your application.
  • Pay attention to the entire application. All parts of the application are important, not just the statements. Pay close attention to what is being asked in the short written answer sections of the application and respond thoughtfully.
  • Follow up and follow through. Once your application materials have been submitted, remember to follow-up with admissions to make sure that all required documents were received on time. And be sure to promptly follow through with any additional document or interview requests.
  • Consider a private consultant. Graduate school consulting is a growing industry. Private consultants can help with all aspects of graduate school preparation, from choosing the right program to keeping the application process on schedule.

Grad School Application Timeline

Below is a suggested sample schedule for students applying to enter graduate school in the fall or for those returning to school:

Summer before senior year/8-12 months in advance

  • Begin exploring graduate programs you may be interested in, and let undergrad instructors know you’re interested in graduate school and seek out their advice.
  • Contact potential programs and request information. Get copies of program applications and familiarize yourself with them. Make note of any particular areas that require special attention or extra time.
  • Prepare for the GRE or other appropriate standardized exams. Download the free test prep programs from the GRE website. Consider taking a practice test. If your practice scores are lacking, consider signing up for a test preparation course.
  • Start preparing your statement of purpose and/or personal statement. Speak with the faculty members you intend to ask for letters of recommendation.

Fall/6-8 months in advance

  • Take the GRE General Test or other necessary standardized exams (GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, etc.).
  • Complete the first drafts of your written statements and submit them to faculty members and/or admissions counselors at your undergraduate program for review.
  • Research and contact potential financial aid resources. Determine application requirements and deadlines.
  • Ask faculty members for letters of recommendation and provide them with all of the necessary information they will need to write a strong, effective recommendation for you.
  • Order your official undergraduate transcripts.
  • Register for the GRE Subject Test if required.
  • Start narrowing your list of potential graduate programs.

January and February/4-6 months ahead of time

  • Take the GRE Subject Test if required.
  • Complete the final drafts of your written statements.
  • Follow-up with faculty members regarding submission of their letters of recommendation.
  • Complete and submit your program applications.
  • Apply for fellowships and other financial aid sources.
  • Contact the admissions offices for the programs you have applied to and make sure all required documents were received.
  • Follow-up regarding financial aid applications. Fill out the Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) application if you haven’t already.
  • Visit the campuses of prospective programs. Meet faculty and current students. Visit the admissions office.
  • Prepare for admissions interviews.
  • Relax a little.

March and April/3 months or less

  • Receive acceptances and rejections. Consult with faculty and admissions counselors at your undergraduate program for advice on where to go.
  • Notify the program you choose of your acceptance. Notify the programs that you are declining.

Paying for Graduate School

ADDITIONAL GRADUATE STUDENT FINANCIAL AID RESOURCES

The following is a small sampling of the resources available online for graduate students seeking funding for their educations:

  • Grants.gov: Grant program searchable database
  • Grant Forward: Grant search engine
  • Nationally Coveted College Scholarships, Graduate Fellowship and Post-Doctoral Awards: Searchable database
  • Pivot: Site with tools and resources for all types of global funding, including funding for student education
  • International Financial Aid College Scholarship Search: Searchable resource for students interested in study in a foreign country
  • National Institutes of Health: Funding for research related to human health and disease
  • National Science Foundation: Funding for research and education related to science and engineering

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.

  • Student loans. According to a 2014 report on graduate student debt from the New America Education Policy Program, 25 percent of graduate students borrow nearly $100,000 to pay for grad school, while another 10 percent borrow over $150,000. For students intending to move directly from earning their bachelor’s degree to a graduate program, the thought of accumulating more debt on top of the debt already accrued during their undergraduate years can be frightening. The majority of graduate students will need to borrow money to pay for school, regardless of whether they have other financial resources available. Federal loans are a good place to start. The three most common sources of federal graduate student loans are:
  • 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.

  • Grants scholarships and fellowships. Grants, scholarships and fellowships are funds available for a student’s education that do not have to be paid back. Most grant programs are need-based, while scholarship programs may be either need- or merit-based. Fellowships are almost always merit-based. Grants and scholarships are financed by federal and state governments, individual colleges and universities, and by private and non-profit organizations.
  • Amounts and eligibility requirements vary by specific grant or scholarship. Application for federal grants and some school grants require submission of the FAFSA® form. Information regarding finding and applying for fellowships and scholarships can be found at the U.S. Department of Education Federal Student Aid website.
  • Teaching and research assistantships. Teaching and research assistantships are another form of funding for graduate students. These differ from the financing options discussed above in that assistants work for the funds they receive. Teaching assistants (TAs) work with professors and may require instructional responsibilities. Research assistants (RAs) are employed by their graduate schools to assist in conducting academic research. Both TAs and RAs are typically hired directly by the professors with whom they will be working and are paid by fixed salary on a quarter or semester term contract basis.
  • Campus work-study programs. Work-study programs are closely associated with teaching and research assistantships programs, and at many schools they often overlap. Campus work-study programs typically offer a wider variety of employment positions than TA or RA programs and may include library aid and clerical positions or other jobs related to the operation of a college or university. The Federal Work-Study Program (FWS) provides funding directly to education institutions to pay for need-based work-study students. Those interested should contact the work-study program at their respective schools.

“Far too often, applicants do less research into evaluating graduate education than they do the purchase of a car or house. Well, the education can be just as expensive but unlike those tangible items, it has no resale value.”

— David Petersam

Tips for Returning Students

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.

  • Take the time to prepare for the GRE or other standardized tests. Students returning to school after a long period off may feel additional pressures and anxiety at the thought of gearing up for the academic life. Prospective graduate students will have to sit for the GRE General Test or other standardized exams, and returning students may feel out of test-taking practice. They should take plenty of time to prepare for their exams. Taking a test prep course is also recommended.
  • Consider an online degree program. The online education era is upon us. In fall 2011, 32% of all college students were taking at least one online college course. The popularity of distance education continues to grow, with 62.4% of schools surveyed offering online courses and full programs as of 2012. Online graduate degree programs are offered by some of the most prestigious brick-and-mortar colleges and universities in the country and are often identical to their traditional on-campus counterparts. Additionally, online programs can provide a great deal of flexibility for students who plan to continue to work full- or part-time while pursuing their degree.
  • Consider an evening or weekend degree program. Colleges and universities are increasingly offering graduate degree programs that can be completed entirely through evening and/or weekend classes. These programs are designed with working students in mind and may be ideal for returning students.
  • Find out if your current employer offers tuition reimbursement or assistance. If you are considering returning for your graduate degree as a means of advancing your career, you may be pleasantly surprised to find out that some employers are willing to pay for part or all of a good employee’s education.