Top 10 Tips for Applying to Grad School

If you are considering graduate school, then first of all: Congratulations! Just thinking about propelling your education, career and life to a higher level is a brave, bold step to take. Before taking the plunge, however, it behooves you to take a step back and really think through the process from beginning to end.

We don’t just mean the beginning through end of applying, either. We mean starting at the foundational assumptions of why you want to go to grad school in the first place, and visualizing your career beyond graduation to ensure you’re approaching the endeavor as intelligently as you can.

Below we’ve outlined ten steps to take in the graduate school application process to help you save money, spend your time wisely, give yourself the best shot of getting into a school you really care about, and build your career over the long term.

1. Carefully Consider the Future

According to U.S. News & World Report, the average graduate student owes almost $100,000 in student loan debt after graduation. This is a staggering amount of money, especially considering the average starting salary for a new master’s degree-holder is somewhere between $40,000 and $75,000. In other words, it’s going to take a long time to pay off that debt, especially when you factor in insurance.

Masters vs Bachelors Starting Salary Averages

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That doesn’t mean that graduate school is a waste of money; it just means you should think carefully about whether the debt will be worth it over time.

2. Get the Degree for the Right Reasons

Too few prospective students actually stop and think about why they are planning to get their degree. If you don’t have a solid five- or even ten-year plan in place, you may end up spending a lot of money without actually benefiting your career long-term.

Sure, in some fields, you have to get that graduate diploma before you can start earning. Applicable industries include law, science and medicine, where no one wants your services until you’ve proven your worth grad school-style. If, however, you have a successful career in business and are just getting an MBA because you’ve been out of school for a while and it seems like the “next step,” maybe you should think again. $100,000 is a lot to pay to do something just because you “should.”

Don’t count on a graduate degree to “save” you from a bad economy, unemployment or pure laziness, either. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2.8 percent of people with master’s degrees are unemployed, while 2.1 of those with doctoral degrees are also without work. A degree is no guarantee of income or security, so think through your options carefully.

3. Consider ALL Aspects of the Program

When you apply to grad school, it’s tempting to shoot the moon and try to get into the absolute best program you can. Thing is, graduate school comes in a lot of different shapes and forms, and some may end up working for you far better than others.

Take MBA programs, for instance. These are typically full-time, two-year, immersive experiences, where students are expected to forego employment opportunities, take on demanding internships and live in the same place that full two years. If you have the funds and the time, this can be a great way to grow your career. However, if you’re short on either, a traditional MBA may end up being a drain on your resources rather than a meaningful rung on the ladder of success. One-year programs are increasingly popular, so you might want to consider one of those instead.

Point being, don’t settle for a program just because it’s the traditional path. Weigh factors like cost, location, duration, networking opportunity, financial aid and scholarships before applying. In the long run, those factors may matter even more to you than the caliber of the school itself.

4. Cultivate Sources of Telecommuting Income

This is another piece of advice that almost no one gives grad students before they apply. However, they should. The problem with graduate programs is that, generally speaking, they are too intense to allow holding down a normal job at the same time. Because of this, most students quit their jobs before matriculating, assuming the degree they’ll come out with will guarantee an income.

It won’t. Instead, what often happens is the new graduate has a hard time finding work for a while. They may live with their parents, go back to an old job, work in a coffee shop or even get another degree in hopes of finding work. Sure, many graduates do find jobs, but you can’t count on one right out of the gate.

You can circumvent this possibility by finding sources of online work before school starts and keeping them going throughout your program. Even if you only maintain this work at a minimal level during school, it will give you some extra cash and you can ramp it back up when you have time. It’s a great way to close the gap between graduation and finding the job you truly want.

Sign up for job sites, troll Craigslist (in a good way, not a bad way!), or ask a former employer if they’d like to keep working with you on a contract or consultant basis. Try to line some work up well ahead of your application date and keep it going on the side of your current job, if permitted. It will help to have this already established when you start school rather than trying to get this going along with a full-time program.

5. Weigh Your Priorities Carefully

This is closely related to point No. 2. Not only must you get your degree for the right reasons, you must make sure it aligns with the way you want to live your life after you receive the diploma.

Let’s say you want to be a book editor, for instance. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, editing jobs are most heavily concentrated in the Northeastern United States, in Minnesota, Florida, Texas and California, and in a smattering of other states. If you live in one of these places, your dream may be a great one. If, however, you have a loving family in Nevada to whom you are eager to return after graduate school, then this is probably a poor dream. Nevada has between 120 and 330 editing jobs in the entire state, and so is probably not a safe place to launch an editing career.

Similarly, you should consider the kind of lifestyle you want. If you love shopping for clothes, eating organic food, living in well-furnished digs or driving a nice car, then no matter how much your heart might bleed for a group in need, you may not benefit from a nonprofit degree. Perhaps you could volunteer instead, but pursue a degree that will earn you a higher salary. Be honest with yourself about who you are and what makes you happy, because the best degree in the world won’t help you if you don’t use it the way it was intended.

6. Give Yourself Enough Time

When it comes time to actually apply to schools, do not rush the process. Application requires many steps, including several that can take weeks or even months to execute. Some of the main steps include:

  • Ordering Transcripts: Contact the registrar’s office of your old college or university to get a copy of your transcript sent to the school you’re applying to. Usually this is free, but sometimes it isn’t. If you attended more than one school before application, you may need to send transcripts from all.
  • Taking Tests: Typically a prospective student would take either the GMAT or the GRE to get into graduate school. This depends on the field, however: law students take the LSATs, while med school students take the MCATs. Other programs require other specific entrance exams. You must set up the test weeks in advance, study for it, then sit the test in time to send the results before the application deadline.
  • Getting Letters of Rec: Letters of recommendation are important, because they indicate you performed well enough in work and previous school settings to earn approval. It can take time to contact professors or employers, and more time for them to write and send you the letter, so give yourself plenty.

If you are missing one of these basic requirements, you will not be accepted into a program, so plan on starting the application process months in advance. If you don’t tend to test well – which doesn’t necessarily say anything about your intelligence and how well you will do in school – you’ll want to allow even more opportunity for studying before taking tests (especially since they cost money to take and retake).

7. Have Poise on Paper

Beyond allowing enough wiggle room for the main parts of your application, you also want to make sure you have enough time to thoroughly edit your application as well as your essay or personal statement. Even if you have the best stats in the world, you may not impress an admissions officer if you have a thrown-together personal statement or a poorly edited application.

Fill out your application well in advance of the deadline, at least two weeks. Then let it sit for a few days before going back and looking at it again. Check and double check each stage of the application to make sure it’s well polished.

Ditto with your essay or personal statement. Write the bulk of it and give it an edit, then set it aside for a week or two. With fresh eyes, go back and review it first for content, ensuring that it represents you well, says what you want to say, and is logically sound. After that, do a careful spelling, grammar and punctuation check. Remember, an admissions officer is just as hard to impress or harder than a professor, and you’ve got lots of competition. Take it seriously.

8. Kill It On the Personal Statement

Your personal statement is a chance to show the college or university you’re applying to that they want you. They want your personality, technical skills, academic expertise, life experience … they want the whole package. So how do you relate this in 500 words or so?

Start by telling a compelling story with a recognizable theme. Ideally, relate that theme to the university to which you are applying. For instance, are they known for philanthropy and you spent your youth volunteering in shelters? Are they a tech school and you helped run your high school and college computer labs? Then edit, striving for perfection: no grammatical, spelling, punctuation or logical errors. Ask a few trusted folks to read it for you before submission.

Need a couple of examples? Check the esteemed Purdue Owl Writing Lab website for samples on excellent, well-edited personal essays and general writing help.

9. Keep Deadlines in Mind

Most people can’t afford to go to school out of pocket. This means they will be required to take out student loans from either the government or private lenders. Federal loans can be costly to repay once insurance is factored in, and private loans are even worse, so you’ll want to do your best to receive scholarship money where possible.

Before applying, print out a list of the scholarship and financial aid deadlines for the institutions you’re applying to. While they will all have the same federal aid deadlines, they will differ on scholarship, institutional aid and other deadlines particular to each institution. Unfortunately, confusion is no excuse for a missed deadline, and won’t earn you a second shot, so keep your ducks in a row.

10. Make a Backup Plan

Do you want to think of a backup plan? No. You want to go to grad school. Should you think of a backup plan? Absolutely, one hundred percent, a thousand times yes.

Even if you have your heart set on attending graduate school, consider the strong possibility that you will not get in. With the economy still in recovery and more and more students trying to get in to grad school all the time, there’s a lot of competition. Even excellent candidates are routinely turned away.

Instead of sticking your head in the sand, have a heart to heart with yourself about what the best alternatives are for you. Would you rather apply to a few second-tier options to ensure that you get in somewhere this year? Would you rather throw everything at your first choice and apply again next year if it doesn’t pan out? Are you going to stay at your job until you get in, so that will work as your backup plan right now?

Remember, the plan doesn’t need to be glamorous; you just need to have one. While applying to graduate school is a wonderful, exciting process that will hopefully end in enrichment and increased life satisfaction, you don’t want to find yourself adrift in life when your plans go awry. Keep that in mind, and you’ll be golden.