Grad School 101:
What to Consider Before Applying to Grad Schools

GRADUATE STUDIES | BY TIM PANFIL | 9 MIN READ

An illustration of a woman considering applying to grad schools and weighing the different factors that will influence her decision.

Having worked in non-traditional and graduate admissions for almost three decades, I often hear myths about graduate school.

Here’s a fact. Less than 12% of the U.S. population over the age of 25 holds an advanced degree. That’s a very elite club—and one with a lifetime membership.

Yet the benefits of earning a graduate degree go far beyond membership. Chances are, you’ll have a higher average lifetime income than someone with only a bachelor’s degree, plus a lower unemployment rate. An advanced degree may also be your ticket to a promotion or a new career opportunity.

However, before you invest your time, money, and energy in applying to grad schools, you should answer these five questions:

  1. Why do I want to go to grad school?
  2. How do I select the “right” program and institution?
  3. What do I need to start applying to grad schools?
  4. Will I need to take a standardized test?
  5. How do I afford grad school?

Why Do I Want to Go to Grad School?

So, why do you want to go to grad school? (Here are some of my reasons.)

Does your motivation include increased income, job stability, career advancement or perhaps a career change? Or is earning an advanced degree something more personal?

Regardless of your motivation to continue school, make certain it will provide the expected “return on investment” (ROI) you desire. Perhaps your ROI is not financially based. Maybe your ROI includes the intrinsic rewards of furthering your knowledge or learning new ways to do things—or the opportunity to network with people who share similar interests.

Whatever the case me be, make certain you are crystal clear about why you want to go to grad school. And then write it down. You will want to refer back to it every now and then to stay motivated to complete your graduate studies.

An illustration of students in their graduation caps and gowns with the words "4 Reasons to Get a Master's Degree" in the background.Read More: 4 Reasons to Get a Master’s Degree

How Do I Select the ‘Right’ Program and Institution?

Now the fun begins! Picking your program of study at the graduate level is generally easier than when you were in high school and didn’t quite know what you wanted to specialize in.

Prospective graduate students generally know what they want to study. However, it might come down to splitting hairs if you are applying to grad schools and, for example, trying to decide between an MBA and a master’s degree in organizational leadership.

If you are looking at the potential for career advancement, what degrees do the people in upper management hold? Networking with others in your field or even consulting with a mentor might help you determine your best-fit program.

Similarly, if your motivation for grad school is to make a career change, find out what the preferred credentials are for those in the field of work you desire to transition into.

Next, you’ll need to determine which institutions offer your desired program. A great resource to begin your search is GradSchools.com. You can search thousands of regionally accredited schools throughout the U.S.

Depending on your program of interest, you could find anywhere from a few dozen options to hundreds of programs.

What Do I Need to Start Applying to Grad Schools?

Hopefully, by now you’ll have enough choices to start narrowing them down.

Do you want to study full-time or part-time? Do you prefer online or on-campus classes? Are you interested in studying in a specific geographic area of the country, or maybe even overseas?

Time to create a spreadsheet to compare your top 12-14 programs. Review each of your options in terms of:

  • National or regional rankings
  • Cost of attendance
  • Availability of financial aid
  • Admission criteria
    • GPA requirement
    • Standardized test score requirement
    • Prerequisite courses

Whenever possible, visit the campus and talk to students, faculty, and alumni, as this is often the best way to assure a good fit.

OK, you’ve made your list. Now it’s time to check it twice, because application fees for grad schools can really add up. Typically they’re in the $50–$100 range, if not more.

I suggest looking at the schools on your spreadsheet and applying to seven institutions. Send applications to the top two schools on your list. These are likely top-ranked institutions that might be a stretch based upon your qualifications but are still worth applying to since applicant pools vary from year to year. In addition, apply to three schools where, based upon the admission criteria, you think you have a good chance of getting in. Finally, apply to two institutions where you are pretty certain you’ll gain acceptance. These are your “safety schools.”

Let’s back up for a minute and remember Rule No. 1 for applying to grad schools: Make absolutely certain you are aware of the application deadline!

Do yourself a favor and apply early. I’ve seen a lot of applicants who rush to apply just before the deadline only to end up submitting a less-than-stellar application file.

This is your time to shine, so be prepared to submit all required documents before the deadline. It’s a particularly important factor for limited enrollment programs that offer rolling admission. Once those classes or cohorts are full, additional applicants might not be considered at all.

Grad School Application Checklist

In terms of required documents, most institutions require:

  • Official transcripts from previous colleges and universities attended.
  • A personal statement
  • Multiple letters of recommendations
  • Standardized test scores
  • In some cases, depending on the program, copies of professional licenses or a portfolio

Will I Need to Take a Standardized Test?

The Graduate Record Exam (GRE) is the most widely required graduate school entrance test and is used for most non-business graduate programs.

Meanwhile, the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is typically required for MBA and other master’s degrees in business.

If you are considering medical school, you’ll want to prepare and take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). And if your goal is a law degree, you’ll need to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).

One question I get often is, “Should I take one of the standardized test prep courses?”

My answer is always …. maybe.

The test prep companies offer free online sample tests. Take one of them, under the same conditions you’d experience the real exam, and see how you do.

Compare your scores with what is needed for admission at your selected institutions. If you are close, you might only need to invest in some test prep materials. However, if the score gap is wide, you should consider enrolling in a formal prep course.

By the way, most schools will accept standardized test scores that are not more than five years old. The reason is that the testing companies typically don’t keep records longer than that and the admission office will require an official copy of your scores.

Which grad school test is right for you? Sort through the GRE, GMAT, LSAT and MCAT with this guide.Read More: Which Grad School Test Should I Take?

How Do I Afford Grad School?

Once your admission offers start coming in, it’s time to determine how you are going to pay for grad school.

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned the myths I hear about applying to grad schools. The first myth is, “It’s too expensive for me to attend.” I argue just the opposite.

Did the institution that accepted you offer you a scholarship or fellowship? If so, this is money provided to you directly from the institution and does not to be repaid.

You might also inquire about graduate assistant (GA) opportunities, whereby you agree to work for the school in exchange for tuition remission and perhaps even a small stipend for food and housing.

If you are planning to attend a major research institution, there may also be an opportunity to be a research assistant.

If you are working full-time and plan to study part-time, look into any employer-sponsored tuition assistance that you may be eligible for. This is one of the best and perhaps most overlooked fringe benefits offered by many employers.

In terms of federal funding, no free money exists at the graduate level. Graduate students can borrow up to $20,500 annually from the government in the form of a loan. These need to be repaid starting six months after graduation. The good news is that if you already have undergraduate loans, you can defer those until after graduation and often combine the loans into one payment.

Federal PLUS loans for graduate students could also be an option if you need additional funds—and, as a last resort, you might apply for a private loan from your local bank.

Financial illustration of students learning how to pay for grad school.

Read More: How to Pay for Grad School

Not Accepted? Try This Approach.

Now, what if you unfortunately aren’t admitted to the grad school you want to attend? Here’s a pro tip if your mind is set on that program.

See if the institution allows students to enroll as “non-degree graduate students.” If it does, enroll in a couple of courses and ace them. Then, reapply for admission consideration and include the transcripts from your graduate coursework. This will demonstrate that you are up to the challenge of a rigorous graduate curriculum.

You now have a plan to apply to grad school. Time to move your education to the next level. Best wishes for success.

When Should You Start Exploring Grad School? The Sooner the Better.

At Elmhurst University, we have 20-plus years of experience preparing grad students to advance their careers. Whether you are looking to move up or move to a new path, explore our graduate programs in business, health care, technology and education. Our admission team is always available to help you through the entire application process.

Request more information below!

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About the Author
Tim Panfil, senior director of graduate admissions and enrollment management at Elmhurst University

Tim Panfil is the Senior Director of Graduate Admission and Enrollment Management at Elmhurst University. He has worked in higher education admissions, marketing, and enrollment management since 1993. He has also taught undergraduate courses for non-traditional students in management and marketing for Lewis University, Benedictine University, and Elmhurst University.

Posted March 24, 2022

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