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A college degree isn’t what it used to be, and in today’s information-based economy most people should seriously consider graduate school at some point in their career. According to the New York Times, the master’s degree “is now the fastest-growing degree. The number awarded, about 657,000 in 2009, has more than doubled since the 1980s, and the rate of increase has quickened substantially in the last couple of years.”

So what’s the best way to go about applying to graduate school? The GradTrek approach is simple: First, don’t let the ivy-covered brick walls, cheerful websites and smiling administrators fool you. These days universities are run like businesses, so you must do a careful cost-benefit analysis before signing up for graduate school. We recommend The Grad Cafe forum and the gradadmissions subreddit on reddit as good places to start. Second, when you’re ready to apply, do everything you can to show that you will be a good fit in the program, and that you are the kind of person who is likely to finish the program.

A. Choose the right kind of degree

There are three basic types of graduate degrees, with different time and financial commitments required for each.

Graduate Certificates

Cost-benefit analysis: moderate cost, moderate career benefits

In our fast-moving information-based economy, workers need to continue to learn new skills throughout their careers. For many employees who may not have the time or funds to commit to a masters degree, graduate certificates are an increasingly popular alternative. Available in many different areas, including health care, information technology, education, nursing, and business, graduate certificate programs can often be completed in only a few months and at a reasonable cost. However, there are at least two major problems with graduate certificates. First, federal student loan assistance programs often do not cover certificate programs. And second, their short length limits students’ opportunities for networking with fellow students and faculty.

Masters Degrees

Cost-benefit analysis: high costs, potentially major long-term career benefits

Today many jobs either require a masters degree, or else give salary and other privileges to masters degree holders. As a consequence, masters degrees are increasingly popular, and universities are expanding existing masters programs and establishing new ones to meet the demand. The most popular masters degree is the Masters in Business Administration (MBA), followed by Masters of Science (MS) degrees in science and technology, and Masters of Education (MEd) degrees for teaching and educational administration. There are also hundreds of other types of masters degrees, including many joint degrees. Because there are so many types of masters degrees available, and because of their high cost, it is critically important to do as much research as possible on specific masters degrees and degree programs.

Doctoral Degrees

Cost-benefit analysis: high opportunity costs, potentially high financial costs, potentially large career benefits

Doctoral degrees, which require from 4 to as many as 10 years to complete, are not for the faint of heart. Because many doctoral students receive fellowships the financial costs of these degrees vary widely. But the opportunity costs are high, as students must take several years off from work to pursue doctoral study. There is also a very high risk that doctoral students will not find research and teaching jobs in their chosen fields. The risks are so great that there is now a sizable collection of advice and analysis warning students of the perils of doctoral study. At GradTrek, two of our favorite sources of wisdom in this area are Leonard Cassuto for humanities advice, and Fabio Rojas for the social sciences.

B. How to get in

Once you’ve used your professional network, faculty advisor and (we hope) GradTrek to select graduate programs to apply to, what’s the best strategy to get in?

Maximize your options

Geography

Sure you’d love to stay in your home city or state, or study in a high-profile city. But if you are willing to move to someplace out of the way or off the beaten path, you’re likely to get a better fellowship and financial aid package and a lower cost of living. All of which amounts to less debt and, importantly, less stress on you while you’re studying in the program.

Prestige

Graduate program prestige is a touchy subject for many people, but at GradTrek we recommend that students include graduate program status, as measured by national rankings and university prestige, in their cost-benefit analysis. Of course you’d like to attend the program with the most prestige. But what if that prestigious university you’re in love with is price gouging? What if you’ll have to set back your life plans to be able to afford tuition, never mind the cost of living?

Demonstrate “fit” and “finish”

Make sure all your application materials, especially your personal statement and letters of recommendation, send the message that you’ll be a good fit in the program, and that you are likely to finish the program on time. For fit, you’ll want to show that you have a detailed knowledge of the degree, faculty, and program requirements. For finish, you’ll want to show that you’re a generally good student, but most importantly you’re good at the specific thing you want to study in graduate school. It makes sense to highlight your work experience, but only if you think it demonstrates that you will be likely to finish the program.

Good luck!

The GradTrek Team