Applying to grad school can sometimes feel reminiscent of applying for undergrad. After all, you’re familiar with the process of gathering application materials, and some things, like asking professors for references and taking standardized tests, may not be as intimidating as they were when applying for undergrad.
But there still may be other unknowns. Not only may you be unsure about how to effectively create a list of which schools to apply to, but you also may be wondering about how you might pay for your graduate degree.
Thinking about these two questions—where you’ll apply and how you’ll pay—in tandem can help you make smart choices for your future career and your future bank account. Here, how to decide how many grad schools to apply to.
Follow the Money and Consider Cost
Just like undergrad debt, grad school debt can impact your future career path. And if you finished undergrad without debt, you may be unsure what you’re taking on. Grad students currently shoulder a significant portion of student debt—while they make up only 15% of all borrowers, they account for nearly 40% of federal loans issued each year. Federal loans can reach the six figures, and many graduates of grad programs may not have earning power to pay back these loans comfortably until years or even decades after their degree is conferred.
If you’re in the early stages of considering going to grad school, here are a few questions and actions that may help you navigate the choices available to you:
• Talk with people who have gotten a similar master’s degree. What did they wish they had known?
• Talk with the department or departments at the schools you’re considering and ask about graduate scholarships, fellowships, and other programs that may lower program cost.
• Consider your career path. Look on various salary sites for median salaries for your proposed field of study.
In the early stages of heading to grad school, you may also want to determine how you’ll pay for graduate school, as this may impact the school you choose to attend. Here are a few suggestions for crafting a plan to pay for your graduate education.
Talk with your family
Some students have found that their family may support some or all of their grad school journey. Contributions such as free housing or the use of a family car add up as well, so it can be important to factor those in. For example, some students may look at programs where they can live at home, so they don’t need to pay for housing and travel expenses. If this is the case, make sure everyone is very clear about expectations so there are no surprises later on.
Apply for Federal Student Aid
Fill out the FAFSA®. Unlike undergrad education, direct subsidized loans are not available to graduate students. Your loans will also be considered in conjunction with any federal loans you took out as an undergrad when it comes to determining the number of federal loans you’re eligible for as a grad student. Talking to the financial aid office at the schools you’re considering attending can also help you understand what loans, scholarships, and other programs may be available to you.
Consider Private Loans
Private lenders generally won’t lend more than what it costs to go to school, and rates and terms will vary. Some students may find they need more money than they are offered in federal loans. Note that because private student loans lack the borrower protections that federal loans offer (like Public Service Loan Forgiveness or deferment options) it’s generally recommended that borrowers rely on these after exhausting all federal aid options.
Consider Relevance And Practicality
In addition to prestige, it’s also important to consider degree relevance and how it may be practical for your future career path. Looking at salaries from people who graduated from that program or with that degree can help you assess what the future after graduation will look like. Sometimes, students can become so focused on getting into a grad program and affording the program that they may forget that the first year out of grad school may require a few months to find a job and find footing in a new career.
Asking yourself some questions can help you further drill down into the best programs to apply for:
How Much Will Expenses Cost?
Room, board, and travel all add up. Considering those costs can help assess overall expense. It can also be helpful to consider the cost of living, too, which can vary based on where the program is based.
Can I Work and Study Simultaneously?
Some programs may be structured for grad students to do both; others might be created primarily for students who can devote all their time to their studies. If you’re self-funding your grad school experience and are currently employed, it may be worth speaking with your HR office to see if there are any options for your company to fund your studies if you are planning to study and go to school at the same time.
How Long Is The Program?
Different grad programs have different time frames. While some, such as law schools, may have relatively standard coursework for traditional students, other programs may offer different structures depending on the school. And it may make sense to see how long or how short the degree can take depending on life circumstances. It can also be helpful to know if an internship or other hands-on experience is essential for the degree, as that may influence feasibility with fitting the degree in with other work.
Consider All Information
When applying to grad programs, getting as much data as possible can be helpful in determining the next steps. Talking with professors, people currently working in the industry, current students, and faculty at several schools you’re considering can all be helpful in assessing how well you may fit in a program—and why a program may be the best fit for you. Because graduate departments tend to be smaller than undergrad departments, you may find it easier to have these sorts of conversations.
It can also be helpful to speak to graduates of a program and to talk with mentors and employers about how a grad degree may enhance your career can be helpful. While some career paths demand a grad degree, such as an attorney, social worker, or doctor, there are other career paths where a grad degree may not be necessary—or may be subsidized by an employer when they consider it essential. So having a range of opinions can be helpful when it comes to homing in on the best grad school programs for your needs.
Recommended: Applying to Graduate School: Smart Tips & Strategies
Preparing for grad school requires a lot of legwork, but the more prepared you are now in narrowing down your application list, the less overwhelmed you might be when acceptances start rolling in. While not a substitute for federal loans, scholarships, and work-study programs, private student loans can give some flexibility in how you’ll fund your grad school career.
Private student loans do not have the same borrower protections as federal loans—such as income-driven repayment plans—so they are generally borrowed after all other aid options, including federal student loans. Imagining several scenarios and planning for what-ifs can help mitigate “how to pay” stress so you can focus on the next step in your academic career.
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