How to Apply to Graduate School

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Applying to graduate school doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, many aspiring grad students start preparing six months to a year before their application deadlines.

There are a lot of moving parts to a graduate school application. And even before you gather materials, you need to research programs and find your best fit.

So, what do you need to know about how to apply to graduate school? Whether you’re pursuing your master’s degree or a doctorate, read on for 10 essential steps in the grad school application process.

1. Write down your reasons for applying
2. Research programs and look for the right fit
3. Do a cost-benefit analysis of applying to graduate school
4. Make sure you can fulfill all admission requirements
5. Learn about the costs of applying and attendance
6. Sign up and study for the GRE
7. Set up meetings with references who know you well
8. Articulate clear goals in your statement of purpose
9. Apply for financial aid and scholarships
10. Reach out to others for help and advice

1. Write down your reasons for applying to grad school

The process of applying to graduate school can begin a year or more before your deadline. Not only do you have a lot of materials to gather, but you also need to clarify your reasons for attending.

Unlike college, graduate school is not the time to explore or switch majors. Rather, graduate school grants you a specialized degree to develop expertise in a specific field.

And if the degree has no application, it’s probably not worth the cost. Avoiding the job market, for instance, is not a good reason to take on graduate student loans.

But increasing your earning potential is a good motivation. The graduate program should advance your current career or qualify you for a new one.

Plus, a graduate program may yield unique opportunities for research, teaching or even travel. So, before starting down the long road of a grad school application, write down specific reasons for applying to grad school.

If you’re still on the fence…
7 Compelling Reasons to Skip Grad School

2. Research programs and look for the right fit

Once you’ve outlined your goals, research programs that will help you achieve them. Maybe you’re looking for specific courses, a well-known department or inspiring professors. Or perhaps you prioritize campuses that offer significant financial aid for grad school.

Consider the culture of a program as well by asking these questions:

  • Does the school foster a competitive or collaborative atmosphere?
  • Is it more formal or informal?
  • Do students get to know professors, or do most classes take place in huge lecture halls?

Like when building a college list, applicants only worry about their chances of getting in. But don’t focus solely on whether or not a school wants you. Ensure that you also want to go to that school. Cultural fit is a two-way street.

3. Do a cost-benefit analysis of applying to graduate school

Graduate school is a significant investment of time and money. Master’s degree programs, for instance, typically span one to three years. And if you’re going for your doctorate, you’ll likely study for six years.

Doctoral programs offer a stipend, but master’s degree programs rarely cover the full cost. This means you’ll likely take out a good amount in federal or private student loans. At the same time, you may be pausing your full-time income.

Is the degree worth all of these costs? Well, that all depends on whether or not the degree has a high return on investment (ROI).

In other words, you should recover what you put in. The degree should increase your earning potential. And you should land a job after graduating with a significantly higher salary than the one you had before. That’s key to calculating the ROI of grad school.

Of course, higher education has lots of non-tangible benefits. But if the degree doesn’t help you further your career, then you could run into financial hardship. So, before you apply, do a cost-benefit analysis to make sure that the program is worth it, at least in the financial sense.

4. Make sure you can fulfill all admission requirements

One reason to start your research early has to do with admission requirements. Often, schools require a heap of materials, including:

  • Application
  • Test scores from the GRE (or another admission test)
  • Statement of purpose
  • Letters of recommendation

Certain programs also have prerequisites. If you’re applying to a grad school unrelated to your college major, then you may have to play catchup, taking a few courses on your own to fulfill admission requirements.

If the program has prerequisites, then you may need a full semester or school year to get ready before you apply. So, start researching requirements early. That way, you won’t have to push your plans off and risk losing momentum in the process.

5. Learn about the costs of applying and attendance

Master’s degree programs typically cost thousands of dollars per year. And even before getting in, you may need to spend money on…

Before getting your heart set on a specific program, sit down and figure out the finances.

If you’re struggling to pay for applications and exams, you may qualify for fee waivers. Contact the financial aid office of the universities to find out.

And if you need extra spending money, consider increasing your income with a side hustle. If borrowing becomes necessary, taking out a personal loan or employing a 0% APR credit card could also be options. Before going down either of these roads, though, come up with a plan for paying back debt.

Beyond the costs of applying to grad school, calculate how much you’ll pay for tuition and other school fees. What about other costs of living, like food and rent?

Some programs are a lot more expensive than others. Comparing costs will help you narrow down your choices.

6. Sign up and study for the GRE

Most graduate school programs require the scores from an admissions test, like the GRE. Other graduate school entry tests include the GMAT for business school and the MCAT for medical school.

Whatever test you take, sign up a few months ahead of your test date. That way, you can ensure you get your preferred time and day. And you’ll be giving yourself a deadline, so you’ll be motivated to study.

Try to make a routine of studying by setting aside a set amount of time every week. Figure out what scores you need to get in. By researching the average scores of accepted students, you’ll have a target score to work toward.

Your test score isn’t the only part of your grad school application, but it’s an important one. A low score could mess up your chances of admission. So, spend time studying with books, classes or online prep programs.

And if you don’t get the scores you need, consider taking the test again. If you take the test well ahead of your grad school deadlines, you’ll have additional months to study up and try again.

7. Set up meetings with references who know you well

Most graduate programs require two to three letters of recommendation from former professors or managers.

Admissions officers want to learn more about you. They’re not just interested in grades and test scores. They also want to know how you conduct yourself in a classroom or contribute to an organization.

Plus, they’re interested in your relationships with others. Past behavior can be a powerful indicator of future performance.

Recommendation letters are an important part of your grad school application. So, ask people who know you well and can give real insight into your strengths and personality. And give your references at least a month before your deadlines.

Beyond making the request, set up meetings with your references. Discuss your goals and plans for the future. If there are any special stories you’d like to include, let your references know.

Your references don’t need to write your letter in a vacuum. Your input could help bring their letters to life. And you’ll be showing how committed you are to going to grad school.

8. Articulate clear goals in your statement of purpose

Along with your recommendation letters, your statement of purpose reveals who you are and what you want to accomplish. Your statement of purpose is not the time to share your entire life story.

Instead, it should be tailored to the specific graduate program. Talk about your relevant experiences and how they led you to apply. State why the program is such a good fit, along with how it will help advance your career.

Your statement of purpose is also the time to explain specific career goals or research interests. Show the admissions officers that you’re not applying to grad school on a whim. Rather, you have concrete, tangible reasons for wanting to attend. And their graduate program is the vehicle for getting you to your destination.

9. Apply for financial aid and scholarships

Just like college, graduate programs offer financial aid. You’ll fill out the FAFSA and submit documentation to your prospective schools.

Beyond gift aid like grants, you could qualify for federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans and Grad PLUS Loans, among other student loan options for grad school.

Contact the financial aid office to learn about their financial aid packages. And apply for any additional funding opportunities, like scholarships. Finally, find out about work-study opportunities or part-time jobs.

Need more funding? Consider the top-rated private student loans for…
Graduate students
Part-time students
International students
Adults returning to school
Nursing school
Medical school
Law school
Dental school
Business school

If you have undergraduate student loans, you may pause payments while you’re in graduate school. But remember that these loans will continue to collect interest. You may end up paying a lot more than you borrowed in the first place.

When you do a cost-benefit analysis, include any undergraduate loan interest as a cost. And consider carefully how much more student debt you want to take on for your degree.

One rule of thumb is this: Don’t take out more in student loans than your annual starting salary. As long as your first year’s salary after graduating exceeds your total debt, you’ll be able to pay it back over 10 years.

Of course, 10 years of monthly payments may not be worth it if the degree hasn’t helped increase your income. So, tally up your financial aid and scholarship winnings before making your final decision about an offer of admission.

10. Reach out to others for help and advice

After learning how to apply to graduate school, you now know that it’s a complex process that can cause a lot of stress and uncertainty. Rely on your support network to help you through the process. And ask for advice on their own experiences applying.

Perhaps a few trusted friends or family members can provide feedback on your statement of purpose. Or maybe a former professor can give you guidance on specific graduate schools.

If you’re really serious about a particular program, reach out to its director and admissions office. Set up a meeting with a department head. Find out what would make your candidacy stand out. By making this personal connection, you can gain insider tips. Plus, you could boost your chances of getting in.

Admissions committees give spots to applicants they believe will succeed. By reaching out during the application process, you’ll make an impression and demonstrate your commitment.

And by gathering advice from friends and family, you’ll gain valuable feedback on your graduate school application. Plus, your support network can help you keep your eye on the prize.

Andrew Pentis contributed to this report.

Interested in refinancing student loans?

Here are the top 9 lenders of 2021!
LenderVariable APREligible Degrees 
1.88% – 6.15%1Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Splash

1.88% – 5.64%2Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Earnest

1.88% – 5.64%3Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit NaviRefi

2.50% – 6.85%4Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit CommonBond

2.25% – 6.39%5Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit SoFi

1.90% – 5.25%6Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Lendkey

1.89% – 5.90%7Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Laurel Road

2.39% – 6.01%Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Elfi

2.13% – 5.25%8Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit PenFed

Check out the testimonials and our in-depth reviews!
1 Important Disclosures for Splash Financial.

Splash Financial Disclosures

Terms and Conditions apply. Splash reserves the right to modify or discontinue products and benefits at any time without notice. Rates and terms are also subject to change at any time without notice. Offers are subject to credit approval. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in an eligible state and meet applicable underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. Lowest rates are reserved for the highest qualified borrowers. If approved, your actual rate will be within a range of rates and will depend on a variety of factors, including term of loan, a responsible financial history, income and other factors. Refinancing or consolidating private and federal student loans may not be the right decision for everyone. Federal loans carry special benefits not available for loans made through Splash Financial, for example, public service loan forgiveness and economic hardship programs, fee waivers and rebates on the principal, which may not be accessible to you after you refinance. The rates displayed may include a 0.25% autopay discount

The information you provide to us is an inquiry to determine whether we or our lenders can make a loan offer that meets your needs. If we or any of our lending partners has an available loan offer for you, you will be invited to submit a loan application to the lender for its review. We do not guarantee that you will receive any loan offers or that your loan application will be approved. Offers are subject to credit approval and are available only to U.S. citizens or permanent residents who meet applicable underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers will receive the lowest rates, which are available to the most qualified borrowers. Participating lenders, rates and terms are subject to change at any time without notice.

To check the rates and terms you qualify for, Splash Financial conducts a soft credit pull that will not affect your credit score. However, if you choose a product and continue your application, the lender will request your full credit report from one or more consumer reporting agencies, which is considered a hard credit pull and may affect your credit.

Splash Financial and our lending partners reserve the right to modify or discontinue products and benefits at any time without notice. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen and meet our lending partner’s underwriting requirements. Lowest rates are reserved for the highest qualified borrowers. This information is current as of June 1, 2021.


2 Rate range above includes optional 0.25% Auto Pay discount. Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

Interest Rate Disclosure

Actual rate and available repayment terms will vary based on your income. Fixed rates range from 2.59% APR to 5.79% APR (excludes 0.25% Auto Pay discount). Variable rates range from 1.88% APR to 5.64% APR (excludes 0.25% Auto Pay discount). For variable rate loans, although the interest rate will vary after you are approved, the interest rate will never exceed 36% (the maximum allowable for these loans). Earnest variable interest rate student loan refinance loans are based on a publicly available index, the one month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). Your rate will be calculated each month by adding a margin between 2.04% and 5.8% to the one month LIBOR. Earnest rate ranges are current as of 6/8/2021, and are subject to change based on market conditions.

Auto Pay Discount Disclosure

You can take advantage of the Auto Pay interest rate reduction by setting up and maintaining active and automatic ACH withdrawal of your loan payment. The interest rate reduction for Auto Pay will be available only while your loan is enrolled in Auto Pay. Interest rate incentives for utilizing Auto Pay may not be combined with certain private student loan repayment programs that also offer an interest rate reduction. For multi-party loans, only one party may enroll in Auto Pay.

Student Loan Refinancing Loan Cost Examples

These examples provide estimates based on payments beginning immediately upon loan disbursement. Variable APR: A $10,000 loan with a 20-year term (240 monthly payments of $72) and a 5.89% APR would result in a total estimated payment amount of $17,042.39. For a variable loan, after your starting rate is set, your rate will then vary with the market. Fixed APR: A $10,000 loan with a 20-year term (240 monthly payments of $72) and a 6.04% APR would result in a total estimated payment amount of $17,249.77. Your actual repayment terms may vary.Terms and Conditions apply. Visit https://www.earnest. com/terms-of-service, e-mail us at [email protected], or call 888-601-2801 for more information on our student loan refinance product.

Earnest Loans are made by Earnest Operations LLC or One American Bank, Member FDIC. Earnest Operations LLC, NMLS #1204917. 535 Mission St., Suite 1663, San Francisco, CA 94105. California Financing Law License 6054788. Visit earnest.com/licenses for a full list of licensed states. For California residents (Student Loan Refinance Only): Loans will be arranged or made pursuant to a California Financing Law License.

One American Bank, 515 S. Minnesota Ave, Sioux Falls, SD 57104. Earnest loans are serviced by Earnest Operations LLC with support from Navient Solutions LLC (NMLS #212430). One American Bank and Earnest LLC and its subsidiaries are not sponsored by or agencies of the United States of America.

© 2021 Earnest LLC. All rights reserved.


3 Important Disclosures for Navient.

Navient Disclosures

1. NaviRefi loans are made by Earnest Operations LLC, a member of the Navient family of companies, subject to individual approval and underwriting criteria. California residents only: Loans made or arranged pursuant to a California Finance Lenders Law license. Additional terms and conditions apply.

– To qualify, you must be a U.S. citizen or non-citizen permanent resident of the United States, reside in a state we lend in, and satisfy our minimum eligibility criteria. You may find more information on loan eligibility here: https://www.navirefi.com/help-and-questions. Not all applicants will be approved for a loan, and not all applicants will qualify for the lowest rate. Loan terms are subject to eligibility. Approval and interest rate depend on the review of a complete application. Loan approval is subject to confirmation that your debt-to-income, free cash flow, credit history and application information meet the minimum requirements. You must have a minimum FICO score to be considered.

– You can choose between fixed and variable rates. Fixed interest rates are 2.75% – 6.04% APR (2.50% – 5.79% APR with Auto Pay discount). Starting variable interest rates are 2.13% – 5.89% APR (1.88% – 5.64% APR with Auto Pay discount). Variable rates are based on an index, the 30-day Average Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR) plus a margin. Variable rates are reset monthly based on the fluctuation of the index. We do not currently offer variable rate loans in AK, CO, CT, HI, IL, KY, MA, MN, MS, NH, OH, OK, SC, TN, TX, and VA.

– You can take advantage of the 0.25% Auto Pay interest rate reduction by setting up and maintaining active and automatic ACH withdrawal of your loan payment. The interest rate reduction for Auto Pay will be available only while your loan is enrolled in Auto Pay. Interest rate incentives for utilizing Auto Pay may not be combined with certain private student loan repayment programs that also offer an interest rate reduction. NaviRefi rate ranges are current as of June 1, 2021 and are subject to change based on market conditions and borrower eligibility.

– The information provided on this page is updated as of 06/1/2021. Earnest Operations LLC reserves the right to modify or discontinue (in whole or in part) this loan program and its associated services and benefits at any time without notice. Check www.navirefi.com for the most up-to-date information. Terms and Conditions apply. Call 855-284-4893 for more information on our student loan refinance product.

– Earnest Operations LLC – NMLS #1204917, CA CFL #6054788 – 535 Mission St., Suite 1663, San Francisco, CA 94105.
Navient Solutions, LLC – NMLS #212430 – 123 Justison St., Wilmington, DE 19801. Visit https://navirefi.com/lending-licenses for a full list of licensed states.


4 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

Offered terms are subject to change and state law restriction. Loans are offered by CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS # 1175900), NMLS Consumer Access. If you are approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your credit profile, your application, the loan term selected and will be within the ranges of rates shown. ‍All Annual Percentage Rates (APRs) displayed assume borrowers enroll in auto pay and account for the 0.25% reduction in interest rate. All variable rates are based on a 1-month LIBOR assumption of 0.15% effective Jan 1, 2021 and may increase after consummation.


5 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

SoFi Disclosures

Fixed rates from 2.74% APR to 6.74% APR (with autopay). Variable rates from 2.25% APR to 6.39% APR (with autopay). All variable rates are based on the 1-month LIBOR and may increase after consummation if LIBOR increases; see more at SoFi.com/legal/#1. If approved for a loan your rate will depend on a variety of factors such as your credit profile, your application and your selected loan terms. Your rate will be within the ranges of rates listed above. Lowest rates reserved for the most creditworthy borrowers. SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers, or may become available, such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. SoFi loans are originated by SoFi Lending Corp. or an affiliate (dba SoFi), a lender licensed by the Department of Financial Protection and Innovation under the California Financing Law, license #6054612; NMLS #1121636 (www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org). Additional terms and conditions apply; see SoFi.com/eligibility for details. SOFI RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE.


6 Important Disclosures for LendKey.

LendKey Disclosures

Refinancing via LendKey.com is only available for applicants with qualified private education loans from an eligible institution. Loans that were used for exam preparation classes, including, but not limited to, loans for LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, and GRE preparation, are not eligible for refinancing with a lender via LendKey.com. If you currently have any of these exam preparation loans, you should not include them in an application to refinance your student loans on this website. Applicants must be either U.S. citizens or Permanent Residents in an eligible state to qualify for a loan. Certain membership requirements (including the opening of a share account and any applicable association fees in connection with membership) may apply in the event that an applicant wishes to accept a loan offer from a credit union lender. Lenders participating on LendKey.com reserve the right to modify or discontinue the products, terms, and benefits offered on this website at any time without notice. LendKey Technologies, Inc. is not affiliated with, nor does it  endorse,  any educational institution.

Subject to floor rate and may require the automatic payments be made from a checking or savings account with the lender. The rate reduction will be removed and the rate will be increased by 0.25% upon any cancellation or failed collection attempt of the automatic payment and will be suspended during any period of deferment or forbearance. As a result, during the forbearance or suspension period, and/or if the automatic payment is canceled, any increase will take the form of higher payments. The lowest advertised variable APR is only available for loan terms of  5 years and is reserved for applicants with FICO scores of at least 810.

As of 04/07/2021 student loan refinancing rates range from 1.90% APR – 5.25% Variable APR with AutoPay and 2.95% APR – 7.63% Fixed APR with AutoPay.


7 Important Disclosures for Laurel Road.

Laurel Road Disclosures

All credit products are subject to credit approval.

Laurel Road began originating student loans in 2013 and has since helped thousands of professionals with undergraduate and postgraduate degrees consolidate and refinance more than $4 billion in federal and private school loans. Laurel Road also offers a suite of online graduate school loan products and personal loans that help simplify lending through customized technology and personalized service. In April 2019, Laurel Road was acquired by KeyBank, one of the nation’s largest bank-based financial services companies. Laurel Road is a brand of KeyBank National Association offering online lending products in all 50 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. All loans are provided by KeyBank National Association, a nationally chartered bank. Member FDIC. For more information, visit www.laurelroad.com.

As used throughout these Terms & Conditions, the term “Lender” refers to KeyBank National Association and its affiliates, agents, guaranty insurers, investors, assigns, and successors in interest.

  1. Checking your rate with Laurel Road only requires a soft credit pull, which will not affect your credit score. To proceed with an application, a hard credit pull will be required, which may affect your credit score.
  2. Savings vary based on rate and term of your existing and refinanced loan(s). Refinancing to a longer term may lower your monthly payments, but may also increase the total interest paid over the life of the loan. Refinancing to a shorter term may increase your monthly payments, but may lower the total interest paid over the life of the loan. Review your loan documentation for total cost of your refinanced loan.
  3. After loan disbursement, if a borrower documents a qualifying economic hardship, we may agree in our discretion to allow for full or partial forbearance of payments for one or more 3-month time periods (not to exceed 12 months in the aggregate during the term of your loan), provided that we receive acceptable documentation (including updating documentation) of the nature and expected duration of the borrower’s economic hardship. During any period of forbearance interest will continue to accrue. At the end of the forbearance period, any unpaid accrued interest will be capitalized and be added to the remaining principle amount of the loan.
  4. Automatic Payment (“AutoPay”) Discount: if the borrower chooses to make monthly payments automatically from a bank account, the interest rate will decrease by 0.25% and will increase back if the borrower stops making (or we stop accepting) monthly payments automatically from the borrower’s bank account. The 0.25% AutoPay discount will not reduce the monthly payment; instead, the discount is applied to the principal to help pay the loan down faster.

Assumptions: Repayment examples above assume a loan amount of $10,000 with repayment beginning immediately following disbursement. Repayment examples do not include the 0.25% AutoPay Discount.

Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): This term represents the actual cost of financing to the borrower over the life of the loan expressed as a yearly rate.

Interest Rate: A simple annual rate that is applied to an unpaid balance.

Variable Rates: The current index for variable rate loans is derived from the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) and changes in the LIBOR index may cause your monthly payment to increase. Borrowers who take out a term of 5, 7, or 10 years will have a maximum interest rate of 9%, those who take out a 15 or 20-year variable loan will have a maximum interest rate of 10%.

KEYBANK NATIONAL ASSOCIATION RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE.

This information is current as of April 29, 2021. Information and rates are subject to change without notice.
 


8 Important Disclosures for PenFed.

PenFed Disclosures

Annual Percentage Rate (APR) is the cost of credit calculating the interest rate, loan amount, repayment term and the timing of payments. Fixed Rates range from 2.89%-4.78% APR and Variable Rates range from 2.13%-5.25% APR. Both Fixed and Variable Rates will vary based on application terms, level of degree and presence of a co-signer. These rates are subject to additional terms and conditions and rates are subject to change at any time without notice. For Variable Rate student loans, the rate will never exceed 9.00% for 5 year and 8 year loans and 10.00% for 12 and 15 years loans (the maximum allowable for this loan). Minimum variable rate will be 2.00%. These rates are subject to additional terms and conditions, and rates are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change.