The decision to go to graduate school can be scary. After all, millions of Americans face stagnating wages, impending layoffs, and seemingly chronic unemployment. Is now a good time to think about going to grad school? Absolutely.
Historically, interest in graduate school increases during downturns in the economy, according to data from the Educational Testing Service, which administers the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Unfortunately, many don't move forward because they believe one of the four following myths:
Myth 1. It isn't worth going unless I get into a top-ranked school or program: From my experience this may be the most pervasive myth. And choosing a program primarily because of its ranking is one of the biggest mistakes grad school applicants can make.
[Learn how to use the U.S. News graduate school rankings wisely.]
There are plenty of examples of people who went to all the top schools yet have failed dismally. Employers know this; when it comes right down to it, they value who you are, what you can bring to the table, and the degree itself—not where you attended school.
Getting your graduate degree from any institution demonstrates to employers that you have what it really takes to succeed: persistence and determination.
Myth 2. It's too expensive and I can't afford it: Let's face it; school is expensive. But it always has been, regardless of the economy. Fortunately, there are many opportunities to get others to pay for your graduate studies so you can earn your degree with minimal personal expense or debt.
• Check with your current employer. Many offer educational benefits.
• Work for the college or university you want to attend. We're not talking about minimum wage or work-study jobs. Get a job in admissions, developments, human resources, or other institutional offices. And you can earn a salary and benefits that almost always include full or partial tuition coverage.
• Apply for scholarships and fellowship funding. There is more available for grad students than undergrads, and it isn't just the educational institutions that offer them. Look into these options: the U.S. Department of Education; civic organizations such as your local Chamber of Commerce, Lions Club, Elks Club, Masons, etc., and religious organizations.
As tuition costs rise, so usually does funding for scholarships, and far more financial help is available than you may think. By combining the resources above, you can end up with a very large amount of money. Some of these options come with 'strings attached'—a method of service or commitment to continuing to work for a period of time after graduation. Fulfilling those obligations will be well worth it.
Myth 3. I'm too old to go back to school: Statistics show that, in many institutions, the average graduate student is in his or her mid to late 30s. So, there is no disadvantage or stigma in going back as an older student.
In fact, institutions desire older students with work and life experience because of the value they add to the discipline being studied and discussions in the classroom.
Online, part-time, evening, and weekend programs are proliferating in response to the growing number of older students returning to school. There are many good ones. Take the time to research your options and what works best for your situation.
Myth 4. My undergraduate academic record isn't good enough, and I won't get accepted: Admissions committees don't just look at grades. They look at everything in your application including letters of recommendation, essays, the courses you took, internships, and work and life experience. Admission directors are looking for reasons to get you in, not reasons to keep you out. The older and further away you are from your undergraduate degree, the less important your previous grades will be.
If you still feel your academic record is lacking, take one or two grad courses and get an A. It shows you're serious about your education and demonstrates what you're capable of doing. Then you can say in your application essay, "While my undergrad record is not strong, this is an example of the kind of work I do now." And don't worry about if your recent courses are at a community college or lesser-known university. It's the initiative that shines.
Dr. Don Martin, Ph.D., is a higher education admissions expert, author, and former admissions dean at Columbia University, Northwestern University, Wheaton College, and University of Chicago Booth School of Business. To learn more about graduate admissions, visit gradschoolroadmap.com.