I’ve been helping people get into school since I was in fifth grade.
Growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Austin, Texas, I realized early on that changing schools could open up new opportunities for me and my peers. I gained admission to a magnet middle school in my area and then helped some of my friends get in too. When it came time for high school and college applications, I once again lent a hand, aiding any friend who asked for my assistance. In college, the trend continued. I spent a weekend editing one of my friend’s graduate school admissions essays. He got into Harvard with a full ride.
I ended up applying to grad school myself and gained admissions into a joint program between Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School. During grad school, I began offering my admissions help as a paid service, eventually writing a formal business plan for my consulting firm, which I called The Art of Applying. I received a $10,000 entrepreneurship grant and have been running the firm full-time since 2010.
Since fifth grade, I’ve accrued ample knowledge about the application process. And I know this to be true: before diving into your applications, it is crucial to stop and evaluate the path before you. When people are interested in working with Art of Applying to navigate the graduate school admissions process, we ask them to complete a discovery questionnaire to help us better understand what they hope to get out of higher education. And now, I’m going to urge you to pause and reflect as well.
For anyone thinking about grad school, here are four important questions to ask yourself before applying:
I recommend working for at least two-to-five years before going back to school. Life isn’t a race. Take some time to figure out what you want and how to pursue it. Trust me, you’ll wind up eliminating a lot of confusion and dissatisfaction later in life. Even if you don’t absolutely love your job, you will learn valuable information about what you do and don’t want for your career. The years before you go to graduate school represent valuable time to experiment with different industries, functions, and geographies. After you’ve taken some time to get to know your goals, your skills, and the gaps in your training, you can better evaluate the path before you.
Applying to grad school can be financially stressful. Most application fees are $100+ per school. Plus, taking the GRE, GMAT, or LSAT costs more than $100 each time. Programs such as Management Leadership for Tomorrow, The Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, and Forte Foundation’s MBALaunch Program help defray the costs of applying by providing high-quality information, coaching (in various forms), and application fee waivers or reduced application fees. It’s important to think through the costs (and possible resources to help mitigate them).
Likewise, this is a time consuming process. For instance, applicants should give themselves enough time to take the GMAT three times before they need to submit their applications, but most people don’t. If your test score is lower than that of 75 percent of people who were admitted to the school (this is information published on the admissions page of school websites), consider waiting to apply once your score is higher. Map out your schedule and make sure you’ve set realistic goals for yourself. This will make the process less stressful and, ultimately, more successful.
Be sure to evaluate the earning potential your degree offers. Graduate school was the right decision for me and many others, but you don’t have to go to business school to start a successful business. And sometimes, high levels of student loan debt can make it more difficult for you to pursue entrepreneurship than if you were debt-free. The same is true of other industries. Do you need an MFA to write a book, a film degree to direct a movie? Maybe. But maybe not.
Take a look at the average salaries of graduates upon graduation and their future earning potential. Compare this to the salaries of those in your field who do not have a degree. Is it worth it for you to take time off of work and put down money for tuition? What opportunities (relationships outside of school, salaried employment, and debt-free living) are you giving up by going to graduate school? Is this outweighed by the potential graduate school affords you (a professional network, a salary boost, time away to develop as a professional)? Do the math and some soul-searching before making assumptions.
This doesn’t work! Adulthood and the real world will be waiting for you when you graduate. Graduate school is not a “default” decision; it should be used as a tool to help you develop your chosen career path and build your ideal life. Every year, I have clients who come to me and can’t pinpoint why they are considering graduate school. They often hate their jobs and feel stuck. If you want to go to grad school just to tread water in life, you’re at risk of spending valuable years and a lot of money only to find yourself just as confused as when you began. Grad school will only help you advance if you know what you’re moving towards. Try envisioning your career goals for the short-term, mid-term, and long-term. Then consider the skills you’ll need in order to get where you want to go. Which skills do you possess already? Which do you lack? If graduate school checks boxes you’re unable to check elsewhere, it’s time to apply.
Lead image courtesy of Kaneisha Grayson; additional photo by Jeanne Paradiso.