As you progress through your undergraduate education, you may realize that the career you want requires an advanced or specialized degree, or perhaps your potential starting salary will be higher if you earn a graduate degree first.
But continuing in your education beyond a bachelor's degree will require more time and more money. Is graduate school the right choice for you?
Here are some questions to ask:
Are you financially ready?
A good guideline for student loan debt is that you should not borrow in total more than you expect to make in your first year after graduation. With a graduate degree, you may be able to earn more in that first job, but remember to include any debt you took on for your undergraduate degree when you calculate how much debt you may be able to repay later.
You may be able to find a graduate assistantship or other position that will cover all or part of your graduate tuition, but you will also have housing and living expenses. Be prepared to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for each year of graduate school and have a plan for meeting your financial needs.
Will you succeed academically?
Your grades in the undergraduate classes required for your major can be a good indication of your ability to do well in a graduate program. The more As you have, the better. A general guideline is that if you have more than a few Bs and Cs, you may want to think about your passion for the field and your own ability to do well.
Are you taking rigorous courses now?
Your undergraduate program likely offers classes at different levels, from introductory courses designed for students of all majors to junior seminars and senior thesis classes. Taking rigorous courses specifically created to meet the needs of students within your major will allow you to sample professional-level coursework and provide an opportunity to stand out among undergraduates.
Do you have the right connections?
Your entrance into graduate school will require several letters of recommendation. Try to connect with faculty who have a national reputation, work in your desired field or have another draw. When you ask for recommendations, it's helpful to provide a portfolio or synopsis of the work you did for that instructor, especially if it's been a year or two since you took the class or worked in the lab with him or her.
Have you looked into graduate programs?
If you think you might want to continue your education beyond a bachelor's degree, start looking into your options as early as your sophomore year and at least 12 months before you graduate. This is especially important if you think you may get a graduate degree from a different university than where you attended undergraduate classes. You need to know about the required entrance exams, other entrance requirements, and the graduate school's reputation, as well as your personal liking for the environment and faculty.
Are you prepared for the entrance exams?
You will likely need to spend several months preparing for the required entrance exam in your field. Research the exam and take practice tests to get a good idea what you need to work on. If you find it hard to prepare for a standardized test on your own, work with your academic adviser or the campus advising center to locate a study group or a tutor who can help you.
Will you be able to provide the required entrance materials?
Graduate schools may require you to provide a well-written personal statement about your goals for your graduate education and your readiness to achieve them. You'll also need several letters of recommendation and may need to provide a portfolio of your previous work. Finally, you'll need to send in transcripts, test scores, and writing samples or essays for evaluation.