1. "We may not be the place to hide out in a slow economy."
With the unemployment rate hovering at around 10 percent, many college graduates are seeking an advanced degree both to enhance their employment opportunities and to bide their time in a tough hiring climate.
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"I figure that by the time I get out, the job market should be better," says Regina Pencile, a 2010 Clemson grad heading to the University of Virginia to study urban and environmental planning. A survey of her fellow Clemson classmates found that 36 percent -- up from 25 percent in the 2002 recession -- are also taking the graduate school route.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that a master's degree increases annual income by roughly $12,000 over a B.A. But that statistic doesn't take into account today's shifting employment climate, where some fields, like journalism and law, offer limited prospects at best. Right now it's "pretty grim out there" for lawyers, says a spokesperson for the Law School Admission Council. "A backlog of grads may not be absorbed for years." But not all fields are so closed to new hires. Among the best options: biochemistry, physical therapy and industrial psychology.
2. "We're not just about the numbers."
Time was, a strong GPA and top scores on the Graduate Record Exam would translate to near automatic admission. Now many grad schools expect more. MBA programs want candidates with a couple years' experience in their chosen specialty, say, finance or marketing, while Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government requires candidates for a master's in public administration to have three years of full-time experience. But sometimes a summer internship or volunteer job can smooth the way. Jennifer Bolton, an animal behavior major at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, won a summer internship working on a rat obesity project at Duke University. Says Bolton, "I think the internship had a great deal to do with my acceptance" -- and a generous financial-aid package.
Top schools also want people with passion, says Evan Forster, author of The MBA Reality Check. To show it, applicants must produce a "statement of purpose." But saying you want an MBA to make money won't cut it, says Forster. "You have to show that you're a visionary" with plans to, say, "transform the energy sector," he says.
3. "You'll be competing with the whole world to get in."
Other job-market refugees aren't the only competition today's applicant faces. Though enrollment of first-year grad students from overseas remained flat, at about 18 percent during 2008 and 2009, their presence is significant in many fields. Foreign students make up 23 percent of those in business school, 46 percent of those in the physical sciences and 53 percent of those in engineering. And they're for-midable competitors: While their mean GRE verbal scores are understandably lower than those of U.S. test takers (418 versus 481), their math scores are stratospheric (667 versus 548).
But foreign students aren't exactly displacing their U.S. counterparts; there simply aren't enough applicants in the fields in which they concentrate, namely science and engineering, says a spokesperson for the Council of Graduate Schools, a group of more than 500 universities offering graduate education. However, many top grad schools actively recruit foreigners. Rosemaria Martinelli, director of admissions for the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, says she travels several times a year for that purpose. The result: 35 percent of Booth's students come from abroad.
4. "Our second-tier status may hamper your career."
"Where you get your degree matters," says Thomas P. Rock, admissions director at Columbia Teachers College. And indeed, salaries are higher for grads of top schools. A study by PayScale.com, which assembles compensation data, found the median pay for MBAs with less than two years on the job from Harvard Business School is $133,000 a year, with lifetime compensation of about $3.9 million; grads of the University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business earn $62,500 a year, with lifetime compensation of about $1.9 million. (Jay Sa-Aadu, associate dean at Tippie, says according to the school's survey, median salaries for its 2008 and 2009 grads were $83,500 and $78,000, respectively.)
Since not everybody can get in to a brand-name school, Robert H. Miller, author of Law School Confidential, suggests a strategy for targeting other law programs that might work in any field: Decide where you want to live, and look for a good local school. "Firms hire from the schools they know," he says. To find the right one, research the background of people at major firms in the area to see which alma maters are well represented.
5. "A fellowship? Don't count on it."
The 2007-08 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study declares that nearly three-quarters of master's-level students and 86 percent of doctoral students receive financial aid -- a huge portion of which comes in the form of loans. As for actual aid packages doled out by universities, doctoral students get the lion's share: on average, about $19,000 a year. A typical package may include a grant, a tuition waiver and a job -- a teaching assistantship or a research position -- that could add, on average, anywhere from $9,000 to $30,000 a year.
At Cornell University, 97 percent of doctoral candidates get aid, versus 37 percent of those seeking a master's, according to Sarah Hale, associate dean of student services. For the latter, great recommendations and an imaginative statement of purpose are crucial. Pencile, who said in her statement that she wanted to focus on "planning, developing sustainable communities and helping underserved ones," received a fellowship and a scholarship totaling $22,000, along with health insurance and a work-study grant, from the University of Virginia. Her strategy: shopping for the school that offered the most. "I didn't want to go into debt," she says.