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How to Get Into Grad School Without the Debt

Millennials have stumbled into a type of adulthood that is starkly defined by its unprecedented academic and labor environment. According to the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers, “in 2013, 47% of 25 to 34 year-olds received a postsecondary degree (associate’s, bachelor’s, or graduate degree) and an additional 18% had completed some postsecondary education.” This report, which can be found in the White House’s government website, also states that “Millennials now represent the largest generation in the United States, comprising roughly one-third of the total population in 2013.”

What does that mean for the average college student?

The job market is saturated by young adults with some sort of undergraduate degree, which results in higher unemployment rates as there is no longer a clear denominator to guarantee success. According to the journal Current Issues in Economics and Finance, “the data is actually pretty scary: 44% of college grads in their 20s are stuck in low-wage, dead-end jobs—the highest rate in decades—and the number of young people making less than $25,000 has also spiked to the highest level since the 1990s.”

Now more than ever, it is crucial for Millennials to continue to graduate studies. However, this path is not without its complications. As the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers, reports “in part, this increase in the aggregate level of outstanding student debt is due to greater enrollment among Millennials and to the changing composition of students, including a larger share of students from lower-income families who need to take out more loans.”

So, how do we continue our graduate studies without incurring in debt that we will potentially be paying off for decades?

1. Only apply to schools that offer full-tuition waivers and yearly stipends

Make sure that the programs you are interested in offer full-tuition waivers and yearly stipends to students. Some schools also offer medical insurance, which is a great perk to have, as medical insurance plans are quite costly in countries like the United States. Graduate schools usually offer three types of assistantships: research assistantships, teaching assistantships, and administrative assistantships. Some of these assistantships will be automatically given out to prospective students applying for their program of choice, but other stipends and scholarships must be requested personally by the student. Make sure you carefully read each program’s description for more information on financial support for students.

Applying only to programs that offer stipends and tuition waivers will help you avoid having to take on college loans.

2. Apply to graduate programs ahead of the crowd

These programs offer competitive financial packages that are highly sought by applicants. It is important to make a long-term plan for graduate schools as soon as a year in advance. Reviewing graduate school programs is a time-consuming process and should not be rushed. Many schools suggest that interested students should apply as soon as the system opens, and while some do not evaluate applications until after the deadline, others have a first come, first serve policy. Most graduate schools in the U.S. only admit students in the fall, and the deadlines for these programs close nearly a year in advance.

However, being the first to apply to a graduate program? Now, that’s important.

3. Make a special note of the requirements each program asks for as part of their admission guidelines

Most, if not all, graduate programs in the United States will request two entrance exams: the GRE, which stands for Graduate Record Examination, and the TOEFL, or Testing Of English as a Foreign Language. If you are a business major, you will also have to take the GMAT, the Graduate Management Admission Test. Preparing for these exams is extremely time-consuming and costly—the TOEFL alone costs $180. It is recommendable that you take these exams during the summer or winter break, as you will have more free time to prepare. These exams are Internet-based and are offered in the city of Guaynabo; however, there is a paper-based GRE test offered in Mayaguez, but paper-based exam results will take longer to be corrected and processed. Test results take anywhere from two weeks to a month to arrive to the graduate schools of your choice, so the sooner you take them, the better.

Seriously. They will make you test all of the things.

4. Choose your recommendation providers wisely

I have worked in the UPRM’s Graduate Admissions office for nearly a year now, and have seen all kinds of cases and scenarios where students’ applications have not been submitted for departmental review. The number one reason potential students are denied the right to be evaluated by their program of choice is due to their recommendations. Your recommendations should be submitted by professors in your field of study, preferably by professors who have personally taught you and can attest to the kind of student you are. Choosing reliable professors that are easily reachable for communication is also of the utmost importance. Graduate applications are not reviewed until all materials are received, including transcripts, exam results, and recommendations. Just one missing recommendation can result in being denied the opportunity to be evaluated and losing the money you invested in the application.

Don’t be ashamed of harassing your professor for that recommendation—it’s your application that’s on the line.

5. Your statement of purpose is the foundation of your entire application.

Yes, test results are important. Yes, your GPA is taken into consideration. Yes, your recommendation letters are read. But your statement of purpose is your one true shot at making a lasting impression. Schools receive hundreds of applications each year; your statement of purpose is your one shot at catching their attention. As a general rule of thumb, this essay should clearly state your goals in terms of both academic and professional ambitions. Your statement of purpose is not an autobiography (although you may take a brief moment to quickly summarize your education, academic presentations, or meaningful community and student association service.) On the contrary, an effective statement of purpose explains why you’re a perfect fit for the program you are applying for. In 2015, I met with the graduate coordinator of UPenn’s English PhD program. His advice? Read the mission and vision statements of the department you are applying for. Select target language from the text and include it in your essay. If you have specific faculty members you would like to work with, name them! Name dropping in applications shows graduate programs that you’ve done your research and that you have a clear vision of what you want to study and who you want to work with. Of course, you will have to tailor each statement of purpose to fit each particular school you are applying for. It is also a good idea to ask a professor to take a look at your statement of purpose.

A strong state of purpose makes graduate schools want to swipe right.

6. Shoot for the stars…but always have a back-up plan

It’s only normal for people to be ambitious. Wishing to be admitted into an Ivy League school is an honorable goal; however, it is important to understand that the chances of being admitted to these elite schools are lower than, say, a state school with good credentials and a solid program. Make sure to have a feasible balance between more prestigious schools and more accessible ones. State schools will usually be able to admit a higher number of students and offer competitive funding packages. In the end, a degree from a prestigious school will only get you so far. State schools are often underestimated and undervalued, but nowadays all academic programs must provide quality course offerings in order to be able to compete in the market.

Never be blinded by ambition… but, like Journey said, “don’t stop believing” either.


Daysha is a coffee addict and a graduate student in the UPRM's English Education program. She's a Type A personality who's not afraid of kicking some butt in order to reach her goals. Daysha enjoys piña coladas, getting caught in the rain, playing video games, and watching Gilmore Girls marathons (whenever she's not working hard on her thesis.)
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