The Hidden Costs of Applying to Grad School: Part One

By Wednesday, August 05, 2015


After five years of waffling and putting it off, I finally spent the past year applying to graduate school. Having just gone through the process, I was struck by how many hidden costs there are in applying to grad schools (in addition to the sizable and obvious cost of paying for tuition and living expenses). I want to note that, although I’ve supported myself largely independently since college, and I am funding the majority of the big grad school costs myself, my parents volunteered to help with my application fees. I was also lucky to have some of the costs covered (or waived) by the graduate programs (one of my application fees was covered, and the program I eventually enrolled in covered the cost of my student visit). The costs of applying to graduate school are highly variable – the amounts outlined below are based on my experiences alone and, where applicable, I have also drawn upon the experiences of friends who have applied to a range of graduate and professional schools.

Application Fees – Each grad school costs money to apply to. The graduate programs I applied to cost around $80 per program; I applied to eight for a total of $640, but because one fee was waived it actually cost around $560. My understanding is that applying to medical schools is more expensive, and applying to law schools and some masters programs are more likely to waive application fees for strong students. Many programs will also waive application fees for certain students, such as veterans and Americorps alumni. A very general rule of thumb is, the higher the tuition costs of the program, the more likely they will be to waive the application fees (it’s a marketing tool).

Many schools will also have income-based application fee waivers. If application fees are a barrier for applying to grad school, I suggest first reading the fine print on the website and contacting the admissions office to explain your situation to see if you qualify for fee waivers.

Standardized Test Prep – These costs will vary greatly depending on the type of graduate school you’re applying to and the amount of preparation you need to do. You’ll have to do well enough on the standardized test to get into the grad schools you want to go to with the funding you need. Test prep classes can easily cost thousands of dollars. There may be cheaper options for prep classes offered at universities, community colleges, or through employers or community organizations. A sometimes-cheaper alternative to test prep classes can be one-on-one tutoring, especially if you have a select few skills you need to work on. I decided to forgo classes and tutoring, and study on my own. I spent $100 on online study software for the GRE and about $200 on study books. I also used free blogs, word lists, and flashcard apps, and asked a friend who teaches test prep classes to give me a few free lessons. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some people are prepared to take the tests with relatively little preparation and may be fine buying one test prep book to brush up on their skills. If you’re not sure what you should do for test prep, I suggest taking one practice test with no preparation (many tests have one free practice test available online) and seeing how your score matches up to the average scores for admitted students. Keep in mind, if the type of program you’re applying to offers funding, that funding may be contingent on strong test scores.

Side Hustle (and Other Life) Opportunity Costs – As noted above, I spent on average of seven hours a week for a year preparing for the GRE, researching schools, writing my application essays, asking for letters of recommendation, and putting my application materials together. In the weeks before my application deadlines, I spent about forty hours a week writing and editing (and editing, and editing) my applications. In short, I missed out on the opportunity to side hustle for that year, since applying to grad school was pretty much a full-time side hustle. Since my application deadlines were right after Thanksgiving and Christmas, I also ended up skipping the holidays with my family and spending all my vacation days to polish my applications instead. Assuming I missed out on seven hours a week of a minimum-wage job, the cost of skipping my side hustle for the year was around $3000.

School Visits – Once you get into programs, you will likely want to go visit. This is important because it gives you a sense of the professors you will be working with, the other students, and the place you’ll be living for the next several years. This can be a rough set of costs to handle because they’re impossible to predict – you could get into one program or seven – and there isn’t a lot of lead time between when you are accepted and the visit days, meaning you could wind up with some expensive plane tickets, hotel rooms, and the cost of taking vacation days off of work. Some programs will fund your visits, but many will not. I have heard through friends that this works the opposite of application fees — programs that are funding people are more likely to fly them out for visits, while programs that students pay for are more likely to let students cover the cost of visiting. I chose to forgo visits to three of the programs that didn’t offer to pay for my travel, and I only visited the programs that funded my visit. This was also the program I ended up enrolling in. For other types of graduate schools, I’ve even heard of students doing two school visits before deciding on a program.

In all, the total cost of applying to graduate schools for me was around $3860, which does not include the cost of the transition between the professional world and graduate school. I will be covering the topic of transition costs next week in Part Two. Stay tuned!

Susannah is starting a PhD program at a large research university in the fall. Prior to enrolling in graduate school, Susannah spent four years in the workforce, first in an Americorps program and then in a position in the government.

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