How Applying to Grad School Works

Seeking Financial Aid

Higher education ain't cheap. Graduate school can cost tens of thousands of dollars per year. The tuition for the 2009-2010 school year at Harvard Medical school is a mere $42,500 [source: HMS]. Pursuing a Master of Science degree at the University of Illinois runs $12,000 for 2009-2010 if you're a resident of Illinois, $18,000 if you're not [source: UofI]. That's a big factor in choosing between a public institution and a private one. Public typically costs less, and it's sometimes easier to get government financial assistance for a state school.

Every student can apply for financial assistance for graduate school. The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is offered by the U.S. Department of Education. Federal Student Aid applies to all students seeking post-secondary education (i.e. beyond high school), but not everyone qualifies. To get federal assistance, you need to need it. Federal loan opportunities for graduate students include Perkins Loans, Grad PLUS Loans, Stafford Loans and Direct Loans. Some are offered directly through the government, and others are through private institutions like Nellie Mae or USA Group. You do need to repay school loans (as opposed to scholarships and grants). To get started learning about these types of government assistance, check out the FAFSA Web site, Nellie Mae and GradLoans.

You may find you're offered an aid package by the individual institution and graduate program you plan to attend. For instance, many programs will cover all or a portion of your study costs in exchange for your work as a teaching assistant, or TA. TAs help professors teach undergraduate classes.

To give yourself the best chance of qualifying for a student loan, be sure to separate yourself from your parents' finances if you're applying straight out of undergraduate school. This entails not being a dependent on their tax forms. If you have your own financial status already and you happen to own a home, you can make yourself a better aid candidate by moving a good portion of your assets into home equity, which often isn't included in aid consideration [source: GST].

Once you've secured funding, you're ready to begin your pursuit of a graduate degree. Don't forget to let your chosen school know as soon as possible that you'll be attending, and let the other schools know that you won't be -- there are other students waiting for that slot.

For more information on graduate school and related topics, look over the links below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Grad School Application Timeline. The Princeton Review.
  • Grad School Tips
  • A Primer on Applying to Graduate School. University of Pittsburgh.