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Grad school: Finding the perfect fit

With graduation looming for prospective Fresno State seniors, many are asking themselves if graduate school is still worth it in regards to taking on student debt.

Seven out of every 10 students graduating in 2013 accrued some form of student debt, according to a recent Bloomberg report, adding to the $1 trillion total which now exceeds both credit card debt and auto loans.

Students applying for graduate school must make choices on an abundance of variables while applying, including acceptable cost and application requirements.  On average, however, students with master’s degrees earn significantly more than their counterparts with a bachelor’s degree –  depending on the emphasis.

According to an excerpt from a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce published in Forbes magazine, “Business school graduates earn in 20 years the same amount, or even more, than those with equivalent bachelor’s degrees earn after 40 years in the workforce.”

Nora Marmolejo, an employment readiness specialist who runs the Senior Experience Program at Fresno State’s career services, notes the importance of staying up to date with deadlines and application processes.

“It varies what specific program you want to be accepted in,” Marmolejo said. “Each program may have different deadlines, so it’s important to check with the program, the application requirements and the deadline because every program can be different.”

Ross Cope, marketing manager for Fresno’s Kaplan University College, advises students on the graduate school application process and partners with Fresno State to provide practice tests, books and classes both online and on campus for students preparing for graduate school.

On Saturday, full-length LSAT, MCAT and GRE practice tests were available free of charge to students preparing for the exams. Workshops were also held earlier in the week focusing on graduate school preparation, application “do’s and don’ts” and drafting successful personal statements. All of these efforts help lead to a higher success rate for students, Cope said.

“Make a list of your top five colleges and contact those colleges and see specifically what they are looking for,” Ross said. “Then we can work with students to know exactly what type of prep they need to do, if any.”

Kaplan University also hosts an admissions panel that asks institutions what they are looking for, giving students a better idea of what to expect in the application and interview process.

“It’s very similar to undergraduate school,” Ross said. “It’s very hard when you are just a GPA and an SAT score.”

Scholarships and fellowship programs are also available to students, but a large amount of graduate funds go unclaimed every year, Marmolejo said. Researching individual scholarship programs is also crucial to academic success; these can often be found at a particular school’s graduate studies website.

There are several other campus resources available to prospective graduate students, such as the Ronald E. McNair Program. The program started on campus in 1993 to encourage low-income, first generation and traditionally underrepresented students in graduate education to pursue doctoral study.

Millicent Byers, director for the program, stresses the importance of prioritizing when it comes to post-baccalaureate applications.

“More and more what I see college kids doing is not prioritizing. They are trying to do it all, and so in the end they don’t do a good job at all,” Byers said. “You need to put some things in front of the other and pick those others up later.”

Byers also suggested that students attend specific campuses prior to acceptance, whether on a campus tour or for a conference presentation, to get a feel for the particular school.

“If they can get on the campus to which they are applying, they are going to know if they are a good fit or not almost immediately,” Byers said. “If you can get in front of somebody and put a face to the application, that is also an advantage.”

Byers said that students from Fresno State in the McNair program often doubt their abilities or acceptance into that particular program, and find that they not only meet expectations, but exceed them.

“I think a lot of times when they go, especially at a conference if they are presenting, they often are shocked at how well prepared they are,” Byers said.

Where Fresno State students excel is through the small school atmosphere in which students have the opportunity to work with doctorate professors instead of teacher’s assistants, Byers said.

“Everybody has something they can sell even in terms of diversity, whether it’s geography or income or culture or life experience, and in the end that’s what higher education is clamoring for  – that diversity,” Byers said.

For students interested in applying for graduate school, the most important qualification is simply deciding what school fits best, whether by meeting with graduate or job placement coordinators, career services, alumni or professors. What both faculty and advisers agree on, however, is student preparation and readiness.

“It’s going to be very time-consuming. Graduate school is very expensive,” Marmolejo said. “You want to make sure you are spending those resources in the best way possible.”