So you’re thinking about going back to school.
Besides tuition costs, what should you budget for?
I left my post-college career for law school three years ago, and along the way, gained an unexpected education on the costs they don’t mention in the brochure.
If You’re Thinking About Graduate School…
Before you even enter the hallowed halls of academia, there are many costs to consider.
The process of preparing for and applying to graduate school can put a significant dent in your wallet.
Consider your chosen area of study: First, is there a required entrance exam, such as the GRE, MCAT, or LSAT? Study materials, an online or in-person prep class, and exam fees can add up quickly.
Second, calculate your application costs. Application fees vary widely between programs, so be informed. Save time and money by only applying to schools you would actually attend (including safety and long-shot options).
Third, if you’re applying to programs outside of your geographic area, consider travel costs for admissions interviews and campus tours. Budget for plane tickets, hotel rooms, local travel, meals, and any other costs you’re likely to incur.
Doing your research can help predict these expenses, and some programs will reimburse travel costs or conduct a phone interview instead.
What Tuition Really Costs
Congratulations! You’ve been accepted and are starting graduate school in the fall.
Make sure you have adequate technology. You don’t need the latest MacBook, but a computer in good working order is essential for many academic programs. If you’ll primarily use it for word processing, email, and internet access, check out a low-cost laptop like the Chromebook.
Also, think textbooks. Shopping in your school’s bookstore can induce a serious case of sticker shock, but don’t despair. There are plenty of alternatives to paying top dollar for brand-new books. You can buy used online, rent for the semester (online or from a friend), check school and public libraries, look for a downloadable e-textbook, or use a year-old version instead of a pricey new edition. Check Facebook groups, email list-servs, and school bulletin boards to find other students looking to buy, sell, and share textbooks. In general, never buy what you can borrow or rent.
Now, skip ahead to the end of grad school (wow, that went by fast!). Are you taking licensing or certification exams? Calculate the cost of study materials, prep courses, exam fees, professional licenses, and continuing education requirements for the first few years.
The Hidden Costs of Student Life
If you’re leaving a job to return to school, loss of salary and opportunity cost are obvious considerations.
But there are other factors to think about before cleaning out your cubicle.
First, where will you get health insurance? Look at your school’s student health plan to find out what the fees would be for you (and your spouse or dependents). Alternatively, look at your state insurance exchange; as a student, you may be able to get a low rate for private health insurance (or, if you’re under 26, stay on your parents’ plan).
Medical and immunization requirements are another health cost. Some programs ask for documentation that you’ve had a recent check-up or are up to date on certain immunizations, like tetanus and meningitis. Be aware of what you’ll need and whether your insurance will cover it.
Second, don’t forget about your social life! Going out to dinner with friends, seeing a movie with your boyfriend, or a post-finals day at the spa: socializing costs can add up, but maintaining a life outside of grad school will help you stay sane.
Try to anticipate larger costs, and prioritize: If Thanksgiving with your family is a must, you’ll make it happen. But if your third cousin is having a destination wedding in Macau, it’s okay to send regrets. Be deliberate; put your spending money toward the things that bring you joy.
Life After Graduate School
Once you’re settled in classes, start thinking about outside activities and their potential costs. For example, if you plan to pursue internships during your program, price out your transportation costs and ask prospective employers if they provide travel reimbursements (many do, even for unpaid positions). When you’re job hunting, joining professional associations or networking organizations can provide valuable connections – just check the membership fees before you sign up.
Additionally, you’ll need to present a professional appearance for job interviews. Make sure you have at least two appropriate suits in your wardrobe. (This avoids a frantic last-minute shopping trip when you’re called for a second interview and realize you only own one suit!) Check department store clearance racks, discount designer stores, or a local consignment shop. And don’t forget the finishing touches: a good tailor and a great pair of shoes!
Graduate school is a significant investment, but being informed and prepared will help you thrive both personally and professionally. Save smart, study hard, and you’ll set yourself on the path to success!