Opening your wallet to further education: The cost of applying to grad school

MCAT studying
More than 45,000 students applied to medical school in 2012 while more than 59,000 students applied to law school as of Aug. 8, 2013. Illustration by Matthew Schueller

Chris Badger spent the better part of summer 2012 researching medical schools, studying for the MCAT and perfecting his personal statement, complete with Google Hangout editing sessions.

Applying to medical school was all he and his future roommate talked about, much to the chagrin of their other friends who now probably know more about prerequisite classes, MCAT practice tests and application costs than some med school applicants. Chris won’t graduate until April or June 2014, but well before cap and gown orders go out they needed to consider what’s next.

For students with hopes of even higher education, “what’s next” is graduate school. Beyond the grades, those seeking higher education need to consider how much it will cost not just to attend a school, but to actually apply. From the primary application fees to GRE, MCAT or LSAT prep classes and potential expenses when interviewing, the money won’t stop flowing.

Where and why to go

If you have no idea where you want to attend grad school, databases like Peterson’s allow you to search for schools by selecting the type of degree, the field of study and the desired location of your future school. From there you can choose a tuition range and even the type of environment (urban, small town, rural, etc.). It even lets you determine what your tuition costs will be based on your state of residence. Once you pick a potential school, it breaks down the program into acceptance rates, the number of students currently enrolled in the program, contacts within the program and how much application fees are.

Joseph Stuart, a first year master’s student in the religious studies program at the University of Virginia, applied to 10 schools. He said online research shouldn’t be ignored, but often the key to picking a program lay in talking to real people.

“I obtained information on target programs from trusted advisors and mentors, school websites (and) current and former students at the schools,” Stuart said.

School websites provide a lot of the technical information, but to learn which schools suit you best, talk to people. Brandt Nichols studied molecular biology for his master’s at BYU and has moved on to getting his Ph.D. at the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center, studying cancer biology. Nichols went to graduate school fairs hosted at BYU and asked professors for their recommendations.

Whether you like a school or not will most likely be influenced by the people you’re interacting with. Stuart’s priority in applying to all of the schools he did rested in potential mentors.

“First, I wanted to make sure that the programs I applied to had faculty members who could serve as mentors and who are interested in the same things that I am,” Stuart said.

Application costs: Just the beginning

Once you narrow down which schools to apply to, then comes the fun part of (potentially) draining your bank account.

Initial application fees range from $40 to $140. For some people, that’s almost all the money they’ll spend. Maddie Hagerman, a museum conservation graduate student at the University College of London, only applied to one school that had a fee; she spent less than $50 on her applications. But if you are interested in pursuing medical school, $50 is just the beginning.

There are test fees, whether for the GRE, MCAT, LSAT, GMAT or whatever other test is out there for what you want to pursue. The cost of taking the GRE alone is $185; The MCAT will cost you $275 or $325, depending on when you register. And paying for prep books and prep classes make another blow to your wallet.

Badger, a prospective med school student, shelled out $2,000 for his MCAT prep course.

Stuart estimated he spent $1,100 total applying to 10 schools, preparing for the GRE and taking the test, but there is a ray of hope in his future.

“The cost of both applications and tuition will be made up if I am accepted into a top-flight Ph.D. program,” Stuart said.

Badger took applying to grad schools to a whole new level. He filled out 23 primary applications and 20 secondary applications. Med school costs add up quickly, with each primary application costing about $35 and each secondary costing $100.

“I made sure to apply to a wide range of schools — safety nets to prestigious,” Badger said. “Though prestige was part of my consideration, I was more concerned about applying to programs where I could excel and be the most competitive applicant to surgical residencies.”

Badger spent most weekends this past fall in other states interviewing and will continue to do so for this year — he expects to spend around $3,600 traveling.

If time really were money, they’d be rich

The most difficult number to calculate for how much it costs to actually apply to grad school is time. You’ll take time to not just fill out applications, but to study for the GRE or other tests, actually make space in your schedule to take the test, visit schools and potentially interview.

In 2008, Stanford economists estimated a human life to be worth about $129,000. Based on this number it can be calculated that one hour of someone’s life is worth $14.73.

Stuart said he spent 150 hours “speaking with mentors (and) professors at other schools, e-mailing with students, writing applications, filling out applications and collecting the materials for the applications.” But he spent another 150 hours over the course of a few years perfecting his writing sample.

So at $14.73 per hour, Stuart spent an equivalent of $4,419 applying to grad programs.

Badger realizes better than most how straining postgraduate applications can make life. He estimated that he’s spent 1,104 hours applying, which means at $14.73 per hour, Badger has spent $16,261 applying. Remember that’s only time, and it’s a low estimate.

“(Calculating application costs) was a little depressing when you consider that I spent 46 complete days of the last year applying to medical school,” Badger said. “It’s even worse when you consider that I only received 99 days of sleep in the last year.”

This article has been edited for length. For more grad school tips, visit

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