Graduate School Must-Haves for First-Time Grad Students

Written by Grad School Center Team We are a passionate team of experienced educators and advisors at, dedicated to guiding students through their graduate education journey. Our experts, with advanced degrees across various disciplines, offer personalized advice, up-to-date program information, and practical insights into application processes.

Reviewed by David Krug David Krug is a seasoned expert with 20 years in educational technology (EdTech). His career spans the pivotal years of technology integration in education, where he has played a key role in advancing student-centric learning solutions. David's expertise lies in marrying technological innovation with pedagogical effectiveness, making him a valuable asset in transforming educational experiences. As an advisor for enrollment startups, David provides strategic guidance, helping these companies navigate the complexities of the education sector. His insights are crucial in developing impactful and sustainable enrollment strategies.

Updated: February 29, 2024, Reading time: 14 minutes

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If you are just beginning your grad career, check out our “Graduate School Must-Haves for First Time Grad Students”. This guide will help you be prepared for what’s to come!

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of applications across graduate schools increased by 7.3% in the Fall 2020 term. There was also a slight increase – by 1.8% – in first-time graduate enrollment. These gains also highlighted the increase in graduate enrollment among underrepresented minority groups. Here, we talk about the must-haves for first-time grad students!

While not mandatory for certain professions, a master’s degree, doctorate, or postgraduate diploma program is crucial in securing career advancement in practically every industry or sector. Not surprisingly, many who aspire for better career options return to school after several years of employment or professional practice.

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A graduate degree is always associated with the opportunity to specialize in an area you are passionate about and enjoy a higher earning capacity. Careers, where a higher degree is required, could mean more money and mobility, and these may include business administration, management, database administration, software engineering, and marketing.

Grad School Must-have First-time Grad Students - fact

Other growing industries requiring a graduate degree program include healthcare social work, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and marriage and family therapy. With a doctorate or a master’s, you get access to higher positions in education, administration, medicine, and law.

Grad School Center is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Where Graduate Schools Are Headed in 2024

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to shape our world, and among its most affected industries is the education sector. Without face-to-face classes, online education became the norm in 2020 and 2021 even in graduate schools. While online graduate programs already existed before the pandemic, colleges and universities accelerated their plans toward online platforms, too. 

2024 is projected to be even more exciting with new trends in online learning. These trends will likely persist even after colleges and universities are slowly transitioning to face-to-face classes. After all, once you have tasted the fruit, there’s no going back! 

Graduate schools have added more online programs since it means extending their reach beyond the local population. Even STEM offerings, such as in the physical sciences and data science, are in the market. The use of open educational resources, virtual reality and spaces, and stackable online degrees will likely increase, too. 

With graduate schools learning from their mistakes in the past few years, their students will benefit from their reforms. Blended learning will be here to stay; better course design and digital resources will decrease the digital divide; and data-driven courses will make online learning more engaging for students. 

The bottom line: You made the right decision to pursue a graduate degree! You will find an education industry with the willingness and wherewithal to make graduate education rewarding in the personal and professional sense.

In terms of financial aid, do grad students get the help they need?

Yes, they do! But you must ask questions, follow the money, and get the right support to ensure that you’re getting financial aid according to your specific needs. 

During the 2021-2022 academic year, graduate students across the U.S. were granted $39 billion in federal loans. This means that federal loans are the most popular way of financing graduate studies. 

Students also availed of other financial aid options although in smaller amounts. Institutional aid accounted for $13.4 billion; private and employer grants totaled $4.2 billion; and federal veterans benefits amounted to $1.7 billion. Federal education benefits, state grants and federal work-study aid totaled $1.5 billion. 

On the minus side, the average debt among individuals who have earned their graduate degree can be overwhelming. Master’s degree holders can be in debt by $71,287 and $159,625 among doctorate degree holders, on average. 

It must be emphasized, however, that professionals with master’s and doctorate degrees have better opportunities for career advancement! This means higher pay, better quality of life and access to services, and lower unemployment risk. 

Indeed, your decision to pursue your graduate degree will have its rewards in the foreseeable future! The trick is in getting reliable information about graduate school, opening your eyes to its challenges, and planning for success – and it includes getting the best possible financial aid package.

First-Time Grad Student? Here’s a Checklist for Embarking on Your Graduate Journey


Selecting the best graduate program is more than just looking at school rankings, applying to reputable universities, and beating application deadlines. As a prospective graduate student who will be in it for the first time, check for these before making that big academic leap:

Catalog of Degree Programs and Courses


Look for graduate degree programs that will align with your goals and equip you with the skills and knowledge for competence in your career. Check the teaching philosophy of the degree program. Does it focus on pure research? Is it theory-based? When your objective is to pursue a career that focuses on scientific analysis or application, you may find it challenging to land one when your graduate degree background focuses on the theoretical aspect of the field.

Graduate students also need to determine the subfield that the degree program emphasizes. Learn about the program strategy. Relatively, the more you know about the complexities of your field, the simpler it will be to choose the curriculum that matches your interest.

Graduate Program Options

graduate school must-haves

Check if your preferred master’s or doctorate programs are offered on-campus or online. Universities and colleges are gradually joining the online world for their highly credible graduate programs, and this would mean more freedom and greater flexibility for first-time grad students.

Is your graduate program offered in an online learning format? Consider if the curriculum is accredited, similar to its traditional counterpart.

Graduate degree programs offered online are present in the most prominent traditional universities and colleges. They are often the same as their conventional counterparts on campus. Also, online programs provide graduate students who want to start working full-time or part-time the flexibility and convenience they need while completing their degree.

You can opt for classes in the evening or during the weekend. Universities and colleges now provide graduate degree programs that can be accomplished exclusively through weekend or evening classes. These programs have been designed for working students and are suitable for those who want to return to school.

Financial Aid Options

Graduate school is typically costly, but tuition and other expenses can vary significantly from program to program. Make a reasonable assessment of how much you are capable of paying and be mindful of the time it takes to repay your loan.

Here are some financial aid options most universities offer to first-time graduate students:

With the right combination of these financial aid options, you won’t have to cover 100% of the tuition and fees! But if you want to avail of the abovementioned financial aid options, you must fill out the FAFSA. 

Even if you think that you won’t qualify for any reason, just apply! You may be missing out on financial aid that can come in handy in the future. Job loss, illness, and emergencies can change your current financial position. 

In many ways, the FAFSA for undergraduate and graduate students is similar although there are a few key differences. Graduate students must still submit their FSA identification, Social Security number, savings and checking account balances, and federal income tax returns, among others. 

But graduate students are different, FAFSA-wise, in the following ways: 

Campus Map

Your environment impacts your academic performance. If you are not into the urban lifestyle, a graduate school in a busy metropolitan area might not be ideal for you. Conversely, if a modern location gets you inspired, find a graduate school surrounded by skyscrapers. To be sure, secure a list of potential programs and visit your shortlisted universities.

Be sure to maximize your campus visits, too, because you may only get one chance at it before making your decision! This is true even when you’re applying to an online program – the campus visit is an excellent opportunity to learn more about the school and its program beyond its website. 

Afterward, you will have a better idea of whether the university and its graduate program are truly your best fit or not. Remember that your expectations may not be congruent with the realities on the ground.

Completed Application Requirements

The graduate school application process isn’t as easy as you think. Do your research at least six months before applying to graduate schools and notify the recruitment office or specialized division accordingly.

All graduate schools have application forms and instructions. Here are some of the standard requirements for a graduate study application:

Online Reviews and Student Testimonials

Testimonials exist everywhere. You see them on social media, product pages, websites, and the marketplace. They are a valuable source of information, particularly when selecting an online graduate degree program. Student testimonials, in particular, can answer questions about interaction with classmates, time management, and required technology.

When reading testimonials from graduate students online, make sure they pertain to legitimate online graduate degree programs. Testimonials and online reviews are also found on the website or Facebook page of universities and colleges. You can also use the school website’s search feature.

First-time graduate students should talk to former or current students about programs where they have joined. These can be useful for social media websites and applications. Communicating with other students is the key to finding out what the regular educational environment appears to them.

Graduate School Consultants or Advisors

Talking to professors and instructors may provide a great deal of information about the existing undergraduate degree program of a student. Professors can also maintain their communication with former students who may have pursued graduate school and are willing to monitor degree programs in other colleges and universities.

First-time graduate students also need to consult a graduate school counselor. They are professionals who can assist you in all the aspects of planning and preparing for graduate school, from selecting the appropriate courses for you to completing the registration process on schedule.

During your first year, perhaps by the end of your first semester, you may be required to choose and connect with your faculty advisor. Your choice will have a significant impact on your graduate school experience, from the creation of your personalized program of study to your dissertation completion. Even your career after earning your graduate degree will be influenced by your choice because of your faculty advisor’s professional networks. 

When considering potential faculty advisors, you may want to look for these excellent qualities: 

While it takes time and effort to find the right match, your success as a graduate student will partly depend on it. So, be patient!

Suitable Online Resources and Facilities

Check if the university has the equipment and services to satisfy your specific needs. Facilities may include laboratories, museums, libraries, scholarships, loan options, teaching assistance, summer fellowships, and online academic resources.

Even online students will benefit from on-campus resources, such as the libraries and wellness centers. Keep in mind, too, that these services are included in your tuition so you may as well take advantage of them!

We’re certain of one thing—your search for more information on picking the best graduate degree or school landed you here. Let our experts help guide your through the decision making process with thoughtful content written by experts.