It’s a weird time in American higher education. With so many careers requiring a bachelor’s degree as a basic standard for hiring, the master’s degree has become the next best way to distinguish yourself and advance. A third of Americans have a 4-year college degree, as of 2017, while only 8-9% of Americans have a master’s degree. However, that 8% figure is up more than 40% from just a decade ago. That means there are way more people going back to school for a master’s degree than ever before – even as enrollment in undergraduate programs has been decreasing for several years.

But just how difficult is it to get into graduate school? The first step, obviously, is choosing a master’s program (or, if you’re being smart about it, several possible choices in case your first choice says no). But once you’ve decided what programs offer what you need, the next question becomes how to get into grad school.

Grades Do Matter (But Not as Much as You Think)

Many people go back to grad school late in their career. Often, you’ve been working for a few years, even a decade, and realized that to advance in your career, you’re going to have to have a master’s degree. But you’re worried; you weren’t all that great in school, and your undergraduate GPA wasn’t, let’s say, at the top of the class.

If you’re wondering how to get into grad school with bad grades, we can’t exactly say don’t worry, but we can say your chances are better than you probably think. Above all, master’s programs look for your likelihood of succeeding – it’s a waste of time and money for them to admit someone who’s going to fail or drop out – and that’s only partly based on your grades. Accomplishments like leading a project, or skills like planning, time management, cooperation, and follow-through, are far more important than grades.

If you just finished your bachelor’s and you’re trying to get into grad school below 3.0 average GPA, you might have a harder time. But if you’re going back to school after several years of professional accomplishments, you may be able to prove to the admissions officers that you have the fortitude, motivation, and sticktoitiveness to succeed. That’s how to get into grad school with bad grades – by showing that you’re bigger than your grades.

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Competition is Fierce (But Fair)

It should go without saying that graduate school is more competitive than college, but we’ll say it anyway – it’s a lot more competitive. While there are a lot fewer people applying to graduate school than to college, there are also a lot fewer graduate programs than bachelor’s programs.

That means that even if there are fewer people to compete with, the competition is tougher. It’s not a handful of motivated students and thousands of kids whose parents made them apply, like in college: everyone applying to graduate school is doing so because they are motivated and accomplished. While online master’s programs are convenient, they may be even more competitive, because prospective students perceive them as easy.

That means, before you apply to grad school, do your homework. Turn how to get into grad school into what to do:

  • study hard for the GRE if the programs you want require it
  • work on your resume to highlight your accomplishments (you may even consider hiring a service)
  • practice your interview skills so you shine
  • research the program as much as possible (grad programs have a culture and personality. Learn what they’re looking for, and find it in yourself)

There’s no foolproof plan for how to get into grad school, but thousands of people do it every year, preparing themselves for higher-paying careers. There’s no reason you can’t be one of them, if you plan well. Grad school isn’t an exclusive club – it’s a challenge you take on, and even though it’s competitive, in most cases, it’s fair. Show your accomplishments; plan your strategy; know yourself.

How difficult is it to get into graduate school? As difficult – or easy – as you make it.