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How to Choose an Undergraduate College when Grad School is on the Horizon

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Has your child known since they were five years old that they want to be a doctor? Have late-night courtroom dramas convinced your teen that a career in law is in their future? Or—who knows?—maybe you’ve got a budding urban planner on your hands! The common denominator among these career paths is that they require graduate-level education. Now, before you go wild planning for your child’s grad school, know that, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately one-third of college students end up changing their major over the course of their bachelor’s degree.  In other words, teenagers often change their minds, and college frequently facilitates the kind of eye-opening experiences that lead to the rethinking of long-term plans. If, however, you think that graduate school is likely in your child’s future, you’ll want to approach undergraduate college selection with that goal in mind. As you shop around for a college, make sure you’re asking the following three questions:


What can this school offer your child?

The climb to graduate school can be challenging and fraught with obstacles, and you want to make sure your child’s undergraduate college will help—and not hinder—their journey.  Do your research on the college’s website and talk to Admissions representatives about the college’s grad school placement rates. Don’t stop with Admissions however. Check in with Career Services, feel out your child’s major department, and—if your child is thinking about health sciences or law—see if the college offers pre-medical, -dental, -veterinary, or pre-law advising. Note as well if the college offers assistance with the grad school application process.


Where can your child succeed?

If your child’s goal is to get into a “good” grad school (which is often code for “uber-selective” grad school), many families’ first inclination is to aim for an equally selective undergraduate college, which is not always the wisest choice.  Grad school admissions officers care less about the brand name of your undergraduate college than what you did with that undergraduate education.  Make sure your child choses a college where they can excel, not just get by.  Think about what extracurricular prospects they can take advantage of. Where will they get selected for the best internships and research opportunities? Your child will likely need recommendations for their graduate school application, so where will they be able to get to know professors well (and vice versa).  Sometimes being a big fish in a small pond allows the greatest opportunity to shine.


What school can we afford?

While every family needs to think carefully about the cost of college, it may be a particular concern for those looking at tuition payments for not just four years, but perhaps six, seven, or eight years when they account for graduate degrees. While teaching or research assistantships may be readily available to cover the cost of some graduate programs, particularly in the sciences, other types of post-baccalaureate education, such as business school, law school, and medical school offer minimal financial aid and scholarship opportunities. With the notable exception of employer tuition assistance for M.B.A. programs, most students in those types of programs are financing their degrees entirely out-of-pocket or through substantial student loans. If you’re anticipating large tuition bills for graduate school, you may want to shop around for the best deal for your child’s undergraduate education, where financial aid and scholarship opportunities are far more plentiful.


There are approximately 4,000 colleges in the United States.  With so many educational options available, it can be hard to narrow down your choices to the best fit colleges for your child—what colleges will serve their academic, social, and financial needs.  And while this decision-making process challenges all students embarking upon their undergraduate education, those planning on graduate school would be wise to pay attention to the three above concerns to ensure that their undergrad college sets them on the right path to achieve their ultimate goals.


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