Cost, Rankings, and Grad School Application Woes


  Around my third year of undergraduate I had a moment: I knew I wanted to go to graduate school. I was in the thick of a social psychological experiment that I had designed, and implemented (with the guidance of my ever-patient academic mentor). And, I really enjoyed it. I wanted to continue to do similar things.

And, this is about the time I started searching for a program, and it never occurred to me to look at anything else BUT a researcher doing what I wanted to do. While, I knew about selectivity and rankings, I didn't have that habituated, internalized understanding to stand under. All this set me up for a very defining moment. I started to make lists of professors doing something that combined my micro interests with my macro interests. I put together a spreadsheet with various variables that could help me make a decision. Soon my list started to grow.

A friend/younger professor inquired about my list of prospective programs. Without much thought, I threw out some names. Wisconsin-Madison was on that list, which caused my inquirer to burst out laughing at my naivety. "Wisconsin-Madison is consistently the number one sociology program in the country." I lacked the "cultural capital" or the "cultural repertoire" to know such a thing.

I had never heard of Wisconsin-Madison. As a working-class, semi-rural, Montana kid, my knowledge of school "ranking" was based on "institutional prestige" and movies: Harvard, Yale, Stanford. (And, maybe MIT, because in Independence Day, Jeff Goldblum's character went to MIT.) The rest were programs I'd "heard of" and they bobbed in a imagined sea of near equality. But, feeling the sting of humiliation for my lack of in-group knowledge, I started looking at rankings, and equally started reading critiques of rankings (of which there are many).

The critiques were persuasive, but did not assail my fear that ranking still "meant something." My dreams of "work really hard, get cheese" were suddenly overshadowed by a horrible notion that my PhD department's "prestige" would ration my cheese for the rest of my life. And, more terrifying, that I may lack some quality to be worthy of such prestige. (Naturally, I blame the younger me for not studying hard enough.)

I resorted to combining "fit" and "rank," by locating various programs of good fit within each "tier" of ranking. My hope was to be excited no matter which department accepted me, while hedging my bets. And, that is exactly what is weird and kind of wrong about the whole process: it felt like gambling.

As for selecting faculty that I wanted to work, I used a few rules:

  1. Associate or Full Professor
  2. PhD within last 30 years
  3. Relevant publication within last 5 years
  4. At least four of the above per department

I wanted to make sure their current work was aligning with my interests AND that they are not likely to go anywhere soon AND if one did leave, there were others. Once I had my four, I (online) stalked them. Combed through their CVs - if they listed being on thesis/dissertation committees = gold mine. As programs often do not keep their actual .edu websites up-to-date, I was also constantly checking a forum that posted new faculty hires:

Only then did I start really consider research centers, resources, or departmental gossip.


I painfully managed to whittle my list of fifty programs down to nine. When all was finished, I invested (realistically) ~2000 hours of time into applying to these programs over the course of two years and don't get my started on the financial costs of applying!

Actually, do. Certainly, I wanted to apply to as many as possible to increase my odds. But financially, this was infeasible, (and perhaps this is on purpose). Nearly every professor and mentor abreast of the topic told me, "you don't pay for grad school." So, money is not exactly the financial (and socio-economic) barrier that an undergraduate or professional degree might be. However, the application process is not free, and adds up quickly.

My cost for applying to 9 graduate programs in sociology for fall 2014:

  1. Transcripts from both undergraduate and graduate programs: $81
  2. Taking the GRE (the second time): $150
  3. Sending GRE Scores to 7 (two programs were "free" at the test): $175
  4. Application fees for 9: $671
  5. TOTAL = $1077

When applying to my undergraduate I only applied to Montana State University, and the ACT, application fee, postage and the cost of my high school transcript was around $80. My first round of applying to graduate school, I only applied to Illinois State University, and it cost me around $200 for GREs, transcripts and application fee (not to mention I had to cough up a few hundred to release the hold on my MSU transcript). On two threads on the forum, I scraped all the self-reported graduate application costs from 56 posters, the results:

GradCafe-Cost-of-Applying-to-Grad-School-chart-The-Brief-Note-2014 (2)
GradCafe-Cost-of-Applying-to-Grad-School-chart-The-Brief-Note-2014 (2)

The GRE is likely the most frustrating portion of the process: money, time and toil pissed away. On the TheGradCafe forum, some posters stated they took prep courses costing in the neighborhood of $1200! (This is curious, as many have informed me, you're not supposed to be able to study for the GRE - you either know it by now, or you don't!) I don't put much stock in GRE scores and departments are universally vague about their importance. Others, such as Wendy M. Williams at Cornell University and Robert J. Sternberg of Yale University, conclude that GRE scores are not good predictors of graduate school success. The first time I took the GRE, I luckily received a "partial" waiver, and a friend offered me a GRE study guide. My scores were overall not bad, except for math - I hate doing math problems because I think it is a painful waste of time. (I LOVE statistics, mind you, because I feel like I'm actually doing something!)


When I applied to grad school the second time, I decided to re-take the test, but this time I was serving in the Peace Corps in northwestern Azerbaijan and the nearest testing center was in T'bilisi, Georgia - an eight hour marshrutka drive away. Luckily, I scored significantly better, but I still am resentful for wasting almost my entire monthly stipend (considering the cost of the test, plus travel, plus hotel, plus food, etc...). I pity the fools that have to take the LSAT, GMAT, MCAT, etc... so sorry.

A very small minority in the forum stated they received waivers for nearly every program, and in some ways these sorts of examples quickly deflates any claims that the process exacerbates inequality. I understand application fees to an extent, but it would be nice to know exactly where that money is going and why the wide variation. My assumption is that the fee is a way of reducing the number of application, increase "barriers to entry" precisely to weed out those who have only a lukewarm interest in the program. I feel my being a cultural "outsider" set me back in the academic rat race, but also financially I could not have applied to nine doctoral programs the first time around. If we only consider application fees, waivers are highly varied and even if you do qualify, it is sometimes difficult to prove. For instance, some programs required I submit a signed and stamped document from the financial aid department of my current school, this was rather difficult as I was living on the other side of the planet at the time. Another required that I be receiving a Pell Grant, which I did receive in my undergraduate, but did not require for my master's program (as I was lucky to be fully funded). My advice if you are looking for waivers, start looking at criteria a couple YEARS before you plan to apply.

It was also roughly a year and a half prior to applying that I began writing my "personal statement." I tried to tailor nine separate SOPs for each of the nine programs, and attempted to answer two questions: Why do I need a PhD for my career? And, why does it need to be from XYZ program? (I'll admit, I wasn't happy with any of my final SOPs.) I briefly thought about having my statements professionally edited, but that would have added significantly more than I was willing (or able) to afford. offers editing services for a $280 per hour. offers proofreading and critique by the word, e.e. ~$180 for 901-1200 word essays. (Not to mention, it feels a bit like cheating, right?)

Some posters on the included costs of visiting or interviewing for each program. Luckily for me, the one program that interviewed me did it over Skype, and the two programs I visited reimbursed most of my travel expenses ($400-$500 each). A friend who applied to business programs, actually had to foot the bill to interview at EVERY program as part of the admissions process. You should probably budget for visiting programs, because you'll still have to front the money if you are reimbursed. (Some also included the purchase of new clothes for the interviews.)

For my three letters of recommendation, I approached three professors a year prior, and had a couple back-ups in mind. I also wrote a two-page memo to each LOR writer. Each memo emphasized different strengths of mine, different experiences, and different personal stories we shared - so they could write a more informed letter, but each would provide a different flavor. (Although, I'm not sure if this worked as I waived my right to see the letters). On the, many consider it a cost of applying to get gifts for LOR writers to show appreciation. I agree - although I'm still working on delivering those gifts. Naturally, this cost varies considerably - from $10 to $50 per writer.

A quick recap of potential misc. costs:

  1. GRE preparation courses and materials
  2. SOP editing services
  3. Interview clothes
  4. Travel for program visits/interviews
  5. LOR writer gifts
  6. Portfolio printing and mailing

Then of course the mountain of stress piled upon me when one school decided to reject me on January 15th! JANUARY 15TH! I didn't receive my final decision until late march, so that was a couple months of pure hell. Now that I've accepted an offer and will be attending program, I only have the stress of explaining to my familial interlocutors why anyone would want to continue to go to school, and why a PhD takes so damn long.


Dustin is a traveler, researcher, and mountain and craftbeer lover trying to improve his writing. To learn more about Dustin, visit the appropriately titled About Dustin section.