Taking your higher education to the next level with a master's degree is a great way to differentiate yourself from others in today's competitive job market while boosting your earnings potential. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers with master’s degrees earn, on average, $12,000 more per year than those with a bachelor's degree alone.

Of course, with so many colleges and universities offering graduate degrees, choosing the right program can seem daunting. This in-depth guide will walk you through the process of selecting the right school and graduate program for your unique needs with confidence.

Guide to Finding a College

Finding a great graduate program starts with finding a great college. So, what are some things you should keep in mind as you explore your college options?


First and foremost, make sure that any college or university you're looking at is accredited by a Secretary of Education institution. This means that the school itself has met specific quality standards set forth by the United States Department of Education (DOE). Most schools will include accreditation information on their websites, but you can also check the DOE's current database of accredited institutions online.

Online Vs. On-Campus

Consider whether you prefer a college that offers in-person, online, or hybrid programs based on your schedule and life demands. While on-campus learning can provide an enriching experience, many graduate students also have jobs and other life obligations. As a result, a school that offers online options may be more convenient and practical.

Degree Offerings

Once you know which school you might want to attend, take a closer look at their specific degree offerings to ensure there's a program that suits your academic and professional goals. Graduate school is a great time to really home in on a specific industry niche, so it's okay to be choosy in this regard.

On-Campus Tour

If possible, take a campus tour of a few of the top contenders on your list of potential graduate schools. You can learn a lot about a school by visiting its campus—and most schools offer complimentary tours with a dedicated guide if you schedule in advance. During your tour, take time to ask plenty of questions and get a feel for what the community is like.

Guide to Finding a Program

Now that you've narrowed down your school preferences, it's time to dive into finding the right graduate program for your specific needs. If you're wondering how to choose a master’s program, here are some steps worth taking.

Identify a Program

Start by considering where your interests lie and what your future career prospects look like. You may also want to consider your bachelor's degree; if you already have a more general degree (such as an information technology degree), then narrowing your master's degree down to something more specialized (like digital forensics or data science) might make sense. Likewise, you might choose a master's degree that will complement your undergraduate degree, such as an MBA, to go along with your bachelor’s degree in finance.

Program Demand

Consider, too, how demanding the graduate program may be. How many credit hours will it take to complete? Are there any additional licensing or certification exams you'll need to pass before you start working in the field? You'll also want to remember that a high-demand program may be harder to get into. If this is the case, the selection process may be more rigorous, or you may even be placed on a waitlist.

Required Prerequisites

Always take a close look at the prerequisites for any graduate program to ensure you have your bases covered. Some programs may require a bachelor's degree or similar experience in a related field, while others may be more open-ended.

GRE Requirements

Some programs may also require applicants to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) as part of the application process. The scores of your GRE exam may be used as a determining factor in your program acceptance. Requiring a GRE is more common in business and law programs, but it's a good idea to check and plan accordingly. Even if your program doesn't require a GRE, you may want to consider taking it anyway; it can be a great way to set yourself apart from other applicants in your program. Plus, if you decide to change your mind and apply for a program that requires a GRE down the road, you'll be covered.

Investigate the Curriculum

You'll also want to take some time to explore the curriculum of the program(s) you're considering in-depth. Most schools will list the specific courses you’ll complete in each degree program, which can help you get a better feel for what you'll be studying and what the curriculum looks like. You may also want to inquire about any hands-on work experience, clinical placements, or other components that may be part of the curriculum outside the classroom.

Credit Transferability

If you have existing college credits you want to apply to your degree program, check with your school to make sure they'll transfer. If your credits are from an accredited school, they probably will—but you may need to fill out some paperwork or take other steps to ensure the transfer is completed before enrolling.

Cost of Program

Tuition fees, textbooks, and other expenses can add up quickly—so it's important to research the costs associated with any graduate program you're considering. This is especially true when considering that the average cost of a master's degree in the United States is more than $50,000. Also, be sure to consider whether any graduate assistantship or fellowship programs are available to help offset the costs of your education.


In addition to choosing an accredited school, you'll also want to find out whether or not the specific program you're considering has its own accreditation. While program accreditation doesn't come directly from the DOE, many industries have their own trusted accreditation bodies. An MBA program, for example, may be accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) or the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP).

Length of the Program

Most master's degree programs are designed to be completed within two years, assuming full-time enrollment. However, credit hour requirements and program lengths can vary from one program to the next, with some able to be completed in as little as a year. Be sure to explore your options and consider whether you'll attend school full- or part-time.

Review Faculty Experience

Take time to get to know the faculty and staff involved in your prospective graduate program. Professors and instructors should have plenty of industry experience to prepare you for real-world work in your field. Make sure faculty members will be accessible outside of the classroom with availability for office hours (whether in-person or virtual) and other support as needed.

Meet with Advisors

Scheduling a meeting with an academic advisor before applying to a degree program is a great way to see where you stand and get a better feel for a specific program. An advisor can help you plan your journey through academia, determine whether any existing school credits will transfer, and answer most of your questions.

Application Process

Specific application processes can vary from one program to the next, so make sure you know what to expect. Will you need to submit transcripts from your previous school(s)? Will you need to write an essay or submit letters of recommendation? Be sure to also consider any application fees that you may need to pay, as well as the specific application deadlines you'll need to meet.

Career Alignment Guide

Ultimately, your goal in pursuing a master's degree is to get a great job in a field you love. With this in mind, there are a couple more steps you should take to ensure the program you're considering aligns with your professional goals.

Career Outlook

Do a little research on the career outlook for jobs in your field of study. For example, if you're considering a graduate degree in educational leadership, you'll want to understand the career outlook for positions such as superintendents, principals, provosts, deans, and similar roles. You can find much of this information, including projected job growth and demand, on the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) website.

Pay/Salary Expectations

Likewise, you'll want to research the average salary for a job in your field so you have a better idea of what to expect earnings-wise after you graduate and land a job. The BLS is a great resource for this as well, providing information on median wages based on geographical location and more.

The Bottom Line on Choosing a Graduate Degree Program

From accreditation and campus culture to program costs, credit transferability, and everything in between—there's a lot to keep in mind when you're shopping around for a great graduate degree program. With these tips in mind, though, you'll be on track to submit your application with confidence and embark on an exciting journey to your master's degree.

If you're looking for a world-class degree program with graduate programs to suit your busy lifestyle, University of the Cumberlands offers a wide range of options. With graduate and certificate programs in fields like business, religious studies, education, criminal justice, and more, we're here to help you pursue your academic and professional goals. Explore our program offerings today and reach out at (855) 791-7199 to learn more!