3 Steps for Minimizing the Cost of Graduate School Prerequisites

Reyna Gobel

For students pursuing a master's degree in a different field than their undergraduate degree, prerequisite courses -- those required for entering students by a program -- can increase their graduate school cost.

If a semester's worth of undergraduate business courses are required before a student can begin master's level course work, an MBA will take a few months longer and cost at least a few thousand dollars more.

However, sometimes prerequisite courses are more about proving a student has mastered the required knowledge base than just completing course work. Other times, prerequisites are recommended but aren't actually required.

Christine Park has an undergraduate degree in piano performance with a minor in business. When she applied to business schools, she factored the additional time and the knowledge base expected into her selection of the programs to which she ultimately applied.

If she saw a school had a long list of prerequisites, she thought about the time commitment that would be involved before she could even start the program.

"When you get your MBA, you want to do it now, not three years down the line," says Park, who is now pursuing her MBA at the Rady School of Management at University of California--San Diego.

Other times, she saw what a program required students to know going in and realized she was going to have to take a lot of courses in order to catch up. Because of knowledge expected, she avoided applying to Ivy League schools.

Park chose her program partly because she felt she could complete the program with the knowledge base and course work from her business minor. Prospective students should take the following steps to minimize prerequisite course costs.

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1. Find out if prerequisite courses are required or recommended: At UC--San Diego, students with undergraduate majors that were not business are preferred, says Robert Sullivan, dean of the Rady School of Management.

A full slate of business courses isn't a requirement because the school wants its students to have diverse backgrounds. An MBA is a generalist degree, and students will work in a number of different fields.

Park, for example, didn't take a marketing course as an undergraduate. She'll gain enough marketing knowledge with her graduate course that is already part of the program. However, it is good to have a knowledge base. Sullivan recommends prospective MBAs take a course in quantitative methods.

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2.Determine what knowledge
base is expected if courses aren't required: Park's application decisions were based as much on course requirements as on what she was required to know.

Prospective b-school students, for example, should find out if they are expected to know about marketing, finance or accounting. A prospective science student might consider if biology or chemistry courses or background knowledge is required.

Since master's programs differ so much in both required prerequisites and the knowledge needed to succeed in the program, prospective graduate school students should contact the program departments of any school they might apply to and find out what's expected in prerequisite course work and knowledge, says Julia Kent, spokeswoman for the Council of Graduate Schools.

If prerequisite courses are solely about the background knowledge a student needs, students may have already acquired the necessary information or skills from their jobs.

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3. Gauge the cost of options : While Park didn't have to take prerequisite courses, she saw the recommended list for her program and learned that many of the courses could have been taken at a community college to gain the knowledge required.

Other options may include a one-credit, graduate-level course, an undergraduate course or testing out of the course -- if the course itself is required. "Even programs in the same field may have different policies," Kent says.

Consult with departments on both what they accept to fulfill requirements and how prospective students can best learn what's recommended.

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