As a current or former participant in a service program such as AmeriCorps*VISTA, Peace Corps, or Volunteer Service Overseas, you may have some additional considerations and resources for your graduate education.
Depending on your service program and the graduate school, you may qualify for the following resources:
Whether you are a service program alumni or current service member who wishes to begin applying for grad school now or further down the road, planning ahead and creating a timeline for your grad school research and application is crucial. The more lead time you give yourself, the more opportunity you will have to fully research and consider your options, plan ahead for taking tests and financing your education, and make the right choice for your graduate education.
Your graduate admission test score is only one piece of your grad school application. While a graduate admissions officer is not likely to dismiss your application based solely on your test score, a good score will help boost your candidacy. Preparing for your exams during your term of service may create special challenges for you that others might not have to face. Challenges may include finding funds to pay for your exam or to take a prep course; making the time to prepare to study on your own, with others, or via a course; getting refreshers on subjects you have forgotten or never had before (logic games); and taking the tests while serving in a foreign country.
If you are currently taking part in, or have just completed, a service program, chances are that you are on a very tight budget, and will want to prepare for and take the test within your means.
Some cost-saving methods for preparing for graduate admissions tests are:
Use the test preparation materials you receive from the graduate admissions test administrator after registering for the test. Almost all the test-administering companies offer free preparation materials for their tests. You can use these alone or in conjunction with any of the other strategies above. If nothing else, use the materials as extra practice.
If you do have the financial resources to take a course offered by a test-prep company, but your budget's still pretty tight, one way to creatively cover the course is to budget that cost in any student loans you take out and "reimburse" yourself later.
Your participation in a service program can make your application for grad school stronger if you translate your experience well. Service experience, like work experience, is an asset to your graduate application in that it helps demonstrate sincere interest, practical knowledge, and actual experience in a field—all things that graduate admissions officers recognize and value highly. Your service experience will bring maturity and a diverse range of knowledge and know-how/understanding to their graduate program and admitted students. Your personal statement is where you will have the opportunity to explain and describe your service program and experience.
Read our article "Sharing your story with the admissions teams" to learn how to best incorporate your service experience into your personal statement, interviews, and other application components.
Some U.S. grad schools waive application fees for individuals who will be alumni of U.S. service programs such as AmeriCorps*VISTA and Peace Corps by the time they enroll in the graduate program.
Other grad schools do not provide an application fee waiver specifically to those who are service program alumni, but do offer application fee waivers more generally to anyone who takes the GRE and receives a GRE Fee Reduction Certificate. ETS (Educational Testing Services) is the company that develops and administers the GRE, among other tests, and offers a limited number of reduced fee vouchers to individuals who qualify.
If you are not eligible for either of the two opportunities above, other resources may be available to you through your specific service program. For example, Jesuit Volunteer Corps members and alumni receive application fee waivers to Santa Clara University School of Law. Be sure to check with your program to find out what they are.
Admission deferral means that if you apply to your service program and to grad school at the same time, and if you are admitted to both, the school will allow you to put off enrolling until you've completed your term of service.
However, few grad schools offer admission deferral. For the most part, admissions staff prefer that you apply to their schools after you complete your service and that upon admission, you enroll in their program. They realize that many things can change for you during your service experience. By waiting to apply until after your service is complete, admissions staff believe that you will be equipped with greater self awareness, more knowledge about the type of graduate education you want, and great experiences to share in your application; all of these will make you a stronger candidate for grad school.
Those grad schools that allow you to defer admission to their program typically only do so under very specific circumstances. Usually, you must have been admitted to a specific service program to qualify. Check with the grad school to find out if admission deferral is available to you. Also check with your service program to see if there are any agreements with schools for admission deferral.
As you search for and research grad schools, look for schools that offer scholarships to admitted students with public service experience or who have participated in specific service programs. Sometimes the scholarships are widely advertised in order to attract grad school applicants with service experience, and at other times, they are not.
If you don't see any scholarships listed for service program alumni, be sure to ask admissions or financial aid officers anyway. Never assume that a service-based scholarship is not available. By asking—preferably speaking with an admissions officer over the phone or in person and not anonymously—you will also be letting them know that you are a service program alum (if you haven't already done so in other parts of your grad school application such as your personal statement) and that you are interested in and potentially eligible for any such funding.
The scholarships will, of course, vary from school to school in amounts and conditions. But remember, every little bit helps. The financial aid may be provided as a graduate assistantship or tuition discount.
A few graduate institutions, especially those who administer or are associated with a service program, may offer course or licensing credit for your service experience. For example, the University of Oregon's RARE AmeriCorps program offers nine graduate credits from the University of Oregon's Community and Regional Planning program to members who successfully complete their service.
Certain states will also allow Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to count their service towards earning a teaching credential or license. Check with your state for specific requirements and allowances.
Teach for America Corps alumni can also continue to work towards earning a teaching certification, if they have not already completed the requirements, after their two-year service depending on their assigned region's certification process. Check with Teach for America's alumni career services and resources.
Another option to earn academic credit for serving is through the Peace Corps Master's International program. The Master's International program is a partnership between Peace Corps and over 50 grad schools in which individuals can earn academic credit for Peace Corps service towards a degree in a participating graduate program. After applying and being admitted into Peace Corps and the graduate program separately, you spend one to two years on coursework and then take your knowledge and skills overseas to serve in Peace Corps. Upon completion of Peace Corps service, you receive academic credit towards your degree and return to the United States to finish your graduate program.
Going to a grad school that offers credit for service can help you maximize your service experience by saving you time and money in earning your graduate degree. This benefit is typically not widely advertised and may not even be offered unless you ask for it. Depending on the program, you may have to fulfill some sort of requirement such as writing a paper, taking a test, or giving a presentation, but this is a small price to pay for the decreased financial burden.
In-state tuition rates at public universities may be available to you if you have lived and served outside of your home state, while reciprocity agreements that exist between some states can provide more affordable education options if you wish to enroll in one of a neighboring state's state schools. Be aware, however, that certain graduate programs at public universities do not give discounted in-state tuition rates, as is the case with business schools and other professional graduate programs.
Individuals who complete a term of service with an AmeriCorps program earn the Eli Segal Educational Award. The award amount depends on the length of service (up to $4,725) and AmeriCorps members can earn up to two awards. Recipients can use the award to pay for education costs at qualified colleges and universities (including grad school). The Educational Award can also be used to pay off qualified student loans from college or grad school.
A number of grad schools match or double the Educational Award. Matches are a great way to help cover the costs of graduate education. Ask your financial aid officer which benefits your school offers to Educational Award recipients.
Please refer to your service program's website for the most accurate list of resources available to you on your graduate education journey.
As a service program alum in the United States, you may have a few additional considerations and resources available to you when applying for grad school. Knowing about them now can help you save time and money and maximize both your service and graduate education. Be sure to check with your specific service program and the grad schools you are interested in for any special benefits or resources for which you may be eligible. If you can't find information online on their websites, don't hesitate to call and speak with someone who may know more.