How to Get a Master's Degree: The Ultimate Guide

how to get a masters degree
July 31, 2023 6 min read Liaison

Pursuing a master's degree can help you expand your knowledge and open doors to new career opportunities.

Pursuing a master's degree can help you expand your knowledge and open doors to new career opportunities. However, earning this advanced degree is a challenge and an investment that requires careful planning and dedication. Whether you're a recent graduate or a working professional seeking to enhance your qualifications, this guide will help you answer the question of how to get a master's degree.

By following the steps outlined below and adapting them to your unique circumstances, you'll be ready to make informed decisions, overcome challenges, and maximize your chances of success.

Academic Requirements to Get a Master's Degree

Pursuing a master’s degree requires you to meet several key academic requirements, which vary by institution and program. As a rule of thumb, you’ll generally need a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution. This foundational degree ensures you have the necessary academic background to succeed at the master’s level. You may also need to submit standardized tests scores and your undergraduate grade point average (GPA). In addition, some programs may have specific undergraduate coursework prerequisites related to your desired field of study.

Standardized Tests and GPA: Standardized tests such as the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) or GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) are commonly required for admission. These tests assess your readiness for graduate-level work. Programs often have minimum score requirements, and competitive programs may expect higher scores. Additionally, a minimum undergraduate GPA, usually around 3.0 or higher, is often necessary. This demonstrates your ability to succeed in rigorous academic environments.

Relevant Experience and Prerequisites: Certain master’s programs, particularly those in fields like business, education, or healthcare, may require relevant professional experience. This experience can be critical in demonstrating your practical knowledge and commitment to the field. For instance, MBA programs often prefer applicants with several years of work experience. Moreover, some programs may require prerequisite courses in specific subjects to ensure you have a solid foundation before advancing to graduate-level studies.

Letters of Recommendation and Personal Statements: Strong letters of recommendation are essential components of your application. These letters should come from individuals who can attest to your academic abilities, professional achievements, and potential for success in a master’s program. Typically, recommenders include professors, employers, or supervisors. Alongside recommendation letters, a compelling personal statement is crucial. This essay should outline your academic and career goals, explain why you are interested in the specific program, and highlight your relevant experiences and achievements.

Financial Documentation and Funding: Proving you have adequate financial resources to support your studies is another requirement. This can involve submitting bank statements, financial aid applications, or scholarship documentation. Many institutions offer various funding opportunities, such as scholarships, assistantships, and grants, which can help alleviate the financial burden of graduate education. Researching and applying for these opportunities early can significantly impact your ability to fund your education.

Additional Requirements: Some programs may have additional requirements, such as portfolios for art and design fields, auditions for performing arts, or writing samples for humanities programs. These components allow you to showcase your skills and talents specific to your field of study. It’s important to carefully review the application requirements for each program to ensure you provide all necessary materials.

Do You Need a Bachelor's to Get a Master's?

Traditionally, a bachelor's degree has been a prerequisite for pursuing a master's degree. However, some exceptions and alternative pathways exist that can allow individuals to pursue a master’s degree without a bachelor's degree.

  • Direct Entry and Integrated Programs

Certain integrated or combined bachelor’s and master’s programs enable students to earn both degrees consecutively. These programs often allow for a seamless transition from undergraduate to graduate study, reducing the total time required to earn both degrees. They are particularly common in fields like engineering, business, and the sciences.

  • Professional Experience and Non-Traditional Pathways

In some cases, significant professional experience can substitute for a bachelor's degree. This is more common in fields like business, where practical experience is highly valued. Some Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs, for example, may accept applicants with extensive professional experience and demonstrated leadership abilities, even if they do not hold a bachelor's degree. These programs assess candidates based on their career achievements, skills, and potential for success in a graduate program.

  • Bridge Programs

Bridge programs are designed for students who may not have a bachelor’s degree but possess the necessary knowledge and skills for graduate study. These programs often include additional coursework or preparatory classes to bridge any gaps in education. Upon successful completion, students can transition into a master’s program. Fields like nursing and social work commonly offer bridge programs to help individuals transition from associate degrees or diploma programs to graduate-level education.

  • Specialized Fields and Certifications

In some specialized fields, professional certifications and extensive work experience can be considered equivalent to a bachelor’s degree. For example, in technology and information systems, certifications such as those offered by Cisco, Microsoft, or other industry leaders can demonstrate a high level of expertise and readiness for graduate study. Some master’s programs in these fields may waive the bachelor’s degree requirement for applicants with relevant certifications and professional experience.

Researching Specializations and Different Programs

getting a masters degree

Source: Pexels

Once you have digested the general requirements and ensured you meet the criteria, it's time to explore the programs and specializations that align with your interests and career goals. There are a few factors to consider while doing your research.

First, you need to check whether the institutions and programs you are considering are fully accredited and recognized by their profession’s governing bodies. Accreditation ensures that the program meets quality standards set by the administering bodies; it also enhances the value of your degree since it will be widely recognized.

Next, examine the curriculum and specializations offered within each program. Determine whether the coursework aligns with your interests and goals. Look for programs that provide flexibility and opportunities for specialization within your desired field.

You should also research the faculty members within the programs you are considering. Review their research interests, publications, and expertise. Access to knowledgeable and experienced faculty can significantly enhance your learning experience and provide valuable mentorship opportunities.

Applying to a Master's Program

Navigating the application process requires attention to detail and thorough preparation. Review the admission requirements for each program to ensure you meet the criteria. Prepare application materials, including academic transcripts, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, and a well-crafted statement of purpose highlighting your motivations, qualifications, and career goals. Submit your applications on time and follow up on any additional requirements or interviews.

After submitting your applications, explore backup options by researching alternative programs you may want to apply to in the future. Remember to stay positive and trust the admissions committees to review your application diligently.

Understanding the Admission Process and Application Materials

Once you identify the master’s degree program that’s right for you, the next question to ask is how to gain admission. That requires understanding the admission process and gathering all the necessary paperwork.

  • Be aware of the application deadlines for each program to ensure that you apply well in advance. Only on-time applications are accepted, so careful planning is crucial.
  • Request your letters of recommendation well before the application deadline. Most schools require them from individuals who can talk about your academic abilities, work ethic, and potential for success in the program. Be sure to give them enough time to write a thoughtful recommendation.
  • Write a compelling Statement of Purpose that outlines your motivations, career goals, and reasons for wanting to obtain a master's degree in your chosen field. Clearly articulate how the program aligns with your aspirations and what unique qualities you bring to the table.
  • Some programs may require previous work experience and a portfolio. Prepare polished and relevant samples that showcase your skills and achievements.
  • Keep in mind that there may be application fees associated with each program. Plan your budget accordingly to cover these costs.

By understanding each master's degree requirements, researching programs and specializations, and preparing the necessary application materials, you'll be well on your way to a life-changing educational journey.

calculating cost of masters degree

Source: Freepik

Master's Degree Cost

Pursuing a master's degree represents a significant financial investment, and there are several factors that you will need to consider when budgeting.

Tuition and Fees

Tuition will probably be the most significant expense you will need to shoulder during your master's education. The cost varies greatly depending on the institution, program, and whether you are an in-state or out-of-state student. Remember that tuition and fees tend to increase annually, so consider the potential for rising costs during your studies.

Living Expenses

Living expenses such as rent, utilities, groceries, transportation, and healthcare costs can also be significant. If you are relocating for your studies, research the cost of living in the new location before you get there to ensure you can budget accordingly.

How Do I Fund My Master's Degree?

Once you clearly understand how to get a master’s degree and the cost of pursuing a master's degree, it's essential to develop a budget, create a financial plan, and seek cost-saving opportunities.

It is a good idea to lower your tuition, fees, and expenses by exploring options for getting a scholarship or grant. Almost all institutions offer some form of financial aid that can significantly offset the cost of your master's degree. Remember that some employers offer tuition reimbursement or sponsorship for continuing education

If scholarships and assistantships cannot cover your expenses, consider loans. Research government-funded loan programs, private student loans, and institutional financial aid packages. Be mindful of the loan's terms and conditions, interest rate, and repayment plan.

Many universities also offer graduate assistantships or work opportunities. These positions often provide a stipend, tuition waivers, or other benefits in exchange for teaching, research, or administrative duties. Consider exploring these options to help reduce your financial burden while gaining valuable experience.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Master's Degree?

Full-Time Programs: Most full-time master's degree programs typically take about two years to complete. This timeframe is based on the assumption that students are taking a full course load each semester and progressing through the program at a steady pace. These programs are often structured around a cohort model, where students progress through the curriculum together while following a clear, predetermined timeline.

Part-Time Programs: Part-time master’s programs offer greater flexibility, allowing students to balance their studies with work and other commitments. Part-time students may take anywhere from three to five years to complete their degree, depending on how many courses they take each semester. Some institutions offer evening, weekend, or online classes to accommodate part-time students.

Accelerated Programs: Accelerated master’s programs are designed for students who want to complete their degrees more quickly. These programs often allow students to take a heavier course load and may include shorter, intensive course formats. An accelerated program can typically be completed in about one year to 18 months. Dual-degree programs, where students simultaneously earn a bachelor's and a master's degree, also fall into this category and can reduce the overall time spent in school.

Research and Thesis Requirements:The time it takes to complete a master’s degree can also be influenced by the program's requirements, particularly regarding research and thesis work. Programs that require a significant research component or a thesis may take longer to complete. The research process, including data collection, analysis, and writing, can be time consuming. Be sure to factor in the additional time needed to meet these requirements when planning your studies.

Professional and Executive Programs: Some master’s programs, such as those in business administration or public administration, offer executive or professional tracks designed for working professionals. These programs often have flexible schedules and can range from one to three years, depending on the structure and intensity of the coursework. Executive programs may also offer modular formats, where students complete intensive on-campus sessions followed by periods of self-paced study.

Field-Specific Variations: Different fields of study can also impact the duration of a master's program. For example, programs in engineering, healthcare, or social work may have specific practicum, internship, or clinical requirements that can extend the time needed to complete the degree. Conversely, programs in fields like humanities or social sciences may have more flexibility in their structure, potentially allowing for a quicker completion time.

Online vs On-campus Master's Degrees

Choosing between an online and an on-campus master's degree program is an important decision that depends on your personal circumstances, learning style, and career goals. Each mode of study has its own advantages and considerations.

Online master’s programs offer unparalleled flexibility, making them ideal for working professionals, parents, or those with other commitments. Students can access course materials, participate in discussions, and complete assignments on their own schedules. This format is especially beneficial for those who need to balance their studies with a job or family responsibilities.

On-campus programs require attendance at scheduled classes and events, which can provide a more structured learning environment. This format is beneficial for students who thrive on face-to-face interactions and a regular schedule. It also allows for spontaneous discussions and networking opportunities that can enrich the learning experience.

It's also important to remember that while online programs have improved significantly in facilitating interaction through discussion boards, video conferencing, and virtual group projects, they may lack the immediacy and personal touch of in-person interactions. Networking can be more challenging, though many programs offer virtual networking events and forums. On-campus programs, on the other hand, offer direct access to professors, peers, and campus resources, fostering a community atmosphere. Students can participate in on-campus events, join clubs, and engage in face-to-face networking, which can be advantageous for building professional relationships and finding mentorship opportunities.

Online learning requires a high level of self-discipline and time management skills. Students must be proactive in managing their schedules and staying motivated without the physical presence of a classroom setting. This mode of learning is well-suited for independent learners who are comfortable with technology.

For students who benefit from structured environments and direct supervision, on-campus programs may be more effective. The routine of attending classes, engaging in live discussions, and having immediate access to instructors can enhance learning and accountability. On-campus students also have direct access to a wide range of resources, including libraries, laboratories, study groups, and faculty office hours. They can participate in hands-on projects, use specialized equipment, and benefit from the full range of campus support services.

From a cost perspective, online master’s programs can sometimes be more affordable, since they often eliminate costs associated with commuting, housing, and campus fees. Some programs may even offer lower tuition rates for online students. While on-campus programs may have higher associated costs, they also provide a comprehensive educational experience with access to all campus amenities and services. Scholarships, assistantships, and on-campus job opportunities can help offset these costs.

Get Ready to Get Your Master's Degree!

Obtaining a master's degree is a significant milestone that requires careful planning, dedication, and perseverance. Be sure to understand the prerequisites, research programs, and evaluate the cost in order to navigate the application process effectively. Remain resilient, seek support when needed, and stay committed to your goals.


It usually takes 18 months to two years of full-time study to complete a master's degree.

Depending on the school, the major, and the length of the program, the cost of a master's degree ranges typically between $30,000 and $120,000.

About The Author: