You, yes you, can go to graduate school for free! This all amazing, unforgettable offer is not too good to be true! No … really it’s not, just follow along.

To receive a free, or significantly cost deferred graduate education, you’ll have to kick something back; you’ll need to apply as a graduate assistant, also known as a TA or RA.

TA: A teaching assistant’s job takes them into the heart of undergrad education … don’t be scared to go back there, remember you’re “cool” now—you’re a grad student. TAs help facilitate lectures, run discussion/section, prepare course materials, and most importantly, TAs grade, grade, grade. Also, you’ll be expected to hold office hours each week in order to tutor and assist the undergrads you teach along the way.

RA: Research assistants report to particular faculty members working on projects. Most often, RAs help compile, catalogue, and compartmentalize information; can you say L-I-B-R-A-R-Y or L-A-B? Good. Cause this is where RAs spend the majority of their time. RAs meet with faculty advisors independently and are not usually expected to set firm office hours.

TA/RAships come in appointments, usually from 1/4 or 1/3 time to 1/2 time. The greater the appointment, the greater the tuition break. Not all appointments waive 100 percent of tuition, but they all have the potential to waive some. And, let’s all say it together: “Some money from our school is less money from our pocket.” Every penny counts.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you attend a public university like Arizona State. Tuition for an MA degree will cost you about $8,000 per year if you’re an out-of-state applicant taking nine units. Out-of-state applicants save the most; winning an appointment of any amount usually changes residency status, lowering your fees considerably. $8,000 per year is magically transformed into the in-state price tag of about $2,000 per year. Total savings: $6,000 yearly. In a two-year grad program you’d save a total of $12,000.

For those of you who want even more savings, or are already in-state applicants, you’ll need to win a more hefty TA/RA appointment. At Arizona State, for example, some who win 1/2 time appointments can whittle the cost of yearly tuition from $2,000 to $0. Total savings: $2,000. In a two-year grad program you’d save a total of $4,000.

But that’s not all! If you order in the next five minutes you’ll also receive a “stipend.” Students who win TA/RAships get paid. Stipends are paid out to you (read: cash flowing from school to you versus cash flowing from you to school) and can be applied to any tuition or fees your TA/RAship does not cover, further decreasing the burden of tuition.

For example, if you win a 1/3 time TAship and still have $2,000 due in tuition for the year, your yearly stipend can be applied. If you make $7,000 in stipend money for the year, you’re eligible to throw $2,000 of it at your tuition balance and simply pocket the rest. Result: No debt, tuition is paid, and you bank $5,000 for the year. Do this for both years of an MA program and you’ve made $10,000.

You’ll need to consult the school you plan to attend for specifics. Different departments have higher and lower stipend rates for their TA/RAs. If you’re in the sciences get ready to make some serious cash (well, that is compared to your fellow TA/RA studying romance languages in the literature department). Also, an MA program will pay less than a PhD program. You’ll make more depending on the level of graduate work you’ll be doing. Also, schools that are top tier or those in pricey locales of the country will shell out more to get you in their programs. Don’t forget to consider your choices carefully though. A TA/RAship that pays $18,000 at one school might be a less lucrative offer than an appointment paying $12,000 at a school located somewhere less expensive to live.

How can you get a TA/RAship? Glad you asked…check out the advice that follows.

You’ll need to read about the specifics for offers in your particular field. Many people don’t even realize TA/RA positions exist until they’ve already applied, enrolled and paid full-boat for their first year of grad education. READ THE PAPERWORK people … free money goes unclaimed each and every semester in graduate departments by people who don’t know the money is available.

What’s more, money in grad departments is often “best if eaten by…” Departments are sometimes under deadlines to give away their money. If there are no applicants for this or that TA/RAship, the department will turn to those people who’ve already received appointments (and money) to give these funds away. Why? Because these are the only people in the department who have filled out the paperwork necessary to receive free money. It’s true, I promise … I’m a living eyewitness to multiple occasions when people who turned in their paperwork for this or that semester showed up at school one day to discover a better appointment was left unclaimed, and surprise! They’ve been bumped up to fill it. The moral of the story: Money given away free needs documentation. Get yours in if you want to get the funds.

Once you figure out which positions are available, you’ll need paperwork documenting your meteoric rise to academic stardom (a.k.a. your transcripts). Most schools will require at least a 3.0, and will expect you to keep this GPA while completing six hours each term.

You’ll also need paperwork documenting your notoriously magnanimous character and spirit of enthusiasm for learning and education. Here I’m talking about the essay and recommendation “stuff” you thought was gone and done with your initial admittance to college. Most grad programs want to know what you can contribute as a TA/RA. Got mad organization skills? Already have teaching experience? Been published? Spoke at conferences? Already built a working bridge for the Department of Transportation? It all counts, especially when applying to competitive programs like psychology, English or engineering.

By contrast, if you’ve done less “stuff” but still want to go for free, perhaps you should think about schools like, say … Western Regional College of the High Isolated Mountains? Seriously, free money is doled out to the “shiniest buttons.” Keep it real with your expectations; the greater the luster of the college you choose, the more your button needs to shine if you want to attend for free.

Lastly, if you want to go free, you’ll need to be the superstar who actually completes and returns all paperwork by the appropriate deadlines; TA/RA appointments are staffed by people who complete the paperwork! You need good grades, a good essay, a “shiny” façade, and some good recommendations, but you also need to get them in, on time.

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