A master's degree is becoming increasingly valuable when it comes to working your way into a high-paying career, but there's a downside: two more years in school means more lost income and probably more student debt, as well. Accelerated master's degrees save majoring students the cost and study time of graduate admission tests, application fees and extra courses. By applying for an accelerated master's program, you can start taking courses toward your master's in your junior or senior year and get dual course credit for both your undergraduate and master's degree.

Accelerated Master's Program Admission Requirements
Accelerated master's degrees will often have tough admission standards and you generally have to wait until at least your undergraduate sophomore year to apply. Generally, a grade point average (GPA) above 3.5 is necessary for consideration, and preference is given for students already enrolled in that university, says Counsel of Graduate Schools Dean in Residence, Dr. Bill Weiner. The reason is that schools want to retain their upper echelon of students for their master's programs; students who experience academic success at their university in their undergraduate courses will likely do well in their graduate school.

Before you enroll in an accelerated master's program, you will want to research your field thoroughly. You don't want to get all the way through a master's degree and then find out through work experience that you'd rather pursue a different career path. Thus, career planning begins today. Complete a summer internship, talk to your career counselors and academic advisors and arrange shadow days.

Academically, take at least one course in your major each semester. Join professional organizations with on-campus student chapters such as the American Marketing Association or Society of Professional Journalists. These organizations offer fantastic opportunities to network with professionals working in your potential career field.

Course Credit
Some courses may count toward both degrees in your senior year. Colleges have varying ranges for the time needed to complete your degree and the number of courses that will earn you dual credit, but the dual credit can help you complete a bachelor's degree in May and your master's as early as December of the same year.

For example, if you finish your undergraduate degree with 12 graduate credits and your master's degree requires 36 credits for completion, you could complete your graduate degree after your undergraduate graduation by taking 12 credits over the summer and 12 in the fall. If your university allows six dual-credit courses to count toward your degree with a 36-credit degree, you may not complete a master's in seven months, but at least you'll still have a six-credit head start.

You have to be extra diligent to earn at least a "B" in dual-credit courses. While a "C" in a course can earn you credit in a bachelor's program, many accelerated master's programs require "Bs" or above to earn credit and sometimes to avoid program expulsion.

Career Advancement
The difference between a bachelor's and a master's degree in job opportunities after graduation is tremendous. Dr. Weiner says that someone enrolled in an accelerated master's program in human resources could graduate as a hospital administrator instead of a human resources manager. Similarly, accounting majors need a master's degree to become CPAs. Plus, studies suggest that workers with master's degrees earn considerable more over the course of their careers.

Cost Savings
While annual costs vary by university, you can save a lot of money by reducing your school course requirements. The average cost of attendance in 2012-2013 (based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics), including tuition, fees, books and materials, and living expenses for first-year, full-time, undergraduate students at public schools is $20,700.

If you save six months by completing a semester's worth of credits during your undergraduate degree, you could save yourself more than $15,000. The actual amount you save will vary based on the cost of tuition at your school, scholarships and grants awarded, and the number of credits required for your master's degree.

Undergraduate scholarships are likely to cover graduate level courses that dually count towards your undergraduate degree. However, you will need to apply for new financial aid for when you officially graduate from the undergraduate portion of your program. As soon as you decide you want to pursue an accelerated master's degree program, meet with a financial aid counselor to discuss graduate school grants, Stafford Loans, scholarship programs and PLUS Loans. The earlier you begin your research, the better off you'll be.

The Bottom Line
If you know you want to pursue a master's degree, especially within your major, accelerated master's programs can save you time and money. However, finishing faster should never mean giving up career exploration opportunities. Be sure to solidify your career path with field study as soon as possible and do as many shadow days and work internships as you can manage. Balance your work experience by focusing on your GPA. With top-notch grades, education and internships, you'll sail into your first post-graduate position.

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