Save your money and simply take the most relevant courses at a community college.
But won’t schools be impressed when they see I have earned a graduate certificate at a prestigious institution like Georgetown or Harvard? Doesn’t that give me a significant leg up in the admissions process?
The short answer is: no.
I only recommend you earn a graduate certificate if your employer (or a rich relative) is going to pay for it, you have the time to attend the classes and do well in them, and you want to learn the subject matter.
Because performing really well in a graduate certificate in Economics, Management, Leadership, Operations, or some other relevant area may give you a small leg up (especially if you have an undergraduate GPA below 3.6), but doing poorly in a graduate certificate program can hurt you more than help you.
If you feel that you need to supplement your undergraduate coursework with some more academic work, I suggest you take the following courses instead:
Rather than getting a graduate certificate, take these courses:
- Statistics (also known as Quantitative Methods)
- Spreadsheet Modeling (Excel skills)
Places to take supplemental coursework:
- your local community college (I’m talking about public, accredited nonprofit colleges—nothing for-profit)
- UCLA Extension
- BYU Independent Study
- Harvard Business Review‘s online courses
- additional new course (update on 06/18/2015): HBX CORe
Take the most basic, introductory college-level offering of the course. No need to make things overly difficult for yourself when you have a full-time job, GMAT studying, and a social life to attend to.
As a note, it’s better to take courses from an institution such as BYU or UCLA that can provide you with a real transcript versus just taking it online via Coursera, but Coursera is better than nothing.
And let me put this next point in all caps, because I want you to use your money where it matters most and not in ways you simply hope will help:
ADMISSIONS COMMITTEES ARE NOT IMPRESSED AND DO NOT CARE WHEN YOU TAKE SUPPLEMENTARY COURSEWORK AT IVY LEAGUE SCHOOLS.
Believe me, when I was conditionally accepted to Harvard Business School (due to my low GMAT score of 620 and lack of quantitative coursework), they told me so themselves.
If you’ve already signed up for a graduate certificate (and you can’t get a refund), then show up, do your best, and make sure you earn as high a GPA as you can—at least a 3.6.
If you’ve been considering a graduate certificate as a way to give yourself a leg up in the admissions process, use your funds elsewhere on community college and/or online courses that will equip you with the background you need in order to prove your candidacy and hold your own in the Ivy League graduate school classroom.