If you're thinking about going back to school to finally get your master's, there's no better time than now. But before you start, it's important to know what the process entails. With more and more professionals seeking to advance in their careers, the competition is thick. And there are a number of steps that you have to complete before you even step into a classroom.
"A graduate degree makes one more productive for current assignments and more marketable for future assignments," said Walter Brown, dean of academic affairs at DeVry University, Pomona Metro. "In the new marketplace, having a graduate degree is a big differentiator which allows students to have a sustainable competitive advantage in their career."
The most obvious steps are filling out the application and figuring out how you're going to pay the tuition. But you will also need to power-wash your résumé, nail down multiple letters of recommendation and in many cases prepare for in-person interviews.
"I found the application process demanding if not arduous," said David Coddon, a USC alum who decided that he needed master's in English to have a realistic chance of landing a job teaching creative writing at the college level.
One factor in the student's favor is the wide choice of master's programs in Southern California. From nationally known public institutions like UCLA and UC San Diego to private universities such as Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and DeVry, there are now dozens of places that offer both on-campus and online postgraduate degrees with varying areas of emphasis. For example, the master's of business administration offered at the University of Redlands addresses the challenges students will face in technology-driven and global environment.
And the number of schools continues to grow. The University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business is launching a new executive master's of business administration program in Los Angeles in August. Dean Alison Davis-Blake describes the Ross application process as both "rigorous" and "selective," including essays, recommendation letters, transcripts and personal interviews with members of the admissions committee.
"We also require demonstrated quantitative skills," Davis-Blake said. "If necessary, we administer a quantitative skills assessment test at the recommendation of the admissions committee. Candidates are evaluated on their accomplishments as well as on contributions that they can make to the overall learning environment in the Ross MBA community."
Power through the paperwork
Generally, college admission committees base their decisions on a variety of items including your statement of purpose, letters of recommendation, résumé, undergraduate grade point average, standardized test scores, transcripts, internships and/or work experience and research and curricular activities.
However, the statement of purpose — also known as the personal statement, admissions essay or personal goal statement — is probably your best chance to impress the admissions committee. Not only should it demonstrate writing ability, but also your motivation and interest in your chosen field, as well as maturity and judgment. "For my personal statement, I completed a dozen or so drafts, which spanned over a few months," said David Shvil, a Southland resident who was accepted to law school at UC Davis and starts this fall.
Likewise, letters of recommendation can provide a lot of weight in the application process, particularly if they are written by professors or other experts known to the committee, and it's clear that the author knows and thinks highly of the applicant. As collecting them often takes time, it's recommended that would-be master's students start soliciting letters of recommendation as early as the spring semester of the school year prior to your applications.
Sail through the interviews
Many institutions also require interviews. But rather than approaching these with dread, prospective students should view the interview process as yet another way to differentiate themselves from the competition.
"Always dress for success and bring a current résumé, transcripts of previous college degrees and certificates, and portfolio of previous college work" is Brown's recommendation for interviews. "Applicants need to have a mindset of seriousness and a level of professionalism, put their best foot forward and sell themselves to a university, as they would at a job interview, by articulating why they want to earn a graduate degree [and] what their concentration and passion is."
Ace the standardized tests
Depending on the university you apply to and your subject of study, you will probably have to take one or more standardized tests. The GRE (Graduate Record Examination) includes a general test component that is most often required for graduate admission, as well as several subject tests that focus on a specific field of study.
The GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) is commonly needed for students in business administration or management; the LSAT is the law school admission test and the MCAT the admission test for medical school.
Other than writing his personal statement, Shvil found preparing for the LSAT the most difficult part of his law school admissions process. Before taking the LSAT, he took a three-month course at Blueprint LSAT Prep, which is similar to other courses taught by Kaplan and Princeton Review, and studied on his own for another two months.
Secure aid and make a decision
Funding is another important consideration. All universities offer some form of financial aid, much of it based on need and some on ability, but by no means is it that the only option.
Beyond financial aid at the universities, resources to fund advanced degrees are many and varied. Some sources for info on funding include College Answer, Fulbright Fellowships, GrantsNet and the National Science Foundation Funding.
Coddon's advice for anyone thinking about a master's is do your homework: "When you go to [undergraduate] college you can always switch majors midstream. In graduate school, you make a commitment from day one and you stick to that. I thought pretty long and hard about what I wanted to pursue. It has to be a very carefully researched decision."