Guest post by admissions expert Ryan Hickey
For some students, college is just the first step on a lengthy higher education journey that includes multiple stops and sometimes-abrupt changes in direction. This may be part of a planned education path that requires a terminal degree like a Ph.D. in addition to a bachelor’s and master’s. In other cases, however, returning to graduate school is necessary to completely change fields or open new job opportunities.
If you have been in school for most of your adult life, the term “career student” and its often-negative connotation can become a burden as you think about pursuing any degree after a bachelor’s. This can be baffling to applicants. Why would someone undertake the time, work and financial commitment required to earn a degree without good reason? Why should educating yourself further in a discipline or making the difficult choice to change careers be considered a negative thing?
While most know full well that setting out toward a second, third or fourth degree shouldn’t be a knock against an applicant, the myth of the aimless lifelong student persists in some corners of the higher-education world. If this isn’t your first time applying to graduate school, consider these four tips to avoid falling victim to that characterization.
1. Change Happens
Things don’t always go the way you originally or ideally plan. That’s life. What you considered your dream career in your twenties may no longer be fulfilling when you hit your thirties. Just because you start down a particular path does not mean that you must remain on it for the rest of your life.
In both essays and interviews, be honest if your interests and priorities have shifted. You were not wasting time in your previous degree program or career. It was simply the right focus for you at that time, even though it isn’t today. Don’t be ashamed of or try to hide those experiences. Instead, emphasize how you will apply the skills they helped you build to your next academic undertaking.
2. Dig Deep
With myriad education and career experiences, applicants who already have a graduate degree often make the mistake of trying to pack too much into their essays. By covering everything in brief to cram it all in, they never get to the deeper, more intimate content that resonates with admissions officers.
Instead of taking that shotgun approach, identify the experiences most relevant to your current target program and dive deep. You’ll be much better off if you can draw meaning out of several carefully selected stories rather than generally stating many more. By doing this, you can show the reader your applied passion and sense of purpose in applying to this particular program.
3. Non-traditional? No problem!
Non-traditional: this term doesn’t solely refer to applicants with distinctive demographic details. Instead, take it as meaning that you have the ability to bring a unique set of experiences or skills to a program.
For example, lack of maturity is often a major complaint voiced by both admissions officers and professors. They value applicants who will take the program seriously and behave professionally from the get-go, rather than those who require time to adjust or “find themselves.”
Demonstrate how your background, both academic and professional, has helped you build experience working as part of a team, moderating interpersonal disagreements diplomatically, effectively managing your time and balancing diverse aspects of your life. In other words, let admissions officers know that your prior academic endeavors have helped you learn how best to succeed from the start in a new university setting.
4. Career Focused
Why are you going back to school? Admissions officers always want to know, so be prepared with a clear and thorough answer.
Here’s a hint: there’s only one right response, particularly if this isn’t your first trip to graduate school. Given your current career aspirations, there are gaps in your knowledge and experience that can only be filled with further education. While details will vary from applicant to applicant, that basic theme should hold true for you if you’re seeking another graduate degree.
Make direct connections between what each specific program offers and your career goals. Ideally, show that you have short, mid and long-term career plans that can only be accomplished with the help of this particular degree from this particular program.
Knowledge, maturity and professionalism are essential when it comes to getting things done in the real world. As you complete your application, don’t apologize for prior education and work experiences, whether you’re now changing paths or diving even deeper into your chosen field. Previous success as a graduate student is a tangible demonstration of your ability to complete high-level academic work and should help, not hurt, your chance of admission.
Ryan Hickey is the Managing Editor of Peterson’s and is an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants.