Making the Grade in Graduate School Admissions

As college students head back to school this fall, many who are already in the workplace may find themselves thinking of doing the same. Trouble is, so are their co-workers. Faced with a wave of over-qualified prospective students, graduate schools are getting more competitive. But no matter what graduate program you are interested in there are ways to get a leg up on the competition and increase your chances of getting your application placed in the accepted pile.

Consider non-traditional programs
If it's been a while since you've been in school, consider applying for non-traditional graduate programs that let you get your degree from home or while you're still employed. Some schools offer distance learning degrees, which allow students to take courses at their leisure via video, DVD or online. At Tech, one student is even working on his master's in mechanical engineering while serving in the U.S. Air Force in Iraq.

Schools even partner with corporations to offer degree programs to a large number of employees at once. The advantage of this is employers often foot the bill for the entire degree; others will reimburse employees who make certain grades.

"Getting an advanced degree helps employees differentiate themselves. It gives them additional breadth and may qualify them for promotions," said Bill Wepfer, vice provost for Distance Learning and Professional Education. "Last year we had a big uptick in our programs. A lot of folks were very concerned about their employers and wanted to make themselves more valuable."

Apply early
Graduate schools only have so many seats, and many process applications year-round, so the later you wait, the fewer seats are available.

"We try to accept as many people as we can, but we get far more applications than we have slots," said David Hertling, associate chair in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "So don't wait until the last minute to send in your application."

Do your homework
Few things will ruin your chances of being accepted more than not clearly being able to explain why you are applying in the first place. And no, a tough job market isn't a good reason. "We're looking for people who have a sense of direction, people who know what they want to get out of the program and want the education, not just people who are coming because they lost or can't find a job," explained Ann Scott, director of graduate programs for the DuPree College of Management.

"You should be an informed candidate," added Beth Mynatt, an associate professor in the College of Computing who oversees admissions for the master's program in Human-Computer Interaction. "You should be able to say why this exact program is the one for you."

Brush up on your test-taking skills
Whether it's the GRE, GMAT, LSAT or some other acronym, most graduate programs require applicants to take a standardized test to be considered for admission. That can be a challenge for someone who's been in the workplace and hasn't taken tests in awhile. "People who have been out of school may underestimate how much they've lost their standardized test-taking skills," said Mynatt. So, take a prep course and hone your testing skills.

Pick your reference letter writer carefully
Applicants coming from a bachelor's program often have an edge in this area because of the simple fact that professors know what professors want to read and tend to write better letters of recommendation than employers. "You really need to find a supervisor who can write a good letter," said Mynatt, "because a good letter often can compensate for a low test score." A good reference letter should highlight technical expertise, initiative, communication and team skills and motivation for graduate studies.

Because this letter is not a job-related reference, Myantt said, comments such as "always gets things done on time" are less important than "suggested improvements in . . . ," "was the catalyst for . . . ," and "communicates novel ideas well." "Also make sure that your letter writer understands what degree you are applying to. Generic letters are worrisome," she said.

Highlight your achievements on the job
Grades are extremely important for applicants who are coming from academia, but for people who've been working for a while, job experience can help compensate for less-than-excellent grades. "We're looking for people who are going to be successful both academically and after graduation, so we want candidates who have shown a history of achievement," said Scott. "For example, has an applicant received certain promotions? Has there been a progression of responsibility in their jobs, or have they had a string of short-time jobs?"

"Workers offer a breadth of real-world experience," said Mynatt, who added that her program currently has a medical doctor enrolled. "So if somebody wants to do a project on how to design a medical interface, we have someone right here who has experience using that technology. That makes a huge difference."