Selling Your Career Change: How to Strengthen Your Grad Application
In this era of corporate layoffs, evolving economic concerns,
so-called downsizing, and the technology boom-and-bust
aftermath, it's no surprise that people switch jobs regularly.
More than ever before, people are also completely switching
careers--and that offers requires a new education. The
reasons for this change are varied: there's more acceptance
of "multi-tasking" careers (an actress or musician can also
be an author, restaurateur, and clothing designer), more
tolerance for career switches, more job skills becoming
obsolete (due to new technology and/or a completely new
skillset and education), and people are marrying and starting
families later than previous generations, which in turns
fosters more career experimentation.
You need to make your unique experience shine on your
graduate application, as well as be convincing about your
desire and ability to switch the course of your professional
track. Here are some tips for creating a successful grad
application and forging past experience into a new career
Talk the talk. In their book The Mid-Career
Tune-Up, Bill and Rosemary Salmon stress how important
it is to research, know, and use the jargon of
your new pursuit in your application. If you've researched
trends, industry experts, future predictions, and the
history of the field, you can include this knowledge in
your application. For example, if you're a lawyer applying
to UCLA's film school, you can mention the ways in which
technology has changed filmmaking and mention night courses
or seminars in this new technology that you've taken (or
even books you've read on the subject). A medical doctor
applying to law school could mention current legal issues
in medicine that fascinate him, using the legal terminology
and issues of current interest.
Have long-term perspective. In your personal statement (or other
appropriate are of your application), illustrate how you
see your newly chosen field evolving, and how you would
hope to contribute to the evolution.
Demonstrate commitment. As part of your push to
demonstrate your commitment to and knowledge of your new
pursuit, list the targeted job fairs and trade shows you
See a counselor. Select a career counselor, and
mention in your application that you've been working with a
counselor. To ensure that they have the proper background,
education, and credentials, check through the National Board for Certified
Network. Contact professors, students, and
professionals in the field to glean as much information as
possible. If you requested and were allowed to sit in on a
few classes in your field at a local university, mention
this in your application, along with the course name,
professor's name, and what you liked about the course. You
can also take a course or courses online through
distance-learning programs at many schools.
Volunteer or intern in the field. If you've been
able to volunteer or intern in your field, this would be
ideal to mention in a grad school application.
Find a bridge. It's important to find a bridge from
your old occupation to your new path and highlight it in
your grad school application. This bridge could be that
both careers require similar skills: researching, detailed
work, effectively managing a budget or staff, salesmanship,
working with new technology, or creative output. Even broad
skills such as dealing with and overcoming obstacles,
multi-tasking, presenting written material, and giving
polished oral presentations are transferable between
different occupations. Or, consider how it is that many
fields intersect, focus on how your old field intersects
with your new, and highlight this area of your experience.
An example of this would be a copywriter applying to
journalism school. A copywriter, like a journalist, would
have to research and impart information in a way that holds
a reader's attention, so a copywriter would bridge
copywriting to journalism through this type of similarity.
A good personal statement balances a discussion of your
past experience with an explanation of your goals, plans,
and aspirations. Don't write an essay entirely about what
you plan to do, but don't ignore your plans either. If
possible, show the continuity between your past experience
and future plans.
Letters of recommendation in your grad application should
come from people who currently know you-and know you well.
Most committees require three. The letters should provide
admissions committees with information that isn't found
elsewhere in your application; they're detailed discussions
of your accomplishments, personal qualities, and experiences.
Letters from professors will be more difficult for adult
learners to come by if they've been out of school for more
than five years (if it's been less than five years, your
professors will no doubt remember you). To get around this,
adult learners should consider enrolling as a
non-matriculated or non-degree seeking student in the field
of choice, perform well, and then request a letter of
recommendation from the professor.
According to Tara Kuther, Ph.D., a counselor for About.com
and career-switching expert, letters of recommendation should
come from employers, internship/co-operative education
supervisors, administrators, clients, and anyone who knows
you well professionally. Letter-writers should know you long
enough to write with authority, should be able to write a
well-crafted letter and describe your work positively, and
should state a high opinion of you. Kuther says it's unlikely
that one person will be able to satisfy all of these
criteria, so aim for a set of letter that cover the range of
your pertinent skills.
Letters should cover your academic/scholastic skills,
research abilities, and applied experiences (internships,
work related experience). Give your letter-writer at least a
month to write the letter, and make an appointment to speak
with them about it. Also, since adult learners need to
highlight unique experiences and make connections from past
work experience to future pursuit, give your letter-writers a
file with all of your background information and with any
salient points you need to make. This file should include:
resume/CV, courses you've taken, previous transcript,
research experience, seminars, awards, professional goals,
internships/volunteer work, application due date, and a copy
of the recommendation forms. Make it as easy as possible for
the person to rave about you and to know what you want him or
her to say!
According to NYU's Arts & Sciences graduate
school admissions staff, the average graduate student in
masters and doctoral programs is now between twenty-seven and
thirty-three years old. Mature students in all fields are
creating a new-career trend, so although you might have
special concerns as a mid-career applicant to graduate
school, you're far from being alone!
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