The Application Process

The Application Process (Chapter 4)

Applying to an online masters degree program is quite similar to applying to a traditional masters degree program. The application requirements are on par with traditional post-graduate programs. Deadlines usually fall in December, January and February, but you will need to check individual programs and institutions for a specific date. Some schools may have waves of admissions, meaning that they accept a certain number of students during each round, or they may have rolling admissions, meaning that they continue to accept qualified applicants until the program is full.

A comfortable time frame for the application process is about 6 months prior to your first deadline. You may apply fewer than 6 months to your deadline, but it is inadvisable.

The following timeline assumes that your application will be due in December or January. If it is not, simply insert the month your application is due and work backward to make an individualized timeline. The parts of the application process mentioned in the timeline will be discussed in depth following the timeline.

Application Timeline:

  • August-September: If you have not already decided on what you want to study and where you want to apply, now is a good time to narrow down these choices. Find out what standardized tests you will need to take for admission into these programs. Take the standardized test that is appropriate for your program or, at the very least, sign up for a test date and begin your test preparation. It takes about 3 weeks for official test scores to be sent to institutions, so keep that in mind when you choose your test date.
  • September-October: Begin researching financial aid and scholarship options. The majority of these will have deadlines around the same time as the college applications. If you think you will need financial aid, fill out the FAFSA, which is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA is used by accredited institutions to determine how much you can contribute toward your tuition and how much aid you are eligible for. Write or outline a draft of your personal statement. If a writing sample is required for your applications, begin to write this paper or edit an existing essay that you will submit. Ask faculty or employers for letters of recommendation.
  • November: Arrange to have your official transcripts from your undergraduate school and any post-secondary schools that you have attended sent to the universities to which you are applying. Some schools still require official copies sent via the mail, while others prefer to have you scan and upload your transcripts to the online application. Continue to work on your personal statement and writing sample. Seek out friends and teachers who are willing to review your application.
  • December: Finish your personal statement and writing sample. Apply to any financial aid, scholarships and fellowships for which you would like to be considered. Confirm with the faculty who are writing your letters of recommendation that they have either submitted the letters or are aware of the due date. Confirm that each school you are applying to has received your transcripts. Submit the remaining pieces of your applications, including all supplemental documents like your personal statement, writing sample and resume or curriculum vitae.
  • January: Submit any applications that are due this month if you have not already done so.
  • February: Some masters degree programs invite candidates to an interview. Practice for an interview regardless of whether it is conducted on the phone or in person.

Application Components:

  • Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose: Personal statements or statements of purpose are your chance to tell the admissions committee who you are, why you want to study in a particular program, how you are prepared to do that and what your future plans are. If you are switching disciplines or careers, this is where you can discuss why you are making this change. You will likely need to submit a resume or curriculum vitae (CV) along with your application, so make sure you are not simply repeating what is listed on your resume.
  • Standardized Test Scores: Depending on what kind of masters degree program you are applying for, you will probably have to take a standardized test similar to the SAT or ACT that you took in high school. Standardized exams allow admissions committees to compare applicants from different backgrounds and undergraduate programs. They are also a way for you to balance or make up for less than stellar transcripts.
  • As fields of study become more specialized in graduate school, so do the exams to enter these programs. The GRE revised general test is the standard when it comes to tests for admission into masters degree programs, though there are others that you may be required to take. The GRE general test was updated in 2011 and those changes are addressed below. Some programs may also require GRE subject tests, so check with the schools to which you are applying.
  • If you are applying to MBA programs, be aware that some programs will accept the GRE, while others will ask that you take the GMAT. And for certain education and teaching programs, states will have you take general knowledge tests and subject-specific tests, which will vary depending on the state in which you live.
  • Transcripts: Transcripts are records of the courses that you have taken and the grades that you earned in any undergraduate and graduate programs that you have enrolled in. Admissions committees like to see good grades, but more importantly, they like to see a steady improvement from the time that you started to the time you finished. Depending on the institution that you are applying to, you may need to have official transcripts sent directly from your prior colleges or universities’ registrar’s offices. Some schools request that you upload scanned copies of your transcripts to your online application. Make sure that you request your transcripts with plenty of time at least a month before your application deadline, if not sooner. It is not unheard of to have transcripts go missing in the mail.
  • Letters of Recommendation: The purpose of letters of recommendation is to give the admissions committees an outside perspective of you as a person and as a student. Depending on what kind of graduate applicant you are – a recent graduate from your bachelors degree program, or a professional returning to school after years in the workforce – your letters of recommendation may come from professors, employers, supervisors or a combination of all three. You should ask people who know you well and who can attest to your skills and motivations, as opposed to those with influential names or titles.
  • Be polite when you request letters of recommendation and provide potential recommenders with copies of your transcripts, personal statements or statements of purpose, and information about the program to which you are applying. Make sure to give them enough time to write the letters. Many graduate school applications allow your recommenders to submit their letters online, but some may still request that they be mailed in. If that is the case, provide your recommenders with envelopes already addressed and with postage.
  • Interviews: Some masters programs, including those conducted fully or partially online, will interview candidates that they are interested in. Like the personal statements or statements of purpose, interviews are a way for you to let the admissions committees get to know you as a person. Remember that at the post-graduate level, you are interviewing the admissions committee as much as they are interviewing you. Masters programs are concerned about finding a good fit for both the school and the student.