Selling Your Career Change: How to Strengthen Your Grad Application
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.
Sell the Switch in Your Application
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 path.
- 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 film-making 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 attended.
- 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 Counselors.
- 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
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!