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Melanie ZoltanUsing Non-Degree Status to Test Grad School Waters

by Melanie Zoltan

Many prospective graduate students think that applying to graduate school is an all-or-nothing prospect: you apply and get in, or you're rejected. Applying to graduate school can seem daunting: requesting transcripts, writing a personal statement, taking the GREs or MATs or GMATs, and requesting letters of recommendation are all complex parts of the application process. Many schools, however, have a third way: the non-degree or non-matriculating student status.

HOW IT WORKS: You apply as a "special student", "non-degree student" or "non-matriculating student" (the terms vary from institution to institution). The application is generally short - one to two pages - and acceptance is often simple and straightforward, as long as you have a bachelor's degree. Schools rarely request transcripts or personal statements, as you are not applying for full admission. You are then permitted to register for graduate level courses. Should you later decide to apply as a degree student to complete a master's or doctorate, six (or more) credit hours taken as a non-degree student can be applied to your degree.

A STRATEGIC MOVE: If you've been away from college for a long time, this is a way to test the waters of graduate school, but also to prove your abilities to professors, allowing you to ask them for letters of recommendation when applying for degree status. If you completed your B.A. in 1990, for instance, how many of those professors can you call upon for letters of reference for graduate school applications? Probably none, or possibly one who remembers you. By enrolling as a non-degree student and taking one or two graduate level courses, you can then ask your recent professors to write letters of recommendation that attest to your current skills and abilities.

CHOOSE COURSES WISELY: For your first course, select a topic that interests you but with which you are familiar. If you're going to use these courses as a springboard for applying for degree status, you want to earn high grades to garner high praise from your professors. Save the more challenging classes for later, once you're been admitted to the degree program.

CONTACT THE PROFESSOR BEFOREHAND: Many graduate courses have prerequisites, so contacting the professor (email or a phone call) is crucial to guarantee that you may register for the course. I recently registered as a non-degree student at the University of Massachusetts, taking a U.S. Women's History graduate seminar. I e-mailed the professor beforehand, and she explained that only students with at least one undergraduate or graduate course in Women's Studies were permitted, or I could do extensive reading before the first class. I had taken a Women's Studies course back in 1991, but I also requested her reading list, and then spent four weeks studying the materials. I was admitted to the class and am currently working on a research project within the course.

However, I witnessed one student who came to class assuming he could register, but the professor regretfully, yet firmly explained her prerequisite policy, and informed him he could not join the class. Contacting the professor well in advance of the course will help you to understand the prerequisites for the course, and will also give you a chance to find creative ways to prepare for the course.

REGISTRATION PROCESS: I was surprised to find that I could perform every bit of registration online- from contacting the professor by e-mail to enrollment. In 1991 my university was cutting edge when they adopted telephone enrollment. I felt like quite the dinosaur when I went to the graduate school registrar to register and they referred me to the university's administrative Website. I could have saved myself a trip and done it all from home.

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