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
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
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.