- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 15, 2004

Former schoolteacher Shanna Smith saw the light two years ago while sitting in her dark, empty classroom in Louisville, Ky.

“Are you going to be in for 27 years, or can you jump off?” the now-36-year-old asked herself in a showdown with herself. “I knew I wasn’t happy anymore with my job but didn’t know how to get out of the situation.”

The answer, it turns out, came via an English doctoral program at the University of Maryland.

Graduate school, for a master’s degree or a doctorate, is a big enough step for even the sharpest undergraduate. What about those who haven’t set foot in a classroom for years, if not decades?

That time lag might sound ominous, but experts contend that the years away from school can be balanced out by creative resumes or even help boost one’s chances for graduate-school glory if the intervening years were filled with course-applicable jobs.

Re-entering the work force armed with a sparkling new master’s degree can open up jobs never before available at salary ranges higher than what was achievable previously.

Graduate schools and programs range greatly in time required, cost and programs available, but they generally require a college transcript, a strong standardized test score, letters of recommendation and a personal statement or essay.

Ms. Smith, now a full-time student, says she enrolled in a few graduate-level courses in Louisville to “get my feet wet” before starting up at Maryland.

“It prepared me. It made all the difference in the world,” she says.

So did aligning with a mentor who worked in her future field, professional writing.

“She pushed me and encouraged me — forced me, rather,” she says, laughing, “to apply to schools. … She shook me out of being complacent.

“She is doing what I want to do. That’s encouraging and inspiring to me. I can do that. I don’t have to be stuck,” she says.

Cynthia Ruiz McKee, co-author of “Cash for Grad School,” says nontraditional students need to get back in the right scholarly mind-set.

“You get so used to working or not being in school. You don’t think of the things you need to have in a resume. You need to think about recommendation letters, all the things you have in the front of your mind when you’re in school,” Ms. Ruiz McKee says.

Older students sometimes fear they won’t be as competitive as their younger peers, but Ms. Ruiz McKee contends that students are only as ambitious as their creativity will allow.

Even a modest undergraduate resume can be massaged if put in the right context, she says.

That means playing up real-world experience, whether it’s having regularly organized Boy Scout field trips or managed volunteer work performed through one’s church.

“They want to see students who want to give back. Volunteer work is something that doesn’t have to take more than an hour a week,” she says.

Ms. Ruiz McKee also advises older students to apply for graduate-school programs and any applicable scholarships at the same time.

“Go on the assumption you will get in and you will need the money,” she says. “It’s like going to the grocery store when you’re hungry. If you think you’re gonna need the money, you’ll try harder.”

She says a growing option for older students whose responsibilities may preclude them from visiting campus every day is online degree programs. These alternatives, along with satellite campuses, have become acceptable ways to attend graduate courses.

Kristin S. Williams, director of graduate student enrollment management at George Washington University, says one aspect of graduate-school life that shouldn’t be overlooked is the cultural perspective.

“People work in different ways. Some graduate programs are very friendly, touchy-feely,” Ms. Williams says. “There are others where it’s nearly all working professionals.”

She advises potential students to visit the campuses in question and talk to faculty members, workers in the administrative offices and students to get a feel for the school.

“That will give you a real sense of what the place is like,” she says.

Graduate admissions officers clearly take a long look at an applicant’s grades, but Ms. Williams says the officials take more of a holistic approach to a potential student.

“Though most graduate programs look for a GPA of at least 3.0, there aren’t necessarily such hard and fast cutoffs,” she says. They consider statements of purpose, writing samples and letters of recommendation with considerable weight. “The whole intention of a good admissions process is to match up that whole range of characteristics to decide ‘Is this person going to succeed?’”

The fact that older students may have years of triumphant market work to call their own can reverse plenty of unimpressive grades.

“You can draw a direct line between success in the workplace and success in academia,” Ms. Williams say.

Jennifer Hunt, director of graduate admissions at Georgetown University, says graduate programs, in general, don’t stigmatize students for huge gaps in their learning careers.

One handicap older students may have is harder access to recommendation letters, Ms. Hunt says.

Academic recommendations can be crucial, Ms. Hunt says, but older students may have trouble tracking down professors who still intimately remember their work.

She suggests enrolling in a class with heavy student-professor interaction before applying to graduate school to establish fresh teacher ties.

In other cases, an employer might be able to fill the gap with information about a prospective student’s ability to learn and teach others on the job.

No matter how savvy would-be students may be, they often make some basic mistakes in their graduate-school applications.

For example, Ms. Hunt says, some students applying to Georgetown’s graduate psychology program don’t realize its focus is on research, not counseling.

“You have to take the time to learn what the program offerings are,” she says.

Linda Pope, 57, earned a master’s degree in landscape architecture in her early 40s and is pursuing a doctorate in natural resources management at the University of Maryland.

Ms. Pope says her late-blooming educational career even inspired her mother to return to school.

“I’m amazed at how supportive everyone is. I don’t feel any different as an older student,” says Ms. Pope, who’s driven by a passion for the environment. “I’m excited about the potential that’s available. I still have half of my life left.”

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