Waiting for the Acceptance Letter, or “Just Put Me Out of My Misery Already”

I’d like to say that this several-week-long gap between my posts is an artistic expression of the time frame during which I waited for an answer from Western Carolina University, but that would be a “creative interpretation of the truth”, or in other words, big fat fib.English: Western Carolina University and Littl...

I’ve been treating myself to the delights of summer in Western North Carolina. With the additional excuse of having my family in town for a long visit, I’ve been indulging as much kayaking, hiking, swimming and festival-going as I could get away with. Since the end of summer and the beginning of school is fast approaching, I thought I’d better take a little time to catch up my journal before the real work begins.

Although not quite as painful as preparing for the GRE, the “4 to 6 week” waiting period between the deadline for graduate school applications and receiving the acceptance/rejection letter from the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at WCU was extremely stressful. It was hard not to obsess about it and as time went along I became increasingly more difficult to live with. Of course it wasn’t going to be the end of the world if I wasn’t accepted into that extremely competitive program, but the thought of another year at my current job and going through the GRE and application process again nearly reduced me to tears on more than one occasion.

I finally received my acceptance via email! After the wave of relief passed and excitement relaxed into planning my next steps, I felt a tiny twinge of something between shame and guilt. I had been a bit of a jerk at the times when I had let the stress of an unknown future get to me. Over a pint of locally-brewed stout I began looking back at the past month, then a bit further back over months and years,  and I noticed a pattern and an opportunity…

In this moment of epiphany and delicious hops and barley goodness, I discovered one of the keys to increased happiness: Focus.

Balancing Act

Some people can’t help but look back with nostalgia at the glory days gone by or fret and fester over regrets of the past. Others “live for today”, unable or unwilling to address the possibilities of the future. I have a tendency to be a “look to the future” kind of gal. I focus on what’s coming. I plan and plot and visualize what can be. I focus on how good life is gonna be. (And as the expression goes, “Man plans, God laughs”.)

The trouble with any of these mentalities is their limited vision. The past-dwellers miss out on the opportunities of today and planning for the future. The live-now set aren’t prepared for what’s coming and the what’s-next folks miss out on everything that’s wonderful around them right now.

By being SO focused on whether or not I was getting to go to grad school in the fall and letting that stress ooze in to my today, I had tainted my enjoyment of the now and those who shared it with me.

Balancing Rocks

So, the trick to increased happiness: balanced focus. Appreciate the good times and hard-won lessons of the past. Make a plan for the future, commit to it and be prepared to make adjustments. Enjoy and appreciate the now; this moment only happens once, so you have to be IN it while it’s happening.

It’s a tough balancing act to keep such a broad focus in check, but I think it will be a battle worth fighting in the end.

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Time for a Funny Cat Photo Break!

When the brain is tired, you sometimes just need a kitty fix and a few laughs to rev you back up. Who knew the funny bone was attached to the brain?

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Grad Application: Your Personal Statement

Looking at my checklist for the grad school application, I was down to the final element: My Personal Statement. Ugh. (Sigh) It was time to get it done.

The logical side of me thinks that Personal Statements, Goal Statements, Letters of Intent… whatever you want to call them, are a really smart idea. Who wants to be judged solely on their test scores and grades? That doesn’t REALLY say all there is to say about you. It’s good that you have the recommendations of three people you’ve chosen to speak on your behalf, but still, that’s not YOU. It’s wise to really put some time and effort into the only true “voice” you’ll have in your application.

English: A kitten crying.

Of course, my lazy, childish side says it doesn’t WANNA write another schmoozie letter about why they should choose me. We just got done putting together all that stuff for those stupid recommendation letter-things and they should just LET ME IN ALREADY!

So having completed my little tantrum, I put on my big-girl pants and went to work. This is just the first of MANY, MANY papers to come in the future, so I guess I’d better get used to it.

All good papers and sales pitches begin with research and this was no different:

  1. Know the Rules. Check with your college’s and department’s websites for any requirements as to format, length, content, etc. You want to make sure you’re giving them what is required. If you can’t even follow instructions, why should they admit you to their advanced educational program?
  2. List of Qualities and Accomplishments. I brought out the list of qualities and accomplishments I had provided to my letter writers to assist them in writing their letters of recommendation.
  3. Departmental Expectations. Going back to the my department of choice on the grad school website, I printed a couple of pages from the online handbook that addressed the qualities and skills necessary to become a successful Speech-Language Pathologist.
  4. Brainstorm. After reading through all these pages again, I started brainstorming on a separate piece of paper, listing events and achievements that corresponded to the qualities and skills they would be looking for in an ideal applicant. Give them specific examples when you’ve been an “excellent communicator” or a time when your “tenacity” was proven. It’s one thing to spout characteristics you say you have, but it’s much more convincing to PROVE it with examples.
  5. Start Writing.If you can come up with an outline for your paper first, that’s even better. The point is to not just stare at the blank screen or piece of paper. Just start discussing one of your examples and how it depicts the corresponding characteristic. Then write about another one. And another one. Get the ideas OUT there.revising
  6. Organize Your Thoughts. Now take all that wonderful raw material and put it in an order that makes sense. Tell a story or put the ideas in to common categories that can become paragraphs. Hopefully, if you’ve put thought and effort into it, you’ll have WAY too much material at this point. That’s good.
  7. Write the Opening and Closing Paragraphs.  Take a break from the meat of your creation and rough draft the bread of your essay sandwich. I started mine with a brief note about my age and how I think it will be an asset to my educational experience. The next paragraph discussed how I came to the decision to become an SLP and the research I had done prior to my decision to go back to school. For the closing, you don’t have to say everything all over again, but you do need to express your enthusiasm for entering their program, reiterate one or two of the most important points and thank them for their time and consideration.
  8. Sharpen Your Machete. They are going to be reading a LOT of letters. Don’t bore them to death with a 10 page history of your life. The general consensus I came to in my research was that anything over 2 pages is too much. Again, check the school’s guidelines on this one.
  9. Revise, Revise, Revise.  Look at your sentence structure. Do you start with “I” too often. Are your sentences varied and interesting to read? Do you repeat certain words too often? Check grammar and spelling at least twice. Make sure your verb tenses agree.
  10. Fresh Eyes. Have at least two other people read, markup and comment on your work.
  11. Set a Deadline. You can work an essay to DEATH, so know when to stop. Set yourself a deadline at which your efforts will be finished whether you are completely satisfied that you’ve accomplished absolute perfection or not.

Good advice I got from Claremont Graduate University‘s website:

 Avoid the “what I did with my life” approach.
 Avoid the “I’ve always wanted to be a” approach.
 Avoid a catalog of achievements. This is only a list of what you have done, and tells nothing about you as a person. Normally, the statement is far more than a resume.
 Avoid lecturing the reader. For example, you should not write a statement such as “Communication skills are important in this field.” Any graduate admissions committee member knows that and is not trying to learn about the field from the applicant. Some statements do ask applicants about their understanding of the field.

Words and phrases to avoid without explanation:
significant      appealing to me      meaningful
interesting      appealing aspect      helping people
challenging       feel good      I like helping people
satisfying/satisfaction     I like it       remarkable
appreciate     it’s important       rewarding
invaluable      meant a lot to me       useful
exciting/excited      incredible     stimulating
enjoyable/enjoy    gratifying      valuable
I can contribute      fascinating      helpful

My “masterpiece” took about 4 weeks to perfect, so make sure you give yourself PLENTY of time to get it done. This is not something you want to throw together at the last minute. It will show. They will know. And it will speak VOLUMES about your future efforts as a student.

Good luck in your writing. Sell it, baby!

I hope your application is accepted with enthusiasm (and scholarship money).

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Grad School Application: Letters of Recommendation

Most grad school applications require three or more letters of recommendation. First, you have to decide on at least three people who are not related to you who will provide a letter to help convince the school that you’re the best choice for their program. A lot of sources

Netscher, Caspar - The Man Writing a Letter - ...

recommend asking at least one extra in case someone backs out on you or something goes wrong with their letter submission. Try to choose people who are in positions of leadership or may be recognized by the admissions board as having some authority to recommend a brilliant new student.

Who to Choose

Since I was not long removed from the real estate business, I asked the owner and manager (now the owner of his own company) of the company where I used to work to ask for letters. I got my third letter from my millionaire-author-investor-financial mentor and part-time employer. Even though most sources say to call your letter writers to ask them for the favor in person, I KNOW these guys. They are all email junkies. So I emailed them, taking care to add a little honest flattery as to why I had chosen them for this “honor”. I made sure to include the time frame in which I was needing the letter (about 30 days) and reassurance that I’d send them ample information to assist them in the process. Fortunately for me, they each immediately accepted with reasonable enthusiasm.

Give Them the Tools They Need

You want to make the letter writing process as simple and painless as possible to result in letters that are (1) Quality letters with positive impact on your grad school application, and (2) Successfully submitted ON TIME.  I found the best way to accomplish this is to follow-up on your promise to provide your letter-writers with the information they need to successfully complete the task. Send a second email or fax with this helpful information:

INFORMATION ABOUT YOU

So I started by, you guessed it, MAKING A LIST of all the reasons I was a good choice for the SLP Master’s degree program, my accomplishments in life and in business and my goals for the future. (KEEP THIS LIST! You’ll want to reference it when you start writing your Personal Statement/Goal Statement.) I also made a point of noting the time period in which I had worked for that person so they wouldn’t have to do any unnecessary research.

INFORMATION ABOUT YOUR INTENDED FIELD OF STUDY

Next, I put together a sheet of information about the kind of work I’d be doing as an SLP and what kind of characteristics were required. This was easily acquired from the department’s site within my school’s website, where I found a mission statement and student handbook specific to my degree. I figured it would be easier for them to write a letter about why I’m a great fit for this degree if they knew by what criteria I would be judged. Your letter writers may not be familiar with what your new career is all about. Give them a one page outline of what you’ll be doing with that degree. Include key phrases from the school’s information so they’ll be more likely to hit the hot button characteristics in their writing and catch the attention of the decision-makers. It’s also an excellent exercise to confirm for yourself that, YES, you ARE a great fit for this kind of work. Or not.

PROVIDE EXAMPLES OF WHAT IS EXPECTED

Finally, I found tips for writing a good letter of recommendation and sample letters online that seemed to fit a graduate student situation. They all commented later as to how helpful it was to have other letters to use as a guide as to the difference between a good letter and a poor one. I emailed all these items to my letter writers with a mild reminder as to the due date. (I had 60 days until the application deadline, but I asked them to have it done in 30 to allow time for error.)

FOLLOW-UP

I sent a follow-up email about a week later to “make sure they had received the materials I sent to help in their letter writing and see if they had any questions”, really meant to be a reminder that the letter needed to be done since they’re all pretty busy guys.

Another week later I send another email with instructions from the school on how to submit their letter to the school’s online application system. These instructions should have reached them via email directly from the school already, but I didn’t want to chance the school’s email ending up my writers’ spam folders. It also served as a good reminder for them to do my letter.

The third week into my 30 day time frame I sent a reminder directly from the school’s online application system, a very handy feature. I have to say I liked the online application process. The progress of the entire application was easy to track. I could see what requirements had been fulfilled and which items remained before I could finally click the “SUBMIT” button. It allowed me to see who had sent their letter in and when it had been received. If no letter had been received, it would send them a reminder email with one simple click by me. I believe I even had the option to review the letters and decide if they would be included in my application. You even pay your application fee online.

Message in the bottle

Message in the bottle (Photo credit: funtik.cat)

Amazingly enough, the value of the internet submission was the one point I had to impress upon my writers. By this time, I had met one of my writer’s in person to review his rough draft and had one of the others read his to me over the phone. It was truly amazing to hear how highly they spoke of me. I was a little stunned. These two were ready to submit their letters, but their first instinct was that it would have greater impact if they mailed it in on their letterhead.

Generally I’d agree that paper letters, especially hand-written ones, make a much bigger impression than one typed into a form. The catch was that it wasn’t what the school wanted. They didn’t want a bunch of hand-written letters to process. It explicitly said on the website and application, several times, that hand-written letters would slow down the processing of your application by 2-4 weeks and requested that you make every effort to have the letters submitted online.

My writers were understanding once I made them aware of the potential harm to be done by submitting their letter the old-fashioned way. The real saving grace that became an acceptable compromise to my writers was that the letters could be uploaded as a PDF file, so their nicely formatted, letterhead-adorned masterpiece would still be seen in its intended form not altered by evil computer glitches. Lesson to be learned, be very clear on your school’s submission requirements and keep regular communication with your writers.

Of course, please remember to follow-up with a thank you note (hand-written, not an email) and let them know when you get accepted into your grad program. They will appreciate the chance to beam with pride and share in your sense of accomplishment as reward for their efforts.

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Preparing for the GRE or “?!?!??##$@#?$!?!”

As you may have noticed in a couple of my previous posts, I really hated taking the GRE. It seems to be the general opinion of all those with whom I have traded battle stories of GRE warefare and survival that this is one of the hardest things they have ever done. We pronounce this disparaging comment not to discourage anyone who is considering taking this test, but to forewarn them. YOU GOTTA KNOW YOUR STUFF.

This isn’t one of those rhote memorization tests that you can fake your way though. You can’t cram in a few formulas the night before and expect to achieve a respectable score. Considering the money you have to put out to take the test, you don’t want to have to take it too many times. I actually spent more money preparing for the test than taking it. (One cool thing: Any classes you take in preparation for the GRE are tax deducatable as an education expense!)

This test doesn’t just require you to KNOW your stuff, you have to be able to USE it as if it is second nature. Therefore, if you don’t KNOW it in the first place, you’re bound to be about as successful as an asthmatic opera singer. This test is about word problems, comprehension, successful analysis and expression, and giving them what they’re “looking for”.

That being said, you’ll want to give yourself enough time to make sure your core skills are sharp and practice taking the test. What is “enough time”? That varies from person to person, so the first step to finding the answer to that question would be to take a practice test. You can find free tests and preparation materials online from the test makers themselves at: http://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/prepare . The whole exam was reworked and revised last year, so even if you’ve taken it before you’ll want to check out the site. There are significant changes, many of which most test takers seem to appreciate.

There are three types of sections to the test:

  • Math or “Quantitative Reasoning”
  • English or “Verbal Reasoning
  • Essays or “Analytical Writing”

If you are a middle-aged student like me, you haven’t taken a math class or used anything more than basic arithmetic, some household financial math, a smidgen of algebra and a bit of simple geometry in the last 10 to 20 years. The practice test will make your shortcomings glaringly visible, which is what you really need. A good dose of truth as to how much you’ve forgotten is a great motivator to study hard.

Take one practice test without timing yourself to find out where you need to focus your studies. Don’t worry about the time until you sharpen your skills. It doesn’t matter how many minutes and seconds takes to cut down a big tree with a spoon. It is going to take TOO MANY minutes because you’re using a slow, dull instrument to do a job that requires sharpness and speed. You need to be a test-taking chainsaw!

In case you were wondering, I only scored 55% on my first practice math test. Ugh. Depressing. A wave of panic washed over me, shaking the very core of my self-esteem. I was such a GOOD student before. What happened? Had I really forgotten THAT much? I used to be an ace at math. And what’s with all the probability questions? I never took Statistics as an undergrad…I was a Theatre Major! I was felt a bit better after taking the verbal practice test but one thing was very clear….man, it was really time to hit the books!

I did considerably better on the verbal practice test, but it was apparent to me by the time I was done that I needed to seriously refresh and build up my vocabulary. The verbal tests has you read paragraphs, long and short in variety, and answer questions regarding what you read. Not too terrible but it’s very DENSE reading. There’s also a section where you have to fill in the word that is missing in the sentence or paragraph. It’s multiple choice. Not so bad, but it’s not just one word that’s missing. They’ve left out two or three words in some instances and unless you fill them ALL in correctly, you miss the entire question. Bummer. Most of the time, the word you put in the first blank will affect your choice for the second and third words as it affects the context of the paragraph altogether.

Okay, so you’ve done the practice tests and you feel like you’ve been run over by a Mac truck of disappointment. At least now you know where your weakness lie. MAKE A LIST of the things you need to brush up on. I got a couple of great study guides on Amazon.com. There are SO many books out there that are good study guides. You really just need to break up your study time into three basic tasks:

  1. Making those rusty old math skills second nature again,
  2. Improving your vocabulary, and
  3. Practice taking the test.

Every time you sit down to study, have a goal in mind. Don’t just open one of the practice books and hope something wonderful sticks in your brain. Plan to study geometry on Tuesday from 7-9pm (for example). BE SPECIFIC. That way you can give those you love a time frame that you will be unavailable and give yourself boundaries for completion and a sense of accomplishment. You’ll be less prone to quit early if you have an appointment with yourself. Alternate days so you don’t get burnt out on one topic.

MATH PREPARATION

For sharpening my math skills the most useful book I found was the Cliff’s Notes Math Review for Standardized Tests. It is really well organized!! The book is divided into sections according to the type of math: algebra, geometry, etc. There are practice tests for each section, easy to follow lessons and useful learning tips. I created pages of “cheat sheets” with math concepts I would review every other day or so. Even after I had finished

Mathematics

Mathematics (Photo credit: Terriko)

the Cliff’s Notes book and moved on to the pages and pages of practice questions in the Official GRE Test Prep book I would still refer back to the Cliff’s Notes book for clarification on a concept from time to time (especially on the statistics stuff). There are free practice problems on the ETS website as well. If you currently work in an office, I recommend you keep all those discarded pieces of paper in a stack and take them home for scratch paper. If you are really studying, you’ll go through a couple of reams of scratch paper. Remember, mechanical pencils are your friend. They never need sharpening. Buy one of those little rectangular erasers, too. That little stub on the top of your pencil doesn’t stand a chance.

TAKE A CLASS

Find out what resources are available in your community. I found a 4-week GRE prep class at our local college that was very helpful. The fee for the classes included a copy of the Official GRE test prep book I mentioned before (with practice CD) and one of the older test prep books, which was still very useful for practice questions. The best part of the class was the insight into the test itself. The twice-weekly class alternated days with math and verbal preparation. Each teacher concentrated on HOW to take the test as well as individual questions. They showed us questions designed to trip up test takers, common mistakes, how to brainstorm and organize an essay and time management. They even covered strategies to use with the computerized version of the test, such as the feature that allows you to mark a problem you have trouble with so you can come back and review your answer at the end if time allowed. It was a good investment for $375. I felt more confident at the end. The instructors even allowed us to email them questions and practice essays after the class was over.

VERBAL PREPARATION

In preparing for the verbal section, I first tried using flash cards to practice and learn new vocabulary. They didn’t work for me. I just couldn’t get the stuff from the cards to stay in my head. I even tried writing my own sentences on the cards like they recommended, which worked a bit better. The instructor from my test prep class recommended reading classical literature such as Charles Dickens, where a lot of the typical GRE vocabulary is

Literature

found in context. (Tells you how OUTDATED some of the words are, huh?) Then I found the BEST solution. I downloaded an awesome game for my iPhone called Smart Vocab GRE from High Five Labs ($4.99) that gave me about ten words at a time to study with meanings, sentences and pronunciations and then a mini test. After getting the word right a few times it would introduce new words into the study session. Like in martial arts, there were belts for each level of words mastered. It was GREAT! I studied about 30 minutes of my lunch hour each day and it was actually fun. The words really stuck too. It was even fun on a road trip. It was easy to play/study any time I was bored, waiting for the dentist or in the checkout line at the store, since it was in my phone which is with me about 99% of the time. I liked it so much, I still play it once in a while even now just to keep sharp.

ESSAY PREPARATION

Finally, in preparation for the essay portion of the test, I suggest you read as well as practice writing. Again, the ETS website is a wonderful resource and it’s free. You have to write two essays, one analyzing an argument and one opinion on an issue. There are VERY SPECIFIC CRITERIA that the judges are looking for in each of these essays that make them different. Spend some time on the website reading about the essays as part of your preparation. They have specific examples of each essay in each of the “grades” (5, 4, 3, 2, 1), so you can understand the difference between a “5” and a “4” and how they are judged.

The site also offers examples of previous essay topics, giving you a sense of the range of topics. The thing is, YOU DON’T HAVE TO KNOW MUCH ABOUT THE TOPIC TO WRITE A GOOD ESSAY. In the “Analyze an Argument” essay, you’re better off not knowing much and just focusing on why the argument is good or not regardless of the subject matter. I recommend printing off a few pages of the topics for each kind of essay. Tape them up in the bathroom where you can see them from the toilet or as you enter the shower. Each time you embark on one of these simple tasks, use the spare mental time to consider one of the topics and how you would approach it. Post one of the lists on the refrigerator in your kitchen and discuss the topic with your family to practice brainstorming.

You DO have to practice writing as well. Sounds simple, but you can feel silly writing with no one to show it to. As I said before, our instructor allowed us to email her essays after the class had concluded and she would “grade” them and provide feedback on how to make them better. Some of her best advice was, “Don’t forget that scratch paper isn’t just for math. Before you begin writing, brainstorm your ideas about the topic and create a simple (A, B, C) outline for your paragraphs.” For extra points, be sure to include at least two of these in each essay:

  • historical example
  • historical quote
  • quote
  • personal example
  • personal quote
  • statistic with source
  • example from the media

She also warned against using “preachy” phrases like “they should”, using more eloquent sentence structure instead. Avoid contractions; spell out both words in whole. Don’t use too many of those $5 vocabulary words you have to learn for the verbal section of the test. We did four essays in class, which I felt prepared me for the test. I did okay, but I’d bet I could have made even more improvement if I’d sent her a couple more essays to review.

Give yourself plenty of time to prepare and practice. Get a good night’s sleep the night before. Dress in layers, since the room temperature can range from arctic to sweltering and you don’t need any unnecessary distractions. Don’t drink too many beverages before the test so you don’t lose time and focus to your bladder. Do your best (you get your verbal and quantitative scores before you leave, essay scores take a few weeks) and remember, if all else fails, you can always take it again!

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Whew…tough week, need a cute animal pic break.

What a week! Happy Star Wars Day (May the 4th be with you. Enjoy Cinco de Mayo and the Supermoon tomorrow night. http://www.weather.com/news/supermoon-preview-20120501

It’s time for a cute animal photo break and we’ll get that other pesky, text-filled post out soon.

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Applying for Grad School or “The next BIG list”

Having made the decision on which school to attend, the next task was getting accepted to said school. Back to the university’s website. After checking the specific web site for the Communication Science and Disorders department, I was armed with a new checklist. There was a web page (with helpful links) clearly outlining what it would take to be eligible to apply for their graduate program:

  • Transcripts. Official transcripts are required, showing an in-progress or conferred Bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university with a satisfactory overall GPA (3.0 or higher). Easy enough to obtain as long as you are in good standing with your alma maters. If you owe them money, this is their chance to collect before they will let you have an official copy of your transcripts. I had to get transcripts from two schools. Each had a website with an online form to complete and a
    The maze of Longleat House

    The maze of Longleat House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    small fee to pay. I also had to fax the last page of the site to the school with my signature to officially authorize the release of the transcripts. They were sent in a sealed envelope (a common requirement) directly to my future grad school.

  • Letters of Recommendation.  Schools want to know that OTHER people think you’ll be as good a fit for your future career as you do. I’ll address this obstacle more fully in a separate blog. I worked on getting my letters submitted starting about 60 days before the deadline for application. Of course, you can start sooner. It’s not like the letters will “expire”. Keep in mind that most schools now prefer your recommenders send their letters electronically, directly into your online application. If you have not yet started your online application, they won’t have anywhere to send it.
  • Standardized Tests. For me, that was the GRE, or Graduate Record Examination.  Not exactly a self-explanatory name. It is the general test that most schools require for admission. There are other specific standardized tests for business, law and math-intensive degrees, but this is like the SAT of grad school in general. It’s the most awful test I’ve ever taken. Every school and department has different minimum requirements to be considered for admission, so make sure to check you
    This is a Computer Fundamentals class taking a...

    This is a Computer Fundamentals class taking an exam. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    r school’s website carefully. All in all, if it is a competitive program, you can be sure the minimum won’t be enough when it comes to comparing all the applicants and making the final decisions. You’ll need to do your very best. I began studying for the GRE about 10 months before I took the exam. There will definitely be at least one more blog on this topic.

  • Goal Statement. This is probably as important as your GRE scores. The school wants to know why you want to be an underwater basket weaver before it will admit you to their program. Their goal is to graduate successful students because successful students make them look good and will hopefully donate money back to the school in the future. If they only have a limited number of spaces available, they want the best people in those spots. They want assurance that not only can you take a (stupid, horrible) test, but you have the drive to complete the program and continue on to a bright future. It’s the one shining thing (other than an interview) that will show who you are as a PERSON above and beyond your test scores and GPA. Again, this deserves a blog all its own. I promise you’ll see one.

I’ve noticed many master’s programs have similar requirements, but some require resumes, work histories, multiple essay submissions, etc. Whatever you do, be sure to read through the school’s admissions page and the department’s admission page and any available student handbooks. There are a lot of hoops to jump through just to get into school and you don’t want to miss a trick!

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What’s a Leveler?

I’m not sure if I mentioned it before, but my undergraduate degree is in Theater Arts with a minor in Business Administration. I don’t have any undergraduate credits that apply directly towards my new goal of becoming a Speech Language Pathologist. Of course, the general coursework and the process of surviving the collegiate transition into the “real world” provides its own set of life skills necessary to graduate study; but there are certain prerequisites from undergraduate study that are necessary before you can “go to the next level”.

I was worried I’d have to start from scratch. I’m guessing that if you’re thinking about a new career path and already have a bachelor’s, you may have thought you were “trapped” into choosing from careers relative to your initial degree as well. Getting a second undergrad degree is a very depressing thought. But FEAR NOT! One day, when reading the Western Carolina U. Communication Sciences and Disorders departmental website, the sky parted and the angels sang and I found a very welcoming response to my concern :

“We Welcome Students from All Backgrounds

We welcome students from all backgrounds who are interested in studying communication sciences and disorders. For that reason, we offer a unique admission opportunity to students outside of our field. These students, referred to as “levelers,” are admitted as graduate students and initially pursue a series of prerequisite courses preparing them for the graduate curriculum. Levelers can complete the program in two-and-a-half years.”

Students need sleep in order to study.

Awesome!!

I realize this means that I’ll be taking 15 hours of coursework instead of the 9 hours that the “normal” full-time grad students would be taking, but it’s better to push hard through 2-1/2 stressful years than to endure the time and cost of an entirely new undergraduate degree in addition to the master’s work. The cool thing is that tuition for a full-time student pays for anything from 9-15 hours, so there’s no extra cost (except my sanity) for the additional 6 hours each semester. That sounds like a bargain to me!

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More Logistics: Campus Life or Commuter?

One of the first questions people ask me when they find out I’m going to graduate school is, “Where are you going to live?”. As I am 39 years old and married, that’s a reasonable question. It’s not the same as when I was a brand new adult undergrad with no attachments and no one to worry about but me. There’s a bit more to consider now.

COMMUTER OR RESIDENT?

A dorm room at the Harvard Law School.

As Western Carolina University is about one hour from my house, “Where am I going to live?”, became the next issue to resolve. The program I’m in will require that I attend school year-round, with a lighter schedule in the summer. The round trip journey from my house to campus and back is 130 miles, mostly on the highway, which takes about an hour each way. I could get an apartment with a roommate for about $450 a month, including utilities, internet, etc. Comparing the cost of a round trip to school and back home every school day versus the cost of a weekly commute and renting a small apartment near campus, we came to the conclusion that the cheapest option would be for me to live at home and commute to school. (You can find average gas prices at http://gasbuddy.com/GB_StateList.aspx)

Spreadsheets are fun, aren’t they!? That 3rd option, only renting in the fall and spring, relies on being able to find someone whoDriving

is willing to rent to me from August to the end of May every year. I found out that might not be as feasible in reality as it is in theory. Seeing how I am forced to live in the real world, the 3rd option was essentially OUT. It looked like I was going to be a commuter student.

Then one day, as I was studying for the GRE (that hellish test that’s required for graduate school application) it occurred to me that there was one big problem with commuting to school and living at home: I LOVE spending time with my husband. Anytime he was home I ended up talking to him instead of studying, no matter how good my intentions and determination to study. If I ignored him, I felt bad. It wasn’t his fault. We just enjoy talking and hanging out together. (That’s kinda one of the reasons we’re married!) But it was suddenly clear there was no way I’d be able to dedicate the kind of attention that was necessary to be a successful student if I was at home. If I was going to fulfill the promise I had made to my husband and myself to “kick butt” in school, I needed the freedom to be completely absorbed with my studies and not feel guilty for neglecting my spouse.

English: A male and a female holding hands.

Fortunately, Scott agreed. He was already a little tired of leaving the house so I could study and as long as I was home he found it impossible NOT to talk to me. (Awww…)  If I had to spend all my time in a library so I could concentrate, than I might as well not have a long drive every day on top of it. Time was going to be precious enough without losing two hours out of each day to driving back and forth. Additionally, the wear and tear on the ol’ car would be considerable. There would be an additional cost with wear on the vehicle that I hadn’t included in my original calculations.

Cost savings would have to give way to productivity and peace of mind when came to the housing issue. It’s kind of a relief. Now I can focus on my work without distraction or guilt. He can enjoy some quiet time throughout the week and have friends over without worrying that he’s bothering me. It might be a neat boost to our relationship.

By the way, I DID consider on-campus housing since I had never lived in a dorm before and was a little curious about the experience. I was stunned to find the cost of room and board is $8,401 for the fall/spring semesters! That doesn’t even include any transportation money to go home on the weekends. I was not terribly impressed with the dining options

Cafeteria

on campus during my visit (especially for the cost involved) and I don’t eat large quantities of food anyhow. I’m a total waste of money at a buffet. I’m thinking I may even lose some weight, since I wouldn’t be eating my husband’s delicious dinners during the week. (Hello, Lean Cuisine!)  I’m not averse to salads, protein shakes and Cliff Bars as meals, not just snacks. As long as there are still Dove Dark Chocolate bites in the world, I’m a happy camper. Who wants to live in a dorm with a bunch of kids almost young enough to be my kid anyhow? No WAY I wanted to play dorm-mom. Talk about making a gal really FEEL old.

I was fortunate enough to find a roommate (on Craig’s List, believe it or not) who is in the same master’s program, which I think will be mutually beneficial. She’s much younger than me (23 years old) but seems to have a calm disposition and a pretty steady head on her shoulders. Surprisingly, we have similar taste in music and share a few important pet peeves: food/plates left in the living room overnight and full trash cans. Historically, these are issues which have been known to cause roommate trouble. We’ll just have to play the rest by ear.

I move down to the college apartment on Sunday and school starts Monday. Wish me luck!

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Logistics: Which School? and Full-time or Part-time Student?

Okay, so I finally had my husband on board with the idea of going back to school to get my master’s degree. It was making financial sense to him now and would return his goal-driven wife to her former state happiness. (I’m no saint. I can admit I was not the most fun I’ve ever been to live with during those couple of rough years, but who would be?) Now we just had to figure out how to “work this”. It’s seemed practical to start by choosing a school.

WHICH SCHOOL TO CHOOSE?

Of course there are many variables to consider when choosing a college, so it’s time for another LIST! Make a prioritized list of what is important to you when choosing a school and use it to narrow down your choices. Since I’m really happy with where I’m living and my husband’s job is here, it only made sense to find a school close to my home. Location was my first priority. Of the 6 schools close by, only two offered the Master’s program I wanted: Western Carolina University (WCU) and Appalachian State. 

Catamount Athletic Logo

Catamount Athletic Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Appalachian State University

Appalachian State University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Both schools offered a quality program in a price range that would result in a good return on investment. (I decided I didn’t want to spend more on my education than I would earn in one year with my new career.) After spending hours reading information on each schools’ website, I came to the conclusion that Western was not only 35 minutes closer (saving time and money involved in commuting), but had a slightly shorter program and would cost a little less in the long run.

 A lot of people apply to multiple schools, which is fine if you are willing to be flexible. I was more concerned about time for completion and money overall. You also have to pay a separate application fee for each school and money was a little tight at the time. By applying to only one school I was taking a pretty high risk. The program is very competitive (approximately 200 applicants for 30 positions) and there was the chance I wouldn’t be accepted, resulting in another YEAR before I’d be able to apply again. Something in my gut just told me it was the right choice. There are dozens of articles out there with advice on how to pick a school, here’s a couple of articles that might be useful to you in making your decision:

 http://www.npr.org/2010/12/08/7506102/how-to-choose-a-college-that-s-right-for-you

http://www.a2zcolleges.com/adm/schoolselect.htm

FULL-TIME OR PART-TIME?

I made the discovery that the longer it would take to get through my education, the more expensive it would be overall. That may sound obvious, but I was initially toying with the idea of going back part-time and continuing to work part-time. I could pay for some of my education out of my part-time job money and have a smaller student loan. Then I realized that as a part-time student, it would cost an extra 2 years and $4,500 before I could start making money in my new career. I also had to consider the “cost” of dividing my attention between work and school. Upon graduation my school loan might have been less sizeable, but would I really have been able to immerse myself in my studies and do my best? Would I get my money’s worth? This wasn’t undergrad work, filled with a mix of the “core” classes and major’s work. I really need to MASTER the content of these courses if I intend to be an awesome practitioner. (Maybe that’s why it’s called a “master’s degree”?)

It turns out that I didn’t need to worry about this part of my decision anyhow. Reading through the departmental handbook, I discovered that they don’t offer this Master’s degree as a part-time student. They require attendees to be full-time students for the very reasons that had concerned me about part-time school/part-time work  in the first place. Lesson learned: Read the requirements of your program BEFORE agonizing over a non-existent option.

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