Prep Yourself!

You’ve decided to go back to school. Now what?
By RYAN STEWART  |  October 14, 2009

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So the economy sucks, you’re in a miserable rut at work, and you’re not getting any younger. What are you going to do about it? For many, the answer is to go back to school, whether it’s grad school, law school, med school, or a certification program.

I had a moment like that around this time last year. Things were looking bad for the media industry — they still don’t look great — and with my 30th birthday coming at me much sooner than I’d like to acknowledge, I figured it might be a good time to consider my options. Which is why I’m now waist-deep in my first semester working toward a master’s degree in education, a field I’ve always wanted to get involved in, and that people who know me have suggested I’d be good at.

Returning to school is not as simple as putting your mind to it and showing up. For starters, it’s not cheap. Some would-be students have to significantly rearrange their lives; some even have to relocate. And the act of applying itself can be fairly daunting.

But for me, the biggest adjustment has been from a mental standpoint — it’s difficult to reacclimatize to the classroom environment, as opposed to the routine of a 40-hour work week. Intimidating as it can be, the experience has been a rewarding one. Hopefully by sharing, I can help some of those on the fence.

Getting in
The idea of school felt like such a drastic step that I put off the application process for as long as possible. I had a number of concerns: would I be able to get in anywhere? Would schools frown on the fact that I had been working in a not-really-related field since college? Would it be a problem that I hadn’t kept any of my academic work from my undergrad days? And how would I get recommendations from professors I hadn’t spoken with in more than five years?

I was least concerned about the GRE. Not to sound boastful — and I definitely don’t intend this to come across as an endorsement for their validity as an evaluative tool — but I’ve performed reasonably well on standardized exams in the past. Still, this exam proved no gimme: the math section tripped me up. (Understand: I haven’t taken a math class in more than 10 years. I tested out of the math requirement at Emerson, where I did my undergraduate studies in writing, literature, and publishing.) So I needed to hit the books to get to the level of competence in the areas of percentages, geometry, and basic algebra.

I spent a good amount of time studying with a Kaplan GRE Math Workbook (as opposed to the general test-prep book), and found that my score improved when I took the test again. Prospective GRE-takers should do the same if they’re rusty on either their verbal or math skills, even if they’re feeling reasonably confident.

There wasn’t much I could do about my résumé or my transcript. I didn’t think it would be too big of a deal; I’d never exactly worked in a school, or with high-school students before, but I was working in a field related to English.

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