Adults who decide to enter or return to university are no longer a rarity and some of the challenges they face balancing work and family life with the student experience are well-documented and anticipated. Once you are ‘in’, the vast majority of institutions have found ways of making life easier through flexible course timings, onsite childcare and – occasionally – constructive relationships with employers. The challenge is to get ‘in’ in the first place. Course entry requirements are often still written with the traditional, non-working, home-national student in mind so, how can you improve your chances?
Change of country
If you want to study in a country other than the one where you last studied, make sure you are aware of what a ‘usual’ student will have studied in order to gain entry. You may well have a higher level of attainment in some areas but if whole subject areas are missing, you may need a short course first.
Most universities look favourably upon people who speak more than one language well but if you are really good, do remember to let them know in your covering letter that this is your second/third/fourth language – and write that letter yourself so it is a reflection of your skill. Your knowledge of the language in which the course is taught must meet the requirements set by the university both for your sake and for the sake of all the other students but, as there is widespread scepticism about how test scores translate into real university environments, there is no harm in demonstrating your ability. Make sure your language is formal but current. Recent requests in my inbox included ‘Dear Esteemed SIr or Madame’ and ‘Tks 4 perusing attached’. Neither, I am sad to say, really made me think that the writer was perfect for the programme they had in mind.
Different or old qualifications
It is useful to remember two things: human beings read applications and there is that lovely word ‘normally’.
The human who reads your application may have several hundred to process in a very short length of time. Whatever you do in your form-filling and covering letter, keep it clear, concise and relevant.
In most institutions, the officer will have a checklist of the advertised criteria and, if you do not fit the boxes, you need to have some method of showing why you need special or more senior attention. For example, if you want a Masters and did a Bachelors degree years ago with only average grades but you have since been working in a prestigious R&D department as a hands-on developer, try writing “See ‘Research completed’ section of letter” in the grades section of the form. Or, if it is to your advantage, highlight the age of the qualification e.g. “1970s Pass” if “Pass” was then the best that could be achieved.
Athird reason for failing the reader’s standard checklist test is that you are ‘overqualified’. If you have a PhD but want a Masters in a separate discipline or if you already have a Masters but want more knowledge in a related area, in some countries – especially the UK – you can face real problems. This is partly the result of government widening participation agendas that wants more people to engage in higher education, not just the academic few doing more studying. It can also be a case of subjects being so close in content that people genuinely cannot see what you would gain apart from more ‘academic wallpaper’. In both cases, your covering letter needs to make a clear statement that you know you are not a standard-entry student but the reason you want this qualification is that… . Reasons may include a forced change of career, your professional body requiring precise subject matter, a change in your own interests, a need for knowledge in two separate areas in order to follow a career in a third area, etc.
Then, there is that lovely word ‘normally’ that was covered in ‘Admissions normally‘. If you wish to be an exception, think about whether or not admitting you to the class will cause problems for the staff and other students. Be honest with yourself and then consider how you would deal with the problems if you were the class or admissions tutor. If you would find it difficult to have you in the class, why should a stranger find it any easier? What can you say or do to counter the arguments and can you put this in a positive light in your covering letter? For example, “Since traditional students will all have studied micro and macro economics before enrolling on this programme, I have been taking an evening class with Prof X at institution Y to ensure I have a similar knowledge.”
So, be realistic and think about the pressures in the admissions department where you are applying. Be clear in your own mind about why you want the course and make life easy for the admissions officer by showing how you meet the criteria – but be concise and show your writing skills are up to the right entry level.