Jane F. deLeon, RN, MSN, considered herself a typical undergraduate nursing student. “When I was getting my bachelor’s degree, I wanted to finish up and find a job,” she recalls. “I thought I would never want to go back to school.”
Why, then, is she now a third-year doctoral student at the University of California at San Francisco? “After three or four years of nursing, I realized that there were problems in the field that I wanted to solve,” deLeon, who is Hispanic, explains. “I felt the only way I could change anything was to earn a graduate degree.”
Advanced degrees can definitely open doors for nurses who want to advance the profession of nursing. Post-graduate study can be a gateway to academia, research, advanced practice and hospital management. As more minority nurses earn graduate degrees, their voice in health care policy-making and minority health advocacy grows stronger.
Whether you’ve worked for a few years like deLeon or are just entering the senior year of your BSN program, graduate schools around the country are eager to talk to you.
Before you can apply to a graduate-level nursing program, you have to choose a school that best fits your particular interests and career goals. While this may sound simplistic, too many graduate students don’t devote enough time to this important first step, often selecting a university based solely on geographic location. An important factor to keep in mind when researching schools is where you want your graduate degree to take you in the field of nursing.
“The biggest mistake students make when choosing schools is not researching the full scope of the nursing profession,” says Ruth Johnson, RN, EdD, FAAN, professor and chair of the Department of Nursing at South Carolina State University, a historically black school. “They still view it as a profession where the only option is to work in hospitals.
“Today, nurses can work in any venue we desire: research, education, government,” continues Johnson, a former director of the Council of Baccalaureate and Higher Degree Programs for the National League of Nursing. “We can travel or even open our own practice with other health care professionals.”
Similarly, too few students considering graduate school have solid long-term goals for their nursing career, believes Kem Louie, RN, PhD, FAAN, an associate professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey and president of the Asian American/Pacific Islander Nurses Association.
“First, you must identify what your career goals are and what type of advanced practice you are interested in,” Louie advises. “Talk to other nurses already working in those areas to find out more about your choices.”
Other nursing educators agree. “The bottom line in choosing a graduate school is knowing what kind of education you want to receive,” says Karin Jones, RN, PhD, who is assistant dean at Grambling State University in Louisiana, another historically black university. “If, down the road, you want to be in research, you should go to a campus where there is extensive research. If you are interested in teaching, you should choose a program with an emphasis on education.”
How do you find out what a particular nursing school’s emphasis is? The best way is to learn about its professors.
“Look at the faculty,” recommends Cornelia P. Porter, RN, PhD, FAAN, director of the Ethnic Minority Fellowship Program of the American Nurses Association. “Make certain that there is at least one faculty member with the same research focus as yours or who has similar interests.”
When evaluating a graduate school’s academic focus, Porter suggests that nurses “not only examine the faculty, but also the productivity of the faculty. Are they actively engaged in research or publishing?” The number of grants funded to nursing faculty and the professional journals in which faculty members have been published can help you determine this.
If you’re looking for a career in teaching, check the credentials of the faculty. “If a university is strong in teaching, many of the faculty members will have doctorates in education,” Jones says. “Also, the curriculum will include courses in testing and evaluation.”
Of course, you can only attend one graduate school at a time, but that doesn’t mean you should apply to only one. Graduate school admissions can be highly competitive, so apply to at least two or three schools. But if you really have your heart set on one particular program, you may want to buck this traditional trend. After researching what was available in her area of interest—attracting more minorities into nursing—deLeon was so excited about the UCSF program that she did not apply anywhere else.
“UCSF was the right place at the right time,” says deLeon. “I had no doubt that this was the only school for me.” She has since narrowed her focus to cardiovascular disease and Hispanic women.
Finally, Jones reminds students not to overlook the obvious in their quest for the perfect graduate nursing program. Make sure it’s accredited by the National League for Nursing (NLN) and/or the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). You may also want to check out where former alumni are now. Are any of them national leaders in nursing? How many have risen to the top of their specialties?
Looking for a graduate school that is the perfect fit raises many questions for the minority nursing student. Do you want to pursue your graduate degree at a historically minority university where you will be surrounded by students who share your same racial or ethnic background? Should you attend a majority school where you could turn out to be the only person of color in your class? And more generally, do you prefer a large school or a small one?
“Students have to decide what type of environment would make them feel most comfortable,” Jones notes. “Then, they need to look at the other students on campus. Do they come from big cities or small towns? Above all, do you feel that this a place where you can learn?”
While Porter, who is African American, feels that finding a graduate school with a diverse student population can be important, she stresses that such considerations shouldn’t interfere with obtaining the best education possible.
“Sometimes, [minorities] suffer from the ‘one alone’ syndrome,” she explains. “I think it’s nice if you can see people on campus who look like you, but that shouldn’t be a major factor in your decision.”
She offers this advice for minority students who choose to attend a majority school: “If you are going to be one alone, you need to make sure you find support networks, both on campus and in the community, to help you through the tough and lonely times.”
To increase your chances of finding that support, examine the university’s commitment to diversity—not just in words, but in actions. Graduate program guidebooks and university Web sites can provide helpful statistical information on the racial and ethnic make-up of a school’s student population.
But looking at the percentage of minority students at a given school is just the beginning. Examine what the university is doing to promote multiculturalism and diversity on campus. Do they have diversity days? Do they sponsor workshops? How is diversity reflected in the curriculum? Is the faculty varied in its ethnic and racial background?
After earning her MSN from the University of Utah, deLeon accepted a teaching position there, and for 10 years she was the nursing program’s only minority faculty member. Today, she appreciates the diversity offered at UCSF, citing the opportunities to interact not only with other Hispanic students but also with classmates and colleagues from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. “I love to meet people from different countries and learn about nursing in other parts of the world,” she says.
Taking a campus tour helped deLeon realize that UCSF offered the highly diverse learning environment she was looking for. “It’s important to visit the school,” she advises. “Take a look at the campus. Meet the faculty. Are they going to be supportive? Will there be opportunities for you to expand and interact with more than just nursing students?”
Many schools will offset the cost of campus visits for prospective students. UCSF, for example, is one of several colleges throughout the country that offer two-week on-campus courses in applying for graduate school.
Dr. Maria Warda, RN, assistant dean of UCSF’s nursing program, agrees that faculty support plays a vital role in helping students make the most of their graduate school experience. She suggests that students look at faculty availability when considering where to apply. An active mentorship program, backed by strong faculty commitment, can greatly improve a student’s chances of succeeding.
Should graduate students of color specifically seek out minority mentors? Not necessarily, says Warda. “If the mentor and student are members of the same racial or ethnic group, that would be ideal, but it’s not necessary. It’s more important to look at the faculty’s dedication to helping students succeed.”
Look for mentorship committees, Warda advises. Meet with faculty members and assess their availability and their attitude toward students.
“Meet with students who are currently in the program,” adds Jones. “Get the inside story on the type of interaction, assistance and support you will receive.”
Choosing the graduate nursing program that’s right for you is only half the battle. Now you have to face the next hurdle: applying to your top-choice schools…and getting your application accepted.
Applying to graduate school can be a complex process. The application package varies by university, but most graduate programs require a goal statement (also known as a personal mission statement), GRE scores, references (at least three), evidence of community service, undergraduate transcripts and listings of honors and awards.
After spending so much time and research to find your ideal graduate school, how can you make sure you’ll actually get in? By knowing what graduate admission committees are looking for and by following these simple dos and don’ts, you’ll maximize your chances of being accepted by the program you really want.
Put It in Writing
Graduate school admission decisions are almost always paper-based. The committee that makes the decision to accept or decline your application will never meet you in person or talk with you directly. Therefore, your written goal statement may be your only chance to sell yourself.
“Most institutions cannot interview candidates in person, because of the volume of applications they receive. The only way an applicant can communicate to the admissions committee is through the goal statement,” explains Maria Warda, RN, PhD, assistant dean of the graduate nursing program at the University of California at San Francisco. She is one of many academic professionals who believe that most students fail to take full advantage of the opportunities inherent in their goal statement. Here are some of Warda’s recommendations on writing a standout mission statement:
DO be specific. “The goal statement should explain any unique aspect of the student’s background. It should help the screening committee be able to determine if the student is applying for a particular nursing specialty,” Warda advises. “Be sure to let the committee know why you have chosen that particular specialty. Demonstrate your knowledge in that area and show us how you intend to use your education when you graduate from the program.”
DON’T get too personal. Many would-be grad students make the mistake of rambling on about their personal lives for two pages without ever touching on their professional goals or career interests.
DO ask for feedback. To make sure your goal statement is on track, ask your mentor or a trusted faculty member to review it. It’s especially helpful to have your statement critiqued by someone who knows what your target school will be looking for.
Once Jane deLeon decided to apply to the doctoral program at UCSF, her colleagues and friends began referring her to people with connections to that school—a friend who had just been accepted, a relative who had earned a doctorate there, etc. “I didn’t know these people very well,” she says, “but I emailed them and asked if they would read my goal statement. I asked them to be honest and I used their feedback to improve my statement.”
Letting Others Speak For You
Letters of reference are a crucial part of your graduate school application. Most graduate applications require at least three references and may accept more. Some schools require reference letters to be included as part of your application packet, while others want letters mailed directly to the school or provide reference forms to be completed. Keep these tips in mind when preparing your references:
DON’T be “damned by faint praise.” “Many applicants don’t realize that graduate references must be strong,” Warda emphasizes. “They cannot be lukewarm.”
A reference that says you have great leadership potential won’t be enough to impress most schools. Instead, says Warda, your references should give concrete examples and details about how you have used your leadership skills. In other words, your references need to make the committee feel as though they will be missing out on someone special if they don’t accept you.
DO choose references who know you. “Many nurses think, ‘I have to find impressive people,’” says deLeon. “But it’s better to find people who know you and recognize the strengths you can bring to graduate school.”
Adds Karin Jones, RN, PhD, assistant dean at Grambling State University, “If your [undergraduate] school has a mentoring program, you should seek out a mentor who can serve as a reference because they know you both professionally and personally. Choose a clinical area where you excelled and find a faculty member who can comment on how well you did.”
DON’T wait till the last minute. “Most undergraduate seniors who are applying to grad school wait until the end of the year and try to get all their references at once,” says Jones. “I advise students to collect references as they go.”
DO capitalize on “big name” references if you have them. “If you are applying to a graduate program at a top university, one letter of reference from a faculty member who is recognized nationally is good to include,” Warda recommends. “Screening committees do respond to names they know.”
Presenting Your Grades
While a high GPA may seem like the most important factor to the would-be graduate student, it’s certainly not the only aspect looked at during the selection process, experts say.
“When a student’s application package is reviewed, it is reviewed in its totality,” explains Cornelia Porter, RN, PhD, FAAN, director of the American Nurses Association’s Ethnic Minority Fellowship Program. “Grades are just one item. GRE scores, a goal statement, awards and honors—all of the factors become one package. One thing is not singled out over another.” Therefore:
DON’T count yourself out if your grades aren’t stellar. Graduate schools require a minimum GPA of 2.8 (out of 4.0), and most require a 3.0 average. But while higher GPAs make you more competitive, lower ones do not necessarily rule you out.
“Even if the applicant does not have a great GPA, there may be strong indicators in other areas that the student is able to be successful,” says Porter. “If that’s the case, the grades alone wouldn’t rule you out. If the committee feels you have potential, they may admit you on a probationary status. Schools have lots of ways to work with somebody if they want to give that student a chance.”
DO prepare thoroughly for your GRE. Many students fret over how well they will perform on the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations), a standardized test required for admission to almost all graduate schools in every field. A combined score of 1,000 is considered competitive at top universities. Certain minimum lower scores are required at second-tier schools.
DeLeon not only studied a GRE review book and but also paid for a class on how to take the exam. She feels it was money well spent. The GRE Web site (www.gre.org) is another helpful resource.
Applications are usually due in the fall or the spring before the semester in which you plan to start your program. If you have already decided on a school and are ready to start applying now, the time frame may be a little tight, but you could still meet the deadline for spring 2002. Kem Louie, RN, PhD, who teaches at William Paterson University, recommends that you begin planning for the application process at least six months in advance.
Here’s a 12-month guideline for a fall due date. Of course, you can adjust this calendar depending on the actual month your application is due.
September—Finalize your decision about what you want to accomplish with your graduate studies. Begin a notebook of possible thoughts to be included in your goal statement. Keep working on this throughout the year. Also begin to think about people who could write letters of recommendation for you.
October—Begin researching schools and select 10 that match your interests.
November—Talk to your current undergraduate faculty about your goals and the schools you have selected.
December—Figure out how much money you will need and begin to look at possible sources for scholarships and financial aid. Find out the spring GRE schedule and get a review book to help you prepare for the exam. Also look into attending a GRE workshop to help you get the best
January—Contact your target schools for information. Ask to speak to faculty members in your area of interest. Request catalogs, admissions forms and financial aid information. Ask specific questions that will help you determine if the school is a good fit for your comfort zone. Reserve a slot for your preferred GRE testing date.
February—Narrow your choices down to three to five schools. Plan campus visits.
March—Contact organizations and companies connected with your chosen specialty (such as hospitals) to see if they offer scholarships or financial aid opportunities.
April—Choose your three references and talk to them about your goals and the areas you see as your strengths.
May—Finalize your goal statement and begin to seek feedback on it.
June, July, August—Make campus visits. Evaluate the nursing program, the campus and housing and employment opportunities.
September—Finalize and submit your application packet. Submit scholarship forms and applications for graduate assistantships.
Here are some resources to get you started on your road to graduate school. Most of them should be available at your campus library or local public library.
The National League of Nursing’s Official Guide to Graduate Nursing Schools. Published by Jones and Bartlett.
Nursing Programs: Peterson’s Guide to Nursing Programs. Published by Peterson’s Guides.
Guide to Undergraduate and Graduate Health Programs in the USA. Published by Education International Publishing.
NLN’s Guide to Scholarships and Loans for Nursing Education. Published by Jones and Bartlett.