How to clear the hiatus hurdles, including reference letters, prerequisites and admissions tests.

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Students return to school to obtain a grad degree for a variety of reasons, says Andrea Martin, assistant director in the Master of Environmental Studies program at The Evergreen State College in Olympia.

“Some of our students have found themselves hitting a ceiling professionally without a master’s degree, so they’re coming back to school after a number of years to be more competitive for management and supervisory roles,” Martin says.

“Others have a change in academic and professional interest, and want to learn more about how they can be involved in solutions to environmental problems.”

Perhaps students have prioritized family commitments, and are ready to take on a degree program now that the kids are older.

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Thinking of going back to school? Visit the Advance Course special section for a useful mix of motivation and information for adults who want to continue their education toward a certificate, master’s or doctoral degree.

Life experiences can also reveal a new path. Perhaps someone didn’t know what a school psychologist was until their children were assessed, says Janet Shandley, director of graduate admissions at Seattle University. “Maybe they recognized they have a knack for something, and people keep asking, ‘Why aren’t you a counselor?’ It’s a natural ability, and more friends and family are coming to them with issues.”

But graduate applicants returning to school after a long hiatus can get tripped up by a number of difficulties.

Letters of reference

Letters of academic reference can befuddle student applicants — particularly if they’ve been out of school for a decade and lack academic contacts. Programs often work with students to accommodate this difficulty; for example, the Evergreen MES program only requires an academic reference if the applicant graduated in the past two years. Letters from supervisors, co-workers and mentors are acceptable options, Martin says.

But sometimes, applicants choose an inappropriate reference, Shandley says. For example, those applying for a master’s program in counseling shouldn’t ask their therapist to write a letter of a recommendation. Applicants might ask themselves: “Is this a personal or professional reference?”

Don’t leave this task for the last minute. Finding out that a reference is out of the country or on medical leave can cause a frantic scramble for a replacement, Shandley says: “Before putting a person’s name and contact information down, make sure they’re available and ready to serve in that role.”

Prerequisites and planning

Students hoping to return to school after an extended break or planning to switch fields face a few extra hurdles. Some programs have mandatory prerequisites, such as coursework or professional experience.

“Students in our nursing immersion program have an undergraduate degree in something else, so they’re needing to satisfy science and other prerequisites before starting the program,” Shandley says. She suggests taking these foundation courses at a community college.

“Community college classes are fairly low-risk. [It’s] a place to establish academic credentials and doesn’t cost as much in that environment,” Shandley says. Students can build up confidence and potentially, an improved GPA.

“Applicants who haven’t been in school or in a related job will need to do some more planning to make sure they can take the classes they need to be prepared to succeed, and may ultimately take longer to apply,” Martin says.

Students lacking professional experience might gain it through volunteering at a relevant organization, Martin suggests. For example, signing up for shifts with an environmental nonprofit if applying for an environmental-science program.

“It can help the admissions committee see that your interest in this area of study isn’t brand new,” she says.

But there’s some flexibility too, she says – it’s up to the applicant to make a compelling case regarding their experience’s relevance to the program. “I think someone who has been caring for family members has a lot of relevant experience to add to a learning community,” Martin says.

Tests and acceptance

GRE, GMAT and other standardized tests required for admission can cause incredible anxiety, according to Shandley. “It can be a major hurdle that prevents them from starting a graduate degree.”

She recommends a prep course to build skills, and taking sample tests to get past any fears.

Meet with an admissions counselor to boost your application’s chance of success, Martin suggests, and ask trusted friends, colleagues and mentors to read over your statement of purpose and personal essay for feedback and edits. Start early, Shandley says, as an essay might not flow as easily as a memo.

“There are correlations between people who are willing to make their way through the necessary steps and those who can stick through the whole degree,” Shandley says — the grit it takes to complete a degree.