Non Degree Student Status: The Back Door into Graduate School

by Lea Barton

Graduate SchoolMany prospective graduate students think that applying to graduate school is an all-or-nothing prospect: you apply and get in, or you’re rejected. Applying to graduate school can seem daunting: requesting transcripts, writing a personal statement, taking the GREs or MATs or GMATs, and requesting letters of recommendation are all complex parts of the application process. Many schools, however, have a third way: the non-degree or non-matriculating student status.


How it Works: You apply as a “special student”, “non-degree student” or “non-matriculating student” (the terms vary from institution to institution). The application is generally short – one to two pages – and acceptance is often simple and straightforward, as long as you have a bachelor’s degree. Schools rarely request transcripts or personal statements, as you are not applying for full admission. You are then permitted to register for graduate level courses. Should you later decide to apply as a degree student to complete a master’s or doctorate, six (or more) credit hours taken as a non-degree student can be applied to your degree.

A Strategic Move: If you’ve been away from college for a long time, this is a way to test the waters of graduate school, but also to prove your abilities to professors, allowing you to ask them for letters of recommendation when applying for degree status. If you completed your B.A. in 1990, for instance, how many of those professors can you call upon for letters of reference for graduate school applications? Probably none, or possibly one who remembers you. By enrolling as a non-degree student and taking one or two graduate level courses, you can then ask your recent professors to write letters of recommendation that attest to your current skills and abilities.

Choose Courses Wisely: For your first course, select a topic that interests you but with which you are familiar. If you’re going to use these courses as a springboard for applying for degree status, you want to earn high grades to garner high praise from your professors. Save the more challenging classes for later, once you’re been admitted to the degree program.

Contact the Professor Beforehand: Many graduate courses have prerequisites, so contacting the professor (email or a phone call) is crucial to guarantee that you may register for the course. I recently registered as a non-degree student at the University of Massachusetts, taking a U.S. Women’s History graduate seminar. I e-mailed the professor beforehand, and she explained that only students with at least one undergraduate or graduate course in Women’s Studies were permitted, or I could do extensive reading before the first class. I had taken a Women’s Studies course back in 1991, but I also requested her reading list, and then spent four weeks studying the materials. I was admitted to the class and am currently working on a research project within the course.

However, I witnessed one student who came to class assuming he could register, but the professor regretfully, yet firmly explained her prerequisite policy, and informed him he could not join the class. Contacting the professor well in advance of the course will help you to understand the prerequisites for the course, and will also give you a chance to find creative ways to prepare for the course.

Registration Process: I was surprised to find that I could perform every bit of registration online- from contacting the professor by e-mail to enrollment. In 1991 my university was cutting-edge when they adopted telephone enrollment. I felt like quite the dinosaur when I went to the graduate school registrar to register and they referred me to the university’s administrative Website. I could have saved myself a trip and done it all from home.

Larger universities will open an account for you when you apply. They will send a username and password, and all registration is done online. At the University of Massachusetts, where I am currently enrolled as a non-degree student, even billing is done online – you print your bill and submit payment. At UMASS all university communications now go through student e-mail accounts exclusively; I had thought I could avoid installing the university’s e-mail software on my home computer, but it’s a necessary part of being a student. In short, be very aware of how your institution handles technology for administrative purposes, and keep yourself up to date.

Costs: Each institution treats non-degree students differently, in terms of financial aid policies. If you need financial aid, contact your institution. Generally schools do not require non-degree students to pay many of the activities and health fees that degree students must pay – but you also do not have access to those facilities.

The cost of tuition and fees can often be deducted on U.S. taxes, directly, as a benefit of the Life-Long Learning Credit. Check the IRS website or talk with an accountant to find out more about your specific tax situation.

A Worthwhile Venture: Whether or not you go on to degree status, taking one or two classes as a non-degree student can be an eye-opener in terms of the level of challenge a graduate program in your field demands. You might find that your work experience gives you analysis and insight into topics in class, and that the workload is easy as a result. On the other hand, you might find yourself buried in reading or turned off by what you thought would be an interesting course topic. Registering for non-degree status is low-risk: you’re not commited to a graduate program, but if you do apply at a later date, you have six credits (or more) under your belt. Testing the waters can be a win-win situation.


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