Friday, September 12, 2014

Best Practices for Switching Fields of Study

By Yixin Zhao
MA Candidate, Columbia University

If you were on an admissions committee, what do you think your expectation would be of a student who majored in a field different than the one they are applying for? What would be your concerns? Sometimes it can be a good thing to change your career focus and put yourself back on the right track. As someone who has witnessed many successful career changes, I have a few best practices to share with you.

Applying to a program in another field can be very challenging. That said, it is not something you should feel frightened about. Many American students know they have opportunities to change their major in graduate school. As long as you prepare for the change and make most of your work experience to match the program to which you are applying, you might earn the chance at a new start in your desired field.

Prepare Early
A friend of mine, Sandra, is currently pursuing a statistics master's degree at Columbia University, when her major in undergraduate was English. But, she also studied economics as her minor, and during her junior year, she interned at a private bank in Beijing. These experiences undeniably helped her chances of standing out. If you set your mind to change your major as early as possible, then it gives you more time to prepare. Before that happens, you need to be clear about the experiences you already have, and what gaps you will need to fill to get into the program you want. Then, take the time to make up that difference by taking relevant courses, finding internships, volunteering, or participating in any other activities to help you gain more knowledge and experience in your area of interest.

Do Not Overlook GPA and Language Tests
You may feel worried about transitioning from your old major to one you are less familiar with, but focusing on application materials such as GPA and language tests can greatly improve your chances. Another friend of mine, Jacob, made the switch from archaeology to architecture, which are two very different fields. He didn't have a lot of relevant experience in architecture, but had a strong academic record. With a compelling explanation explaining his motivation to change careers, he was admitted to the University of California, Berkeley, as a master’s student. So, to prove that you can succeed in graduate school, your GPA and language tests play an important role in your application.

Your Personal Statement Plays a Significant Role
Not only should you illustrate why you are a good candidate in general, but you should provide good reasons for why you are motivated to change your major. This could be a tricky to phrase, but as long as you are honest about your decision and eloquently defend it, then this could be a great advantage.

You will also need to make a persuasive case matching your experience to the program to which you are applying. Do not invent or exaggerate facts, but think critically about your interests, career goals, and what you have done in the past that could help you with the transition into a new field. For example, a friend of mine who got into the instructional technology and design program at Teachers College, Columbia University, emphasized her work experience in an educational technology nonprofit organization and her language programming skills in her personal statement. She said that stressing her related experience helped her lot in standing out from the competition.

All in all, keep the admissions committee’s perspective in mind, take advantage of your past experiences to navigate your way, and always be true to yourself.
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Yixin Zhao
Yixin Zhao is a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is majoring in Communication and Education and previously studied Communication in Beijing Jiaotong University. In the pursuit of becoming a storyteller in the media industry, she is currently an intern for the SinoVision English Channel.

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