Journalism Grad School: 16 Tips for Picking the Right Program, Applying & Getting Accepted

By Leigh Anne TiffanyCMM correspondent

To kick off the final full day of the 2014 ACP/CMA National College Media Convention, a pair of journalism graduate school admissions gurus from New York City universities provided students with the inside scoop on the j-grad program admissions process.

The speakers for the convention session, titled “Graduate School Admissions 101”: Diane Nguyen, the assistant director of admission at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism; and Maximo Patiño, the associate director of admissions for the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Journalism.

As the teaser description for their session confirmed, the talk delved into “the graduate school search, admissions and financial aid processes; how admissions staff and faculty evaluate an application; and how you can prepare [an application] file that stands out from the rest.”

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Maximo Patiño (left) is the associate director of admissions for the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Journalism. Diane Nguyen is the assistant director of admission at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Below is a sampling of the advice they shared.

Best Fit for You. Journalism graduate programs are not carbon copies of each other — especially when it comes to coursework and academic-professional balance. Some programs are more foundational, general and theoretical while others offer specific concentration options (like, say, data journalism or business reporting) and are geared more toward professional work. So be sure to check out the specifics of each program’s curricular set-up — from course descriptions and the length of the program overall to the types of students it seems to be catered toward (such as beginning journos, mid-career professionals, future professors, those working full-time looking for evening courses, etc.). Nguyen advises first and foremost to look for a program that is the best fit for you, even above one in a desired geographic area or media market.

1Search for Specialty Degrees. Certain programs will offer more focused, selective degrees centered on specific areas of the journalism field or meshing journalism with another discipline. For example, Patiño mentioned the CUNY Entrepreneurial Journalism program, in which students create their own start-ups and pitch them for real-world funding. Nguyen separately spoke about the dual-degree programs offered at Columbia that combine journalism with areas including business, computer science, religion and the law.

The Professional Angle. Both speakers stressed the importance of evaluating the opportunities programs offer for professional growth and résumé-building. From speaker series to internships, j-programs will showcase a range of potential networking options you can utilize in your post-grad job hunt. For his part, Patiño spoke about the career services program at CUNY, which guarantees applicable students a paid summer internship and contacts for possible jobs after grad school.

1Location, Location, Location. Beyond the campus tour, make sure you check out the area you will be living, studying and working in. Among the questions to ask yourself: Does it feel like home? Can I afford it? And is it a good base for networking and work opportunities?

Like a Full-Time Job. Due to extensive out-of-class reporting projects and other requirements, many journalism grad programs do not allow or encourage their students to work while they are enrolled in courses. For example, Nguyen said Columbia does not offer any graduate assistantships or teaching assistantships for journalism grad students because the program is full-time. She also dissuades students from pursuing outside jobs. In her words, “It is really intense. … It’s like a full-time job, but you come out as a hard-news reporter with excellent skills in writing and reporting.”

Shoot for Outside Sources of Financial Aid. Since your ability to work may be limited due to program requirements or scheduling issues — and the cost of living in many spots where j-grad programs are located is high — tuition and financial aid are definitely factors to consider when selecting a school. Nguyen also suggested seeking out outside scholarships for funding help, since many schools like Columbia only offer so much in need and merit-based aid.

Demonstrate the Passion. At CUNY, a little less than half of the current j-grad student class had no journalism background when applying to the school. Patiño said the key for those types of students when applying is to “demonstrate the passion.” As he put it, “If you’re a sociology major, what is drawing you to journalism? Why is this a career choice you think you want to make?” Nguyen agreed. She said that while Columbia does not require applicants to have studied a certain major as an undergrad, it does help for those outside the journalism realm to emphasize how the skills they have picked up in school or through their jobs might assist or inform their journalism work.

Know the Admissions Requirements. Each program sports a different set of requirements for admission and boasts different deadlines for separate parts of the application process. For example, while both Columbia and CUNY are GRE-optional, CUNY requires an interview while Columbia does not.

Start Your Application Early. Nguyen advises students to finish their applications sooner rather than later, in part so that other people — such as a professor-mentor or a friend — can read things over and offer their critiques.

Writing Sample Selection. One tip Patiño passed along in respect to the writing samples required or encouraged for many applications: If you can, avoid editorial pieces. He said articles involving interviews and investigative reporting are better suited to show you have the skills necessary to handle the workload of a graduate-level reporting class.

Someone Who Can Speak to Your Character. Patiño said a reference letter should be written by someone who can speak to the core of who you are — stressing that was much more important to him than simply having one written on your behalf by a well-known journalist. As he explained, “We’re not really looking for the title. Don’t feel that because you know somebody that barely knows you at The New York Times that we’re going to take that and let it be more impressive than your manager you’ve been working for at Dunkin Donuts for the past four years who can really speak to your character, speak to your person.”

Read the News Every Day. Both Columbia and CUNY have mandatory writing exams centered on national and international current events — structured to be like deadline-driven reporting assignments. Nguyen said the best way to prepare for the test is to simply read the news every day and remain familiar with what’s going on throughout the world. She added it is not a fact-based test on dates and events, but a general test with no real right or wrong answers.

Personal Statement as Marketing Tool. According to Patiño, a personal statement should serve as a marketing tool to show who you are — both personally and in respect to your career goals — in ways that are simply not possible on the fill-in portion of an application. As he put it, “It’s kind of a process of self-discovery writing this personal statement. … You’re going to fine-tune the moments, whether it’s a class, a professor, something you heard that triggered that interest that you want to go into a field where you’re going to supply information, communicate to the public, have the power to change things.”

Capstone Confusion A-OK. You do not need to start a j-grad program knowing what kind of capstone project or thesis you want to complete. While some more specialized programs may require a distinct area for your final project, most general journalism programs are designed to help you figure out what you would like to do along the way, in part through reporter-editor-style tête-à-têtes with your professors and advisers.

Application Essentials. Bottom line, what makes an application stand out? Nguyen mentioned three key qualities she looks for in applicants: strong writing, critical analysis skills and a motivation to pursue journalism. In her words, “I’ve actually read some applications where some said, ‘I just want to blog’ or ‘I don’t know if I really want to do journalism.’ That’s obviously a no.” Patiño also stressed, “A buzzword you’ll hear when you’re looking at applications [is] holistic. It really means we’re going to look at the entire picture. It’s a three-dimensional look that we want to see of the applicant.”

Go to Grad School Now, or Later. You do not need to jump to j-grad school directly out of college. There are many degrees available which are designed for working journalists or those in mid-career mode who are looking for a change or leap up the ladder. So pursuing a j-grad degree is always something that can remain on your radar until you’re ready to dive in.

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