Applying to a master’s degree program can be intimidating for even the most qualified individuals. These programs are often quite selective, with a strict list of requirements applicants must fulfill in order to be considered for admission. Typically, this means meeting certain thresholds in terms of past academic performance and professional experience, as well as providing thorough documentation proving one is a good fit for graduate-level instruction. Master’s in communication programs are no exception. Many have a rigorous selection process, and prospective students will need to stand out among their fellow applicants if they hope to be accepted.
In an effort to help students navigate the application process, and maximize their chances of admission, we spoke with faculty members from some of the top master’s in communication programs in the country to get their advice on the matter. They had plenty of tips to offer, including the top qualities to demonstrate in an application, what students should address in their personal statement, and how to best go about requesting letters of recommendation. Additional advice in this article comes from a panel discussion lead by four communication professors that took place during the Graduate Student Workshop at the Western States Communication Association’s 2018 annual convention in Santa Clara, California.
Read through all the advice these professors and faculty members had to share for applying to a master’s in communication program in the sections below.
Admission Requirements for a Master’s in Communication Program
The application process and admission requirements for a master’s in communication vary by program. In order to apply, students typically must complete and submit an application form to their school of choice, along with an associated fee, if required. Many programs only accept applicants with an undergraduate GPA over a certain threshold, such as a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.75 or 3.0. Most often, students are required to send in official transcripts from all previous postsecondary institutions to show they meet this GPA requirement or any other academic prerequisites. Along with this, schools may ask for a resume detailing relevant professional experience, and possibly contact information for one or more references.
Two major components required by most master’s in communication programs are a personal goal statement and letters of recommendation. The personal statement is a chance for students to discuss their qualifications and what they hope to achieve in the program, all while demonstrating they are adequately prepared for graduate-level study. This gives the admissions committee a better understanding of each applicant’s personality and passions, and ultimately, whether or not they would make a good fit for the particular program. Additionally, the personal statement essay provides applicants with a place to discuss any potential weaknesses in other aspects of their application, for example, their GPA or standardized tests scores. In certain cases, additional writing samples may be requested. Some schools also require an in-person, phone, or Skype interview with program faculty, or even ask students to record a video interview answering specific questions about their background and goals.
Along with a personal statement, it is common for programs to require one or more letters of recommendation as part of the application package. These are typically written by past professors or employers who can vouch for the applicant’s personal qualifications and aptitude. Depending on their particular focus, some programs may prefer or even require letters of recommendation from a certain type of reference. For example, programs designed to prepare students for doctoral studies in communication typically prefer recommendations from professors who can speak to an applicant’s ability to succeed at the graduate level. Whereas applied communication programs that require several years of experience often prefer recommendations from employers who can better speak to an applicant’s current professional strengths.
While some master’s in communication programs require students to submit GRE or GMAT test scores as part of the application process, many do not. Those that include the GRE as an admission requirement may also do so on a conditional basis, only requiring test scores from students who fail to meet other admission criteria, such as the minimum GPA threshold. Additionally, some programs might allow students to apply for a GRE waiver based on their professional experience or past academic achievements (such as already possessing a graduate degree in another field).
An example of a program that requires the GRE on a conditional basis is the Master of Science in Communication Management program at the University of North Florida (UNF), which asks applicants for standardized test scores if their undergraduate GPA is below a 3.0. John Parmelee, Ph.D., Chair of the Department of Communication at UNF, explains, “We are looking for applicants with a GPA of 3.0 or higher in all work attempted in the last 60 credit hours of undergraduate study. If it’s much lower than our usual standard of 3.0, applicants will need to provide additional evidence that they are ready for graduate school.” In this case, Dr. Parmelee says, “The additional evidence is their choice of one of the following: either a GRE score of at least 153 verbal, 144 quantitative or a GMAT minimum 500 total score.”
It is important that prospective students pay close attention to all admissions criteria when researching master’s in communication programs, as different program types and specializations may have different requirements. For example, academic or research-based programs, such as master’s degrees in communication studies or interpersonal communication, often require the GRE, while applied communication programs, which focus on career-oriented specialties like technical communication and strategic communication, generally do not.
Many programs also have selective admission policies, meaning that even if students meet the requirements for admission, they may not be accepted to the program. Some might be highly competitive, and only enroll a small number of students each year, which in some cases may be as few as six to 10. That means only a small fraction of the students who submit applications will be accepted to the program, so a particularly strong personal statement or letter of recommendation could be the difference between being accepted and not getting into the program.
Advice for Applying to Master’s in Communication Programs
#1: Every Part of the Application Matters
When applying to a master’s in communication program, it is important that students place equal weight on every aspect of their application. Many of the professors we interviewed stressed that they evaluate applicants holistically, taking each component of a student’s application into careful consideration when deciding who to accept. As the Director of Graduate Study for the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Leanne Knobloch, Ph.D. explains, “We evaluate students based on their application as a whole (taking into account undergraduate grades and coursework, career goals, research experience, personal statement, writing sample, GRE scores, and letters of recommendation).” She adds, “We are looking for students who are prepared for graduate-level work and have given considerable thought to their career goals. Ideal candidates spell out in their personal statement why they are interested in our department and how their interests fit with our expertise.”
We are looking for students who are prepared for graduate-level work and have given considerable thought to their career goals. Ideal candidates spell out in their personal statement why they are interested in our department and how their interests fit with our expertise.
Professor Wendy Zajack, MBA, Faculty Director for the Master of Professional Studies in Integrated Marketing Communications and Design Management and Communications Programs in the School of Continuing Studies at Georgetown University, echoes these statements. “We holistically review applications so we like to see a combination of things from our students,” she says. These include, “1) a good undergraduate academic performance 2) excellent and relevant work experience – we like to see at least a year of working experience (or amazing internships). We have an opportunity to submit work samples – so please do! and 3) an application that really helps us understand why our IMC program is of interest to you and fits your career goals. This could include looking through our list of courses and letting us know which ones you are excited about, as well as an explanation of your career aspirations.”
To help get a better understanding of both the program itself and what admissions staff look for in applicants, Bernardo Alexander Attias, Ph.D., Graduate Coordinator for the Department of Communication Studies at California State University, Northridge, recommends students reach out to school faculty early on in the research process. “It’s a good idea to contact the Graduate Coordinator to find out more about whether this program meets your needs,’ he says. “It’s important to understand what you want out of a graduate program before you decide which ones to apply to.” When it comes time to submit an application, Dr. Attias stresses, “It should be clear from your personal statement that the coursework and program that we offer helps you advance your own personal and professional goals.”
#2: What Schools Look for in Prospective Students
Simply meeting the admission requirements for a master’s in communication program may not always be enough to secure one’s admittance. As discussed earlier, these programs often have selective admissions policies, meaning students will need to submit a noteworthy application if they hope to be accepted. Many of the faculty members we interviewed made it clear they look for well-rounded applicants, who display not only academic prowess, but an excitement about the particular program of study and where it might take their career. This is typically communicated to the selection committee through the personal goal statement and any long-form questions on the application itself, as well as through interviews with faculty members, if required during the application process. In order to stand out from the other applicants, it is important to make sure every component of one’s application demonstrates they are ready and eager to succeed in the specific master’s program they are applying to.
According to the faculty members we spoke with, here are some qualities students should be sure to demonstrate in their application:
- A passion for academic endeavors (such as any extracurricular activities)
- Maturity and collegiality
- Alignment with program goals
- Readiness for graduate school
- Intellectual curiosity, inquisitiveness (a readiness to to think, not just read and write)
- Excellent writing skills
Athena du Pré, Ph.D. has reviewed countless applications in her role as Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Communication at the University of West Florida. When it comes to choosing the ideal candidate, she says, “Our top priorities are evidence of academic or professional achievement and personal goals that would be well served by our curriculum.” Additionally, Dr. du Pré mentions her department looks for applicants who communicate well and show enthusiasm for the program. “We put a premium on good writing skills and inquisitiveness,” she adds. “Because this is an action-oriented program, we favor applicants who are interested in getting involved and being part of a team.”
Students who have a clear idea of what they want to do with their degree often make the best students and have the most success. An application that demonstrates both passion and clear goals gets noticed.
This motivation to learn and excel, both in the program and professionally, is a major factor schools look for in master’s in communication applicants. Rocky Dailey, Ed.D., Online Graduate Advisor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at South Dakota State University, explains, “We look for students ready to take the next step with their professional mass communication career, so we want highly motivated individuals who come in with some professional experience to build off of.” In their application, students should be sure to convey exactly how they plan to use what they learn in the program to further their careers after graduation. According to Dr. Dailey, “Students who have a clear idea of what they want to do with their degree often make the best students and have the most success. An application that demonstrates both passion and clear goals gets noticed.”
Meina Liu, Ph.D. is the Graduate Director for the Master of Arts in Communication Management Program at The George Washington University. She too stresses the importance of illustrating exactly how one’s goals align with that of the program. “The Graduate Studies Committee reviews applications by looking at the entire package rather than one specific aspect,” says Dr. Liu. “Our MA students come from a variety of academic backgrounds, including international affairs, economics, organizational sciences, political communication, strategic communication, mass communication, women’s studies, and so on.” No matter their particular background, Dr. Liu explains, “In general, applicants that articulate a good fit between their backgrounds/interests and what our program offers are given more serious consideration than those that write a generic essay. For example, a student who describes how the program’s course offerings may help advance his or her career goals is considered to have a stronger fit and motivation than a student seeking a career in journalism.”
Due to their often interdisciplinary nature, master’s in communication programs tend to draw applicants with a wide range of industry backgrounds. While professional experience is something selection committees consider when reviewing applications, they typically place less weight on one’s specific area of expertise, and more on what students hope to achieve through the degree program. Paula Weissman, Ph.D., Program Director for the Online MA in Strategic Communication at American University, says, “We take a holistic approach to reviewing applications. All factors, including previous academic experience, professional experience, letters of recommendation, and the personal essay are considered.” As for the ideal candidate, Dr. Weissman explains, “Some students already have substantial experience in the communications industry; others are experienced in other areas, but looking to make a career switch; and a smaller number are still quite early on in their careers. We look for strong students who have a demonstrated passion for learning more about strategic communication and clear career goals that align with our degree program.”
Above all, most master’s in communication programs are looking for students who display a passion to succeed both in and out of the classroom. This enthusiasm for learning and furthering one’s career is exactly what John McArthur, Ph.D., Director of Graduate Programs at the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, hopes to find in applicants to the school’s online Master of Arts in Communication program. “At Queens, our typical students have a passion for the study of communication as a way to advance their careers in their selected industries,” Dr. McArthur explains. “We have a diverse mix of seasoned professionals who are advancing their careers and recent undergraduates who are just starting to find their place.” In his opinion, “The optimal applicant is one who can match his or her interests to the goals of our program and demonstrates the personal motivation to succeed as an online learner. Our students are practitioners AND scholars, concerned about their own development AND the development of their classmates, and ready to learn AND be a part of a vibrant community.”
#3: Advice for Completing Your Personal Statement
One of the best ways applicants to a master’s in communication program can convey their personality, passion, and goals to the admissions committee is through their personal statement essay. This portion of the application is when students have a chance to show admissions faculty who they are as a person, and why they think they would make a good fit for the program. Transcripts and resumes only tell part of the story; schools want to know exactly what applicants hope to achieve through graduate study, as well as how these goals line up specifically with what their program has to offer. The personal statement essay is also an opportunity for students to display their writing skills, discuss any weaknesses in their qualifications, and elaborate on achievements or other elements of their background outlined elsewhere in the application.
Here are the top tips our interviewees had to offer for writing an effective and impactful personal statement essay:
- Be authentic
- Research the program
- Describe your goals
- Detail how the program will help you achieve them
- Be an excellent communicator
- Proofread carefully
- Demonstrate maturity
Before students sit down to write their personal statement essay, it is important that they have thoroughly researched the program they are applying to, and are prepared to explain exactly how the curriculum aligns with their academic and professional aspirations. Rebekah Farrugia, Ph.D., Graduate Program Director for the Department of Communication and Journalism at Oakland University, says, “We encourage students applying to our MA program to do their research and take their time when crafting their Statement of Purpose.” As for the essay itself, Dr. Farrugia stresses, “It should clearly indicate why they believe that they are a good fit for our program and how their interests and goals align with our program offerings.”
In your personal statement, tell us why you want to join our master’s program. Ours specifically, not why you want to join a master’s program.
Another faculty member we interviewed who emphasized the importance of proper research is Magdelana Red, Ph.D., who works as the Academic Director for the Master of Arts in Communication Management Program at the University of Denver’s University College. “It sounds simple, but I love to see applications that show how students see themselves contributing to and benefitting from the MA in Communication Management,” she notes. “A strong grasp of how they’ll fit into the program (or, how they’ll get the most out of it!) demonstrates that they’ve done their homework, see the unique value proposition that we provide, and are committed to making a contribution to our community.”
According to Christopher Bell, Ph.D., the Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, there are several questions students should address in their essay to show they have done the research and truly believe the program is right for them. “In your personal statement, tell us why you want to join our master’s program. Ours specifically, not why you want to join a master’s program,” he explains. “What is it about our specific program that excites you? What do you plan to study, keeping in mind that’s often going to change over the course of your time here. Whom among our professors are you looking toward working with? What are your plans for after you complete the program?” Ultimately, Dr. Bell says, “We want to know who you are, what you want to study, and why you’re choosing us. That will help us determine if we’re also choosing you.”
When it comes time to craft the statement essay, Karrin Vasby Anderson, Ph.D. from Colorado State University Fort Collins, who spoke at the Western States Communication Association’s (WSCA) 2018 annual convention, says students should be authentic and use simple declarative statements, avoiding effusive language that may read as unprofessional. Along with tailoring their personal statement to the program itself, Dr. Anderson recommends applicants highlight their professional goals and ambitions, while describing in detail how the program will help them reach these objectives. Her fellow panel member, Teresa Bergman, Ph.D., a professor at the University of the Pacific, also stressed the importance of being open and genuine in one’s goal essay, even if that means stating you are unsure about your career aspirations, but excited and open to the possibilities the program might lead to. By being as honest as possible in their personal statement, applicants can better help schools determine if they would make a good fit for the program, or ultimately be unhappy in the course of study.
Robert DeChaine, Ph.D. from California State University, Los Angeles, another speaker at the WSCA convention, emphasizes that the personal statement essay should not just be a laundry list of talents or accomplishments. Instead, he recommends applicants provide an account of their personal interests and passions, and not try to impress admissions staff with their knowledge in the field. For many schools, the way in which the essay is written is just as important as the content itself. The fourth member of the Graduate Student Workshop panel, Margaret Pitts, Ph.D., who teaches at the University of Arizona, says students should strive to be concise and display excellent communication skills in their personal statement. In particular, she likes essays that directly outline the applicant’s direction, the types of approaches they will use in the program, and who specifically (i.e. which faculty members) they hope to work with during their studies.
Of course, several of the faculty members we interviewed also recommend applicants try to make explicit connections between their professional experience and the program itself in their personal essay. For example, Judy Foster Davis, Ph.D., Chair of the Faculty Committee for the Master of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) Program at Eastern Michigan University, suggests students applying to the program “highlight their experience connecting with customers – such as any projects in which they created customer engagement by incorporating effective contact points that provide a setting for interactive communication; or created a seamless experience for customers to interact with a brand by melding elements of marketing and/or communication across various channels to act as one unified force.” In addition to this, she says, “Displaying their understanding of the importance of branding, customer relationships, public relations, and target marketing will make for a strong application.”
Graduate school is a significantly different experience from undergraduate. It requires dedication and focus. So we’re looking for students who are mature and committed to learning about human communication, have the intellectual capability for graduate-level work, and have the drive to grow into independent thinkers.
Along with detailing any relevant work experience, students should use their personal essay to demonstrate they are adequately prepared for the rigors of a master’s program. Director of Graduate Studies and a Professor in the Department of Communicology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Hye-ryeon Lee, Ph.D. offers this advice, “In our program, we look at several key things. First, we’re looking at your academic capability,” she explains. “Graduate school is a significantly different experience from undergraduate. It requires dedication and focus. So we’re looking for students who are mature and committed to learning about human communication, have the intellectual capability for graduate-level work, and have the drive to grow into independent thinkers.” As for the personal statement, Dr. Lee says, “You want to describe the experiences you have had and your achievements that can give us the confidence in your intellectual capability to handle the courses and projects.” She adds, “Our program is also quite demanding, so you need to have that ‘fire in the belly,’ meaning that you really care about what we study, and about understanding human communication processes.”
For Dr. Lee, ideal candidates for UH Manoa’s Master of Arts in Communicology program are those that exhibit a genuine enthusiasm towards learning. “Whatever you can do to show that you have that passion and that you’re not coming to our program simply because you didn’t know what to do after graduation is helpful to illustrate in your application,” she notes. “You should show us that this field is something that is intensely interesting to you, and that you are ready to give your all to try to study and understand and further your knowledge about how human communication processes work.”
Above all, students should see their personal statement essay as a chance to speak directly to the program faculty evaluating their application. “For your personal statement, use it as your opportunity to really talk to the admissions committee,” says Cylor Spaulding, Ph.D., Faculty Director for the Master of Professional Studies in Public Relations and Corporate Communications Program at Georgetown University. “Our committee meets almost every week for several hours to sit down and go through the applications that have come in at that time. We try to get a sense of each person’s experiences, goals, work ethic, and personality as represented on the page. So, put your best foot forward in your personal statement.”
Dr. Spaulding also suggests prospective students use their personal essay to address any potential weak spots in their application. “I would say even if you had a bad semester at some point in your undergraduate career, address that in your personal statement. Explain to the committee what was going on, because we really do look at students holistically,” he says. “If you don’t have that background in public relations, it’s not necessarily a deal breaker. But make a good case for yourself as to why this is what you want to do. We want to see what the end goal is.”
My best advice… edit. Second best piece of advice… edit again.
Once the personal statement is complete, students should be sure to meticulously proofread their essay multiple times to ensure there are no mistakes or omissions. “My best advice… edit. Second best piece of advice… edit again,” says Michael Strawser, Ph.D., Director of Graduate Programs for the School of Communication at Bellarmine University. “Applications with typos, spelling errors and/or mechanical/grammatical mistakes show the committee a red flag.” A strong attention to detail will not only improve the overall quality of the essay, but show admissions staff that you are taking the application seriously, and diligent about getting a spot in the program. “I am a big believer (and I hate to be cliché) in grit,” Dr. Strawser adds. “Meaning, when I read your personal statement I want to know that you are passionate about communication and will persevere through the program.”
#4: Advice on Requesting Letters of Recommendation
It is typical for a master’s in communication program to ask applicants to submit several references or letters of recommendation as part of the application process. This is so admissions staff can get a better idea of each student’s personality and work ethic from people who know them firsthand, as well as corroborate certain aspects of their academic or professional background. Positive recommendations that speak enthusiastically about an applicant’s strengths and potential, while reinforcing the qualifications outlined elsewhere in their application, can help bolster one’s chances of being accepted into their program of interest, especially if the selection process is competitive.
In most cases, these letters of recommendation come from either previous instructors or employers. Some schools might explicitly require one or the other, asking for academic references over professional ones, or vice versa. Others may prefer a certain type of reference based on the program’s focus or an applicant’s background. For example, if the person applying has been out of school for a significant period of time, a recent employer may be better able to speak to their qualifications than their last professor. On the other hand, academic or research-based master’s programs often prefer letters of recommendation from undergraduate faculty members as opposed to past employers. Students interested in applying to a master’s in communication program should reach out to admissions staff beforehand to find out which type of reference is preferred.
During the Graduate Student Workshop at WSCA, Dr. Anderson, Dr. Bergman, Dr. DeChaine and Dr. Pitts also had advice for students regarding letters of recommendation. Their advice is summarized below along with information from our faculty interviews.
To get the most effective recommendations possible, students should ask for letters from people they currently know, who can speak to the kind of person they are and work they are doing at the time of application. The faculty members we interviewed also stressed the importance of selecting references that can touch on personal qualities and refer to specifics in their reference letter, meaning they should be someone who knows the applicant well. “Good letters of recommendation from people who actually know you and your work always helps,” explains Dr. Spaulding from Georgetown University. “Generic letters of recommendation are fine, but they really don’t speak to your characteristics. So even if it’s not a professor, but it’s a supervisor or someone who knows you a little better and can actually speak to why this program is a good fit for you, and what you could bring to the program, goes a long way towards selling yourself in the application.”
I highly recommend that students form relationships with their instructors and maximize their efforts at the undergraduate level to ensure strong references when applying to MA programs.
When requesting letters of recommendation from instructors or professors, it is important for students to choose faculty members they have a close relationship with, who can address their academic prowess and potential in detail. “I highly recommend that students form relationships with their instructors and maximize their efforts at the undergraduate level to ensure strong references when applying to MA programs,” says Dr. Farrugia from Oakland University.
One way to go about this is to approach professors and tell them you are considering pursuing a master’s degree, then ask if they would be willing to have a conversation about graduate school. Tell them what you hope to achieve through your master’s studies and ask questions about different program options or the admissions process. When it comes time to ask for a letter of recommendation, they will know more about you personally and hopefully be inspired to help. Additionally, while this may not be possible for every student, if you can find professors who know faculty at the programs you are applying to, their recommendations may carry more weight, as the admissions committee will know the quality of students he or she recommends. The same goes for recommendations from professors with connections to your school or program of interest, for example, an alumnus of the program who knows exactly what it takes to succeed in that particular course of study, and can discuss why you would be a good fit.
Finally, while this may seem obvious, be sure to ask any prospective reference if they can provide you with a positive reference tailored to you specifically, not just a generic or neutral letter of recommendation. If they are unable to do so, try another instructor or faculty member.
Whether academic or professional, Kevin Meyer, Ph.D., Graduate Coordinator for the School of Communication at Illinois State University, encourages students to seek out references who have gone to graduate school themselves, and understand the importance of a strong recommendation letter. “I generally advise applicants to seek letters of recommendation from those who have attended a graduate program themselves,” he says. “These letters from faculty tend to be longer and more detailed than those from other recommenders, often speak to the academic and scholarly potential of the applicant (something the selection committee wants to know), and carry the credibility of coming from someone who knows what it takes to succeed in graduate studies.”
#5: Apply Early – Do Not Wait to Submit Your Application
In order to give program faculty ample time to review one’s application, students should be sure to submit their documents as soon as possible. Several of the faculty members we interviewed warned against waiting until the deadline, as it can be harder to stand out among the sea of applications submitted at that time. Furthermore, some master’s in communication programs have rolling admission policies. This means they accept applications over a long period of time and review candidates throughout, instead of waiting for a particular deadline to make their decision. In these cases, it is possible for the program to reach enrollment capacity even before the actual application deadline. Students who are accepted after enrollment is full for a given start date typically must wait for the next start date in order to begin the program.
According to Dr. Meyer, submitting one’s application materials early is important because it gives admissions staff more time to get to know a candidate. “I always encourage applicants to have their files complete and submitted weeks before the deadline,” he explains. “The more time the selection committee can spend with a file before being inundated with a stack of materials at the deadline, the more opportunity there is for committee members to fall in love with a file.”
MastersinCommunications.com wants to thank all of the faculty we interviewed, and Dr. Anderson, Dr. Bergman, Dr. DeChaine and Dr. Pitts for their excellent advice on applying to a Master’s in Communication program. We hope this article helps prospective students who are currently in the application process or considering a graduate program in the field.