Five Ways to Get the Most Out of a
Graduate Open House

Hybrid Learning

May 1, 2016

Going back to school is a big decision. Not only will you need to ask yourself if you are ready to commit your time and your finances, but you’ll also need to do your due diligence to compare universities and their individual programs to make sure you select the right one for you.

One way to help you make your decision is to attend a university-sponsored graduate open house. These are low-commitment, casual events that allow you to compare and contrast your program options by meeting faculty, department heads, alumni, and current students. Just like if you were buying any other product, an open house will help you understand what, exactly, you’re purchasing, and what other students have experienced in the program.

“Our goal is to provide information, so that when you’re ready, you can move forward with your decision,” says Phedra Hamilton, director of admissions and recruitment for Northeastern University College of Professional Studies, who collaborates with admissions staff across Northeastern University. “Attending an open house is an opportunity to learn about programs, outcomes, course content, and how you’ll be able to apply theory into practice.”

Graduate open houses are a time for potential students to get the nuts and bolts questions out of the way, such as comparing start and end dates, and program lengths and formats, but there is an opportunity to dive much deeper. Here are five ways you can maximize the value of a graduate open house.

1. Narrow Your Focus

Does this program accomplish what you’re seeking to learn? Your first step is deciding which path you want to take in life – and that can mean addressing some of the bigger questions.

“Some prospective students are seeking programs that would take them outside of their current field, whereas others are trying to advance themselves in their current industry, and are looking to stay ahead of the curve,” says Hamilton.

Sometimes, would-be students come to graduate open houses to compare two completely different degrees, like a master’s degree in sociology or a master’s in teaching. Those “apples to oranges” questions are tough, and are sometimes only solved by talking through both professional and personal goals, she said.

Do you need to talk to individuals who are already working in the field? Do you want to job shadow? These are the types of questions you can ask current students, faculty and alumni at a graduate open house to help you figure out which direction is best for you.

2. Learn Program Differentiators

“The first step is to understand your motivation and goals, and how those will align with the outcomes of the program you’re considering, and who it is designed for,” said Sean Gallagher, chief strategy officer at Northeastern University, who has researched what graduate students want the most out of their master degree programs.

It may sound obvious, but the biggest question to answer is whether the program you’re considering will actually accomplish what you’re seeking to learn.

“In a given metropolitan area, you might have 5-10 different choices of degree programs in a particular field,” says Gallagher. “Even though many universities offer degrees that are all called the same thing, the programs are likely very different. Some might be tailored to part-time students, or some might have a particular curriculum focus. Other programs might be more expensive. And different curriculums might be more practical or professionally focused, while some might be more theoretical. It’s important to clarify what you want to get out of the program to help you determine which differentiators are the most important.”

Another thing to consider are what types of specialized, technical skills or general competencies the program seeks to build. For example, someone looking to advance in the business world may want a program designed to sharpen their communication and problem solving skills, while someone looking to work in research may want to focus on theory and work towards becoming an expert in a given field.

By diving deeply into the program curriculum with the professors who will be teaching it, you can get the answers to your questions that are critical for program selection.

3. Meet the Faculty

Even if you can get access to the program’s curriculum and course descriptions, you still want to know who it is that you’ll be learning from, and what their qualifications are.

“Faculty expertise and experience in their field is at the top of the list when you ask students and professionals what they consider when they’re enrolling,” says Gallagher. “You want faculty who are very well-versed in their field, but you may also want someone with professional real-world experience, not just academic.”

In addition to faculty expertise, having direct access to faculty essentially gives you a live version of your course syllabi: A real person you can question. What will you be learning in each course, and how will you learn it?

“Faculty can help you learn about the objectives of the program, as well as the objectives of the individual courses that compose the degree,” says Hamilton. “You’ll be able to ask questions on how students are being educated in the physical – and online – classroom, whether it’s case studies, project-based, research paper-based, or group projects.”

4. Find Department Services

Getting access to a graduate open house also means you’ll get an early chance to compare your potential university’s ins and outs. Maybe your degree program offers an online option as well as a traditional classroom experience. In other cases, universities assign advisors or offer open hours for advisors. Either can be positive or negative, depending on what you’re looking for in a program.

“There’s a whole spectrum of services that are important to consider, including academic support, advising, technology support – you want to know the university is focused on and going to support you through your degree,” says Gallagher.

5. Hear Alumni Stories

Where have alumni of this particular program ended up? And what types of people are attracted to this type of program?

“I’ve found in my research that employers often value the networking of a program just as much as they do the hard skills and competencies that come out of it,” said Gallagher. “The types of employers, thought leaders, and faculty who are involved in the program directly affect the quality of your program experience.”

Hamilton says speaking with alumni can also give you a sense of the pace-of-life you’re getting yourself into with a particular degree or certificate program, and the potential rewards at the end of the tunnel.

“Hearing that they too have a family, are active in their community and are working full-time, and how they manage it all can be empowering and inspiring for other would-be students,” she says.

At the end of the day, an open house will help you to consider all the factors that go into your big decision. You can find the top ranked, best program in the world, but at their open house, you realize they are too theoretical for what you need. Or, you might find your dream curriculum at two schools, and decide by attending an open house that one university’s faculty is better than another’s.  Exploring these tradeoffs will help get you on the way to ensuring you make the right decision for yourself — and your future.

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