For many nurses, the key to getting the next promotion or pay raise hinges on earning a master’s degree.
The credential can help nurses become an advanced practice registered nurse, allowing them to work as nurse practitioners, clinical care specialists, managers and other roles.
Enrolling in one of the best online graduate nursing programs can be a great option for nurses who want to continue working while they earn a degree. At least, assuming they can get in.
Gaining acceptance into a Master of Science in nursing can be competitive, experts say. Schools throughout the country are turning away qualified applicants due to a nationwide shortage of nursing faculty, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Many schools are also phasing out their Master of Science in nursing programs and replacing them with a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree, a move recommended by the association.
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Patsy Deyo, a student in the online graduate nursing program at George Washington University, says she was thrilled to get into the fourth-ranked online program in the country.
“I wasn’t sure what they were looking for," says Deyo, who wanted an online program because it would allow her to work while she studied. "I was afraid I wouldn’t get in.”
While online programs are often easier to get into than their face-to-face counterparts, they vary in terms of their selectivity. Acceptance rates at the top 10 online nursing graduate schools ranked by U.S. News range from 27 percent at the Medical University of South Carolina to 98 percent at Loyola University New Orleans. The average acceptance rate at the top 10 schools is nearly 71 percent.
Every online master's in nursing program has its own requirements, though most are very similar to their on-ground counterparts, experts say. Many schools use a point system when they evaluate applicants and give credit for references, academic performance and other factors.
Virtually all require that applicants be a registered nurse. While some programs require a bachelor's degree and professional experience, others do not.
Programs typically require students demonstrate a strong academic background, admissions officials say. While the GRE isn’t required in many of the top online programs, admissions officials pay careful attention to a student’s GPA.
Most well-regarded programs require a GPA of 3.0 or above, though some programs make exceptions for students who scored highly on other parts of the application.
"We weight the GPA so that it's not the only parameter," says Jean E. DeMartinis, associate professor and director of graduate nursing programs at University of Massachusetts—Amherst.
Students should also put thought into gathering the appropriate letters of recommendation, officials say. Letters from supervisors and former instructors are welcome, while letters from peers are looked down upon.
"Letters of recommendation are critical," says Robin L. Bissinger, associate dean for academics at the Medical University of South Carolina’s College of Nursing. "Don’t assume that someone you know is going to write you a good reference. Ask them, 'Can you recommend me for graduate education?' Don’t ask people who don’t know you. Ask people who really believe you can do this."
Applicants should also be prepared to put plenty of time into their essays or personal statements – the part of the application that Deyo found the most time-consuming.
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“I did several iterations," she says. “It probably took me about a month to really get it done. I’d write and then I’d step away and come back to it. It takes a lot of self reflection and setting your goals for the future."
The personal essay portion of the application can also be used to address any potential weaknesses, officials say.
At St. Xavier Unviersity, which has the No. 1-ranked online program by U.S. News, every student is required to submit a personal essay. Students who don’t meet the normal GPA requirements are asked to use the statement to describe how they have learned from the past, says Margaret Reneau, director of St. Xavier’s online graduate nursing programs.
"We get a lot of letters saying 'I was taking care of my ailing parents' or 'I was a single mom,'" she says. "Those are all understandable but what we really look for is what are students going to do differently. 'I’m going to cut my work hours back, get more support' – something to indicate the circumstances have changed."
Unlike their on-campus counterparts, online students should be prepared to describe how they will adapt successfully to the rigors of virtual learning.
DeMartinis of University of Massachusetts—Amherst says the school quizzes applicants about their preparation for online learning during their interview process.
"We ask them how they work online, how they feel about being independent adult learners," she says. "Do they see themselves accommodating online education and being present in courses?"
Natalia Davila, who graduated from the nursing master's program at Medical University of South Carolina in 2011, agrees that applicants should convey whether they are ready for an online degree.
"In an online program, you have to be really independent," she says. "It's all about you and how much you push yourself. Nobody is going to look after you and make sure you are doing the work."
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