Graduate Application Guide for Criminal Justice Majors

Criminal justice students explore the creation, interpretation, and implementation of legal systems in the United States. Learners study legal procedures at the local, state, and federal levels. Graduates often work as police officers, lawyers, and forensic investigators.

The guide below includes crucial information on how to apply for graduate school.

While a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice qualifies graduates for most entry-level law enforcement and legal positions, master’s degree holders are more competitive candidates for most roles. The guide below includes crucial information on how to apply for graduate school. Keep reading to learn the basic steps for applying to graduate school, including completing prerequisites, taking the GRE, writing a personal statement, crafting a resume, and securing letters of recommendation.

Criminal Justice Graduate Program Prerequisites

Do I Need a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice to Earn a Criminal Justice Graduate Degree?

Applying to graduate school in any discipline requires a bachelor’s degree. However, most criminal justice programs do not require applicants to have majored in criminal justice. Applicants to criminal justice graduate schools may have bachelor’s degrees in areas such as psychology, information technology, social work, or forensic nursing. Non-criminal justice majors should, however, be proficient in statistics, research methods, public policy, forensic science, and sociology.

Students without sufficient experience in relevant subject areas can typically earn certificates of completion in specific classes to gain the academic experience necessary to attend criminal justice graduate schools. Some online graduate schools and most community colleges offer certificates of completion.

Applicants must hold a bachelor’s degree from a nationally or regionally accredited institution; graduate schools do not recognize degrees earned from schools without accreditation. However, because no professional organizations accredit criminal justice programs, undergraduates only need to ensure their school holds institutional accreditation.

Is Work Experience a Prerequisite to a Criminal Justice Graduate Program?

Although not all criminal justice graduate schools require applicants to have work experience, some do. In any case, professional experience strengthens a student’s application. Many criminal justice master’s programs include fieldwork, during which students work in professional positions related to their career interests; work experience demonstrates an applicant’s ability to succeed in a professional setting. Work experience in criminal justice roles, such as experience as a paralegal, a police officer, or a forensic nurse, is especially valuable for applicants with an undergraduate degree in a discipline other than criminal justice; professional experience in the field illustrates the applicant’s passion and skill for the subject.

Do I Have to Take the GRE to Apply to a Graduate Program in Criminal Justice?

The GRE is the most widely accepted standardized test for students applying to graduate school and comprises three sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing

Most graduate programs, including criminal justice programs, require applicants to submit Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores. The GRE is the most widely accepted standardized test for students applying to graduate school and comprises three sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. Test takers must interpret written material, solve problems using foundational mathematical concepts, and compose analytical essays. The GRE measures each test taker’s readiness for master’s and doctoral programs.

The GRE costs $205 for U.S. applicants. A fee reduction program is available for eligible students who demonstrate financial need. While the GRE is a common admissions requirement, some applicants may qualify for a GRE waiver from their institution.

GRE Waiver

While graduate programs commonly require applicants to submit GRE scores, most schools recognize that standardized test scores do not perfectly measure an applicant’s ability to succeed in graduate school. An increasing number of schools do not require GRE scores and evaluate applications holistically. Applicants with exceptional GPAs and extensive work experience can sometimes apply to graduate programs without taking the GRE.

Exceptional students who do not perform well on standardized tests or who have extensive professional experience often benefit by applying to a program that offers GRE waivers or to one that does not require GRE scores. A GRE waiver allows students to apply to graduate programs without providing GRE scores. Students applying for waivers must typically document academic and work experience and must often provide a written essay demonstrating their proficiency in analytical and quantitative skills. Schools award waivers on a case-by-case basis, and qualifying for a waiver does not guarantee admission to the program.

Breakdown of GRE Scores

Raw GRE scores range from 130 to 170 for verbal and quantitative reasoning and zero to six for analytical writing. Exam results also include verbal and quantitative reasoning scores presented as percentiles, which indicate the percentage of test takers who earned lower scores. Verbal and quantitative reasoning scores are available immediately after completing the test, while analytical writing scores are available online 10 to 15 days after completing the exam.

Identifying GRE scores that qualify as “good” can be difficult, since program and school requirements vary. According to the Educational Testing Service, which administers the GRE, criminal justice majors earned average scores of 153 in verbal reasoning, 151 in quantitative reasoning, and 3.9 in analytical writing during the 2017–2018 test year. Though most criminal justice programs do not have minimum score requirements, applicants with higher scores are more likely to gain admission. Since criminal justice curricula require proficiency in reading, mathematics, and writing, competitive applicants typically earn quantitative and verbal scores between 155 and 160 and writing scores of at least 3.5.

GRE Score Percentiles for 2017–2018
Scaled ScoreVerbal Reasoning Percentile RankQuantitative Reasoning Percentile Rank
Source: ETS

Graduate Application Requirements


Transcripts are one of the most important components of a graduate school application. Schools use transcripts to evaluate an applicant’s ability to successfully complete graduate work. Most criminal justice graduate programs require applicants to have a minimum 3.0 GPA, although the top programs may require higher GPAs. Some schools emphasize the applicant’s GPA for their final 60 undergraduate credits, as these credits are often in upper-division major courses.

When students apply to graduate school, they must submit transcripts from all previous academic institutions, including study abroad programs and community colleges. Students can order transcripts through their institution’s registrar, and while some institutions send official transcripts for free, others charge for each copy. Applicants should order transcripts early, as transcripts can take days or weeks to reach the graduate school.

Test Scores

On test day, students can send four free score reports to schools of their choice. Test takers select destinations for reports after completing the exam but before seeing their scores. After test day, sending scores costs $27 per school. Students can send test scores through the Educational Testing Service website by entering the recipient school’s GRE institution code, which is available on most admissions websites. GRE scores are valid for five years.


Most criminal justice graduate schools admit applicants who demonstrate the ability to apply classroom knowledge in professional settings. Ideally, a strong resume for a criminal justice applicant would include experience in a law enforcement or legal profession. A weak resume may lack relevant professional experience, include gaps in work history, or include few supplementary activities, such as collegiate awards, volunteer experience, or publications.

Applicants can strengthen a weak resume by crafting their resume strategically. Those with gaps in employment history can include selected employment experience, rather than listing positions chronologically. Additionally, list only experiences that are relevant to criminal justice, including unpaid internships and volunteer positions. Applicants without sufficient professional experience should consider contacting the criminal justice program directly; some schools allow applicants to compensate for a lack of professional experience by enrolling in a criminal justice internship.

Essays and Personal Statements

A personal statement or admissions essay should illustrate the applicant’s goals for graduate study and describe why they are a good fit for the program. Though personal statements and admissions essays are similar, there are distinctions between them. Personal statements usually describe the applicant’s academic and professional background and explain their personal motivations for pursuing graduate study, while admissions essays generally respond to a specific prompt on a topic such as the applicant’s experience working with diverse populations. Applicants to criminal justice programs must often describe their motivations for pursuing graduate work, specific topics of interest within the criminal justice field, and faculty members with whom they want to work.

In essays and personal statements, applicants should demonstrate critical-thinking skills, self-awareness, and a passion for the field. To write an engaging essay, avoid general, vague statements. Consider telling a story illustrating your passion for criminal justice. An applicant may describe an experience working in the criminal justice field, how this experience clarified their professional goals, and how they plan to achieve these goals through graduate studies.

Applicants should complete the essay, even if it’s optional; a personal statement is a valuable opportunity for applicants to describe their strengths. California State University provides examples of successful criminal justice personal statements.

Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation provide objective opinions on an applicant’s academic, professional, and personal achievements. Letters typically come from former professors or employers, but many schools have specific instructions regarding who can submit recommendations. Applicants should choose recommenders who can provide specific examples of their success as a student or employee in areas relevant to criminal justice, such as psychology professors or heads of law offices. Friends or relatives are never acceptable recommenders.

A recommender should write about the applicant’s accomplishments that are most relevant to criminal justice. For instance, a recommender who is a lawyer the applicant worked under as a paralegal should focus on how the applicant succeeded in that specific role and how the experience prepared the applicant for graduate studies. Since writing these letters takes time, students should approach prospective recommenders early in the application process; a last-minute request can result in a refusal or a poor recommendation.

English Proficiency Tests

English proficiency tests measure a test taker’s ability to comprehend written and spoken English and to communicate with native English speakers. Most programs require international applicants from non-English-speaking countries to complete an English proficiency test.

The most widely accepted English proficiency tests are the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), and the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC). Each test includes listening, speaking, reading, and writing components. The TOEFL is designed to evaluate the test taker’s ability to communicate in academic and classroom settings, while the TOEIC tests English proficiency in professional environments. The IELTS includes an academic test and an exam for general immigrants. The academic-focused IELTS requires test takers to participate in classroom scenarios, performing tasks such as listening to a lecture, engaging in discussion, and interpreting written passages.

Background Check and Drug Screening

Criminal justice master’s programs often require applicants to successfully pass drug tests and/or background checks. Usually, students must do so to participate in field experience internships or clinical courses. This measure not only ensures the ability of each student to act responsibly—internships, for instance, often place students in law enforcement roles, while labs can deal with illicit substances—but also simulates the real-world background checks and drug tests that most criminal justice jobs require.

How Do You Apply to Graduate School in Criminal Justice?

Knowing how to apply to graduate school can be difficult, as each school has unique requirements. However, the application processes for most schools have some similarities.

Typically, application deadlines are between November 1 and January 31 the year before enrollment. However, many criminal justice master’s programs offer multiple deadlines for start dates in the fall, winter, spring, and summer. Since there is no common application for graduate school and each application requires individual attention, applicants should begin writing personal statements and requesting letters of recommendation and transcripts at least four months before the application deadline. Additionally, applicants should register for standardized tests four to six months before the application deadline to ensure scores arrive on time.

Most applications are available online. Criminal justice programs typically charge application fees between $30 and $50, although many offer free applications or fee waivers for students who demonstrate financial need. Graduate schools usually allow college seniors to apply before completing their final semester of undergraduate coursework and occasionally accept letters of recommendation after the submission deadline.

Rolling Admissions

Rolling admissions refers to an application evaluation style in which colleges consider applications as they receive them, rather than waiting until after a deadline. Generally, colleges with rolling admissions accept and evaluate applications until the program is full. For some schools, rolling admissions is a year-long process; others accept candidates on a rolling basis until a final deadline; still others have multiple rolling deadlines for various start times. The most consistent rule for rolling admissions is to apply as early as possible, when competition is less intense and more financial aid is available.

The flexibility of rolling admissions is convenient for applicants with full-time jobs or family obligations. Also, many programs with rolling admissions offer multiple start dates, allowing students to begin classes at the most convenient time for them. Rolling admissions is the most common evaluation method for criminal justice programs, although some schools use rounds admissions.

Rounds Admissions

Colleges that use a rounds admissions process consider applications in stages. Programs evaluate and accept applications submitted before an initial deadline and then repeat the process for subsequent deadlines. The rounds admissions process usually involves three deadlines; however, some schools offer only two deadlines, and others offer five or more.

Programs that use a rounds admissions process fill the majority of spots and offer the bulk of available financial aid during the first two rounds. The odds of acceptance decrease with each round, so students who apply early are at an advantage. Applying during the first round can be difficult, as the deadline may be in early September; second rounds often have deadlines in January.

Applying to a school that uses rounds admissions can be challenging, as applicants feel pressure to apply by set deadlines. However, the firm deadlines motivate some applicants. The rounds admissions process is most common for business schools; criminal justice programs are more likely to use rolling admissions.

Next Steps

The decision timelines for criminal justice graduate schools vary; some programs notify students within four to six weeks, while others require months. Prospective students who apply in December or January typically receive decisions by March.

Students should consider how their academic interests align with each program’s curriculum and faculty.

Students accepted by multiple schools should take their time choosing the best program for their needs. Students should consider how their academic interests align with each program’s curriculum and faculty. They should also evaluate available financial aid packages.

Often, criminal justice programs require students to concentrate in a field such as behavioral science, substance abuse, or conflict and crisis management, and many criminal justice students must complete an internship or field experience. Students should contact the department for information about specific program requirements.

Rejection can be disappointing and frustrating, but it is also a valuable learning opportunity. Applicants who do not receive admission can show their personal statement to professors and mentors for constructive feedback. They may also consider and refine their academic and career goals and establish a firm timeline for their next round of applications.