Can I Get Into Graduate School With A Criminal Record?

Apr 22, 2024

Dr. Vicki Johnson, a mid-age white American woman with straight brown hair and a green blouse. She is a graduate school admissions expert. The words, Ask Dr. Johnson are on the left-hand side.

Dear Dr. Johnson,

I’ve been working for several years and need a master’s degree to advance. But there’s a hitch – I’ve got a criminal record from a non-violent crime and have served time in prison. I have turned my life around since, but I’m worried this past mistake will make grad school impossible since it has closed doors on certain jobs. Do I have any chance of getting into graduate school?


– Reformed

From Dr. Vicki Johnson:

I appreciate that you served your time and are working hard to put your life on a better path. I have good news for you: it IS possible to get into graduate school. I know this because I have mentored several graduate school applicants with criminal records who were able to successfully enter graduate programs, including Ivy League schools.

Here’s the bad news: it’s not going to be easy. These candidates also faced many rejections in the process. You will need to disclose your criminal record in your applications, and some will not accept you due to your criminal record, no matter how strong your application is. This is an unfair reality that perpetuates inequity in higher education.

So, you’ll need to go above and beyond what the average applicant must do to find the right schools and make your case in your applications. Here’s what I advise.

First, carefully research graduate programs to find programs that are holistically a good fit for you. I recommend choosing a graduate degree discipline in the same or a closely related discipline. This will make it easier to emphasize that you are building on your academic strengths and preparation from undergrad.

Next, narrow down your list to 5-10 schools that will welcome your application. You won’t be able to figure out which schools will be welcoming from internet research alone. I suggest setting up meetings (ideally, in person) and speaking openly with Admissions representatives about your criminal record. Ask them for their honest feedback as to how the selection committee will respond to your background. Bolster this discussion with examples of the progress you have made since serving time, and why a graduate degree will help you achieve your career goals.

Sometimes, a representative will say they have no explicit policy against applicants with a criminal record, but their mannerisms can reveal the hidden bias. After sharing your background, do they continue talking with you generously, or do they become more brief, matter-of-fact, and closed off? Take note.

Prep your referees to make sure they provide exceptionally strong and detailed recommendation letters. You’ll need people who can vouch that you will succeed in graduate school, with specific examples of how you demonstrate leadership, scholarship, and commitment to your goals. These should be professors, professional superiors, and other leaders who have served as a mentor to you. Meet with your referees to make sure they have a set of examples to include in their letters.

Finally, express a clear career goal that explains how you plan to make a positive social impact on the world and be specific about the challenges you want to contribute to. Explain how the graduate program will give you the skills, knowledge, and professional network needed to achieve those goals.

At ProFellow, we are committed to social justice and equity in higher education and we are rooting for your success! Best of luck to you.

Dr. Vicki Johnson is Founder and Director of ProFellow, the world’s leading online resource for professional and academic fellowships. She is a four-time fellow, top Ph.D. scholar, Fulbright recipient, and an award-winning social entrepreneur. She is the creator of the Fully Funded Course and Mentorship Program which helps graduate school applicants enter top graduate schools with funding awards. 

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