Educational Leadership & Policy

Educational Leadership 101: How to Get Accepted into a Master of Educational Leadership Program

Educational Leadership 101: How to Get Accepted into a Master of Educational Leadership Program
Master's in educational leadership programs prepare graduates to work in advanced administrative roles in educational organizations. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry November 19, 2020

Looking for a career in school leadership, curriculum development, educational administration, or policy development? A Master of Educational Leadership can boost your career opportunities.

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When we think of education, we usually think of the classroom. That’s understandable: most of our interactions with the education system involve teachers and learning.

Of course, it takes a massive bureaucracy to manage the school systems that facilitate student learning. More than anything any individual teacher does, decision-making by school principals, superintendents, policymakers, lobbyists, and activists determines what education looks like in the United States.

Teachers may have the largest overall impact on classroom outcomes, but administrators and other leaders also contribute to student achievement, if indirectly. These folks at the top make key decisions about funding and resources, how to incorporate new educational theories and methodologies into curricula, and the culture of education at the local level and for the nation as a whole.

The term educational leadership covers both school administration and all the moving parts that have to come together to achieve large-scale goals in education. A degree in educational leadership can prepare you to become a school leader in your district or an education advisor to the president, or to step into hundreds of roles that fall somewhere in between.

First, however, you need to get accepted into a program that will support your goals. In this article about how to get into a master’s in educational leadership program, we cover:

  • What is a master’s in educational leadership?
  • Who typically pursues this kind of degree, and what qualifications do they have?
  • What can you do with a master’s in educational leadership?
  • How can I choose the best master’s in educational leadership program?
  • What prerequisites will I need to meet to get accepted?
  • Can I pursue a master of educational leadership if I don’t have a bachelor’s in education?
  • When should I apply for a master’s in educational leadership program?
  • How can I make my application as attractive as possible?

What is a master’s in educational leadership?

Master’s in educational leadership programs prepare graduates to work in advanced administrative roles in educational organizations. However, don’t confuse this degree with a master’s in educational administration. School administration degree programs are usually more focused on building-level management. On the other hand, educational leadership degree programs tend to take a broader view of how quality education looks. Simply put, educational administration, as a discipline, is typically focused on the success of one school or a single school district. Educational leadership focuses on improving the success of all schools.

Master’s in educational leadership programs confer different degrees. Some colleges and universities have Master of Educational Leadership, or MEDL, programs. Others offer a Master of Science in Educational Leadership or a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership. Sometimes educational leadership is offered as a specialization, like the Master of Education (MEd) in Educational Leadership, and there are some programs with options to specialize in further. Students enrolled in the MA in Educational Leadership program offered by Mills College‘s School of Education, for instance, can choose between Early Childhood Leadership and Independent School Leadership concentrations.


“I'm Interested in Education Leadership and Policy!”

The students in part-time and full-time education policy master’s programs are optimists who believe they can make education better on a grand scale. They acknowledge the current education system in the United States is fraught with problems, but they don’t view any of those problems as insurmountable. They’re pursuing master’s degrees in education policy because they’ve dreamed of transforming their districts, improving on the ways students are taught across the entire state, or even driving sweeping education reform at the federal level. (source)

Universities offer so many degrees fitting for this category. At some universities, a Master of Education Policy or Master of Education Leadership program covers all the same subject matter as an M.Ed in Education Policy and Leadership. Others call this degree a Master of Education in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies; Master’s in Educational Leadership & Policy; Master of Education in Education Policy, Organization & Leadership; or a Master of Arts in Education Policy and Leadership. The only way to know whether the leadership and policy master’s program at a particular school is worth it is to look at the curriculum and the school’s job placement data. Make sure the curriculum supports your unique career goals and that the degree sufficiently impresses employers. (source)

University and Program Name Learn More

Who typically pursues this kind of degree, and what qualifications do they have?

Educational leaders are usually driven by a desire to improve education. They might aspire to manage a school or oversee a district. They might also take part in statewide strategic planning or nationwide education policy reform.

It’s not uncommon for administrators, educational consultants, and education policymakers to have teaching experience. Many on-campus and online Master of Educational Leadership programs either require or strongly prefer licensed teachers with classroom experience. That experience gives them a degree of perspective regarding what students and teachers need that career executives probably won’t have.

Don’t assume, however, that all part-time and full-time leadership education programs are for teachers. There are plenty of MEDL programs and other types of educational leadership master’s programs that accept students with different academic and professional experience. Boston College‘s Lynch School of Education and Human Development—which offers a Master of Education in Educational Leadership and Policy as a hybrid and online degree—welcomes applicants from many backgrounds, including:

  • Community-based organizers
  • Policymakers
  • Professional seeking to make meaningful changes in education
  • Religious leaders

What can you do with a master’s in educational leadership?

Educational leadership is an extraordinarily diverse field. While a Master of Educational Leadership will almost certainly satisfy the department of education requirements you’ll need to meet to become a school administrator, you shouldn’t limit your post-graduation job search to public schools districts and private schools. With this degree, you might become an education policy analyst, a curriculum and instruction consultant, a lobbyist, a researcher, an advisor in legislative and legal settings, or a consultant traveling to different learning environments and educational settings suggesting operational improvements.

According to Mills College, some of the more common roles MA in Educational Leadership graduates step into are:

  • Assistant principal
  • Community college program director
  • Director of admissions
  • Director of diversity
  • Director of museum education
  • Education-focused nonprofit director
  • Elementary school principal
  • Head of an independent school
  • Middle school principal
  • High school principal

What sets this degree apart from similar degrees is its versatility. You can assume a principalship after earning a MEDL, but you might also become an instructional coordinator helping district administrators define, implement, maintain, and assess academic standards. Some Master of Educational Leadership holders go on to work in <a href=”education policy at colleges or to become university deans. Others work for nonprofit organizations devoted to expanding access to education, make education more equitable, or improve student outcomes in underserved areas. Still others work in curriculum development, run online programs in higher education, or oversee school improvement projects.

How can I choose the best master’s in educational leadership program?

The best master’s in educational leadership program for you will be the one that meets your practical and professional needs. Researching accreditation and rankings can help kickstart your search, but whether you meet the admission requirements and whether the program can support your professional goals are the more important metrics.

Some master’s of educational leadership programs (like the Lynch School of Education and Human Development’s MEd in Educational Leadership and Policy) offer licensure tracks designed for students who want to qualify for a teaching certificate. These programs are appropriate for those new to education who want to work as teachers for a few years before transitioning into educational administration.

Other programs only admit licensed teachers and are specifically designed for educators ready to transition out of the classroom into administration, policy, or specialty roles. There are also Master of Educational Leadership programs geared toward students who want to earn a principal certification, enter doctoral programs, or specialize in school finance.

What prerequisites will I need to meet to get accepted?

Colleges and universities set their own criteria for evaluating applicants. Some master’s in educational leadership programs require candidates to have two or more years of classroom, administrative, or education policy experience. Applying to these programs will involve submitting proof of that experience in the form of a teaching license, school service records, or letters from past and current employers.

Many programs, however, welcome applicants who are new to education. Candidates here may only need to show an undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or higher and letters of reference from professors or managers.

Let’s look at what applicants have to do to get into Mills College’s School of Education. Step one involves connecting with an enrollment advisor to discuss the school’s educational leadership master’s. From there, applicants send:

  • Transcripts
  • A 500-to-750 word statement of purpose outlining their personal and professional motivations for studying educational leadership
  • At least two letters of recommendation
  • A resume outlining all of an applicant’s relevant experience, including internships and research.

Finally, most applicants sit for an interview with one or more faculty members before the school makes a final admission decision.

Can I pursue a master of educational leadership if I don’t have a bachelor’s in education?

The answer to this question varies by program. Some programs ask only that applicants have an undergraduate degree from an accredited college or university. However, prerequisite requirements differ from school to school, and some programs require or at least prefer applicants to have an undergraduate degree in education or a closely related field.

Some colleges and universities also specify undergraduate coursework prerequisites or ask applicants to take specific exams. Others look for experienced teachers or even experienced educational administrators. That said, you may be able to enroll in one of these programs even if you don’t meet all the prerequisites if you commit to fulfilling additional requirements.

When should I apply for a master’s in educational leadership program?

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to generalize. Some MEDL programs offer rolling admission, which means applicants can submit materials year-round; schools review those materials as they come in. However, most colleges and universities wait until after the published deadline has passed to begin sifting through applications.

Deadlines (and start dates) for master’s in educational leadership programs vary by school. Still, it’s pretty standard for application deadlines to fall somewhere in winter or summer and for programs to start in the fall semester. Many graduate programs have multiple start dates, and some even allow students to submit applications two months or even one month before classes start. As a general rule, online programs offer more start dates per year than do on-campus programs.

This is one area where you’ll need to do your own research, program by program. Be sure you know when the Master of Educational Leadership programs you’re most interested in stop accepting applications, and keep in mind that it’s always a good idea to submit materials early.

How can I make my application as attractive as possible?

The simplest way to make your application compelling is to give colleges and universities exactly what they’re looking for. Make sure you meet the prerequisite requirements before applying. Read application guidelines carefully, and submit all the requested materials. Be thorough, proofread everything you prepare, and be sure your personal statement or application essay covers the ground it needs to. All of that may seem obvious, but according to U.S. News & World Report, missing materials and typos are two common reasons applications are rejected.

Beyond that, you can make your application stand out by providing solid proof that you have specific core competencies and that you’re committed to becoming a leader in education, or that you’ve completed professional development work related to leadership. If you don’t have the bandwidth to take on an education administration project at your school (assuming you’re a teacher) or in the school community, ask someone in a leadership role in your school district if there are any opportunities to shadow them for a day or a week. Look for opportunities to assist your principal or vice-principal or to partner with someone from the superintendent’s office on an initiative. Look for ways to get involved in educational and instructional leadership now, before you go to graduate school. Any experience you have in administration or education policy research, or experience that shows you already possess leadership skills, will boost your chances of landing a spot in a strong master’s in educational leadership program.

This article was originally published in 2018. It has been updated to reflect the most recent data on the subject.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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