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Graduate Admissions

Frequently Asked Questions

As you begin the exploration and application process for graduate study at the School of Public Affairs, we hope you will find the following list of frequently asked questions helpful. If at any point you need additional information, please contact the SPA Graduate Admissions Office at (202) 885-6230 or email

1. How many credits are required to earn a graduate degree at the School of Public Affairs?

Various programs have different credit requirements:
MA, Political Communication – 36 credit hours
MA, Political Science – 33 credit hours
MS, Justice, Law & Criminology – 33 credit hours
MS, Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy – 33 credit hours
Master of Public Administration (MPA) – 39 credit hours
Master of Public Policy (MPP) – 39 credit hours

Key Executive Leadership MPA – 36 credit hours
MS, Organization Development – 33 credit hours

PhD programs (Justice, Law & Criminology; Public Administration; and Political Science) – 72 credit hours (if entering without an earned Master’s degree); 48 credit hours (if entering with a related earned Master’s degree)

2. What is the difference between the MPA and MPP degrees?

The Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree is a professional degree for those who want a career in public service that involves management and decision making. This program develops skills used by leaders and managers to implement policies, projects, and programs.

The Master of Public Policy (MPP) degree is a professional degree that places an emphasis on evaluating analytical skills to solve policy issues. MPP graduates work with quantitative and qualitative information to develop, assess, and evaluate alternative approaches to emerging issues and challenges.

3. What is an Executive Program?

An executive program is intended for mid-career or senior level professionals who wish to maintain employment while completing one of the school’s degree programs on a part-time basis. The minimum level of work experience may vary by program, but all of the executive programs do require substantial work experience in the field. An executive program is traditionally delivered in a weekend format or non-traditional scheduling pattern. Our existing executive programs are all cohort programs, meaning that all participants move through the curriculum together and follow a prescribed set of requirements.

4. Can I enroll in graduate level classes as a non-degree student?

Yes, non-degree status is available at the master’s level for those with an earned undergraduate degree from an accredited U.S. institution (or equivalent international degree). Guaranteed student loans and merit awards are not available to non-degree students. Up to 12 credit hours earned at American University as a non-degree student may be applied toward a degree program at American University if later admitted to a degree program.

5. How do I apply as a non-degree seeking student?

To apply as a non-degree seeking student, please do the following:

  • Complete the non-degree application
  • Submit official transcript(s) from every college attended
  • Meet with an academic advisor within the department you wish to study for course registration:

    Department of Government: Robert Briggs
    Department of Justice, Law & Criminology: Shelley Morris
    Department of Public Administration and Policy: Janet Nagler

The preferred application deadline for non-degree domestic applicants is prior to the first day of classes in the semester the applicant wishes to enroll. Late application and registration is possible through the end of the drop/add period for non-degree students. An applicant who is denied admission to a Masters or PhD program within the School of Public Affairs may not apply for non-degree OR certificate program admission within the School of Public Affairs for a minimum of one calendar year.

6. When are the application deadlines?

Traditional Master’s programs:

First round consideration for Fall Merit Award deadline: February 15
Fall Final deadline: June 1
Spring deadline: November 1

PhD Programs:

Fall deadline: January 1 (Fall admission ONLY)

Due to holiday closures on the American University campus, the PhD deadline has been extended to January 5, 2017. Questions/concerns may be directed to

Executive program deadlines vary. Please visit the program website for the application deadline.

International students are encouraged to submit their application one month prior to the final deadline.

7. What tests fulfill the English language requirement for international students?

TOEFL – Preferred minimum score is 600 on the paper test, 250 on the computer test, or 100 on the internet based test
IELTS – Preferred minimum score is 7.0
PTE – Preferred minimum score is 68

8. Is the GRE required for admission? Can other standardized tests be submitted in lieu of the GRE?

The GRE general test is required for general admission to all traditional master's and doctoral programs in the School of Public Affairs. Scores must be less than five years old to be considered official. The GRE may be waived for admission to the traditional master's degree programs if the applicant has 5 or more years of professional, relevant work experience. The GRE is not required for admission to the Key Executive MPA or MSOD program. Please Note: The GRE is required for all applicants applying to the PhD programs.

To apply for a GRE waiver, please complete the waiver request on the online application or send your resume to with a written request. The LSAT may only be substituted for applicants to the Washington College of Law (WCL) and School of Public Affairs for dual degree JD/Master’s and LLM/Master’s programs. The GMAT may substitute for the GRE for MPP or MPA applicants in some cases.


9. How long does it take to get a decision regarding admissions?

Application files are NOT reviewed until all required documents have arrived. Some delays in review are the result of outstanding documents not yet received. You may revisit your completed application to check the status of your application. We prioritize a 10-business day turnaround on the review of master's degree applications once complete. The review process for PhD applications begins in mid-January and most decisions are made and released in mid-late March.

10. What is a merit award and how do I apply?

A merit award is extended to strong applicants based upon a recommendation by the admissions committee. These awards are based on an assessment of an applicant’s credentials using traditional academic indicators (e.g. GPA, GRE scores, strength of recommendation letters, etc.). To be considered for a merit award, an applicant should submit a completed application by the stated preferred application deadline and answer yes to the question “Do you wish to be considered for a merit award” on the application.

Merit awards are offered only to new students and most awards are renewable for a second year of study pending successful completion of the first year. If a student does not enter SPA on a merit award, they are ineligible in later years.

11. How do I apply for a guaranteed student loan?

The federal government makes available low interest rate, guaranteed student loans for eligible US citizens. You do NOT need to wait until you are admitted to begin the guaranteed student loan process. To apply, complete and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid as instructed at The phone number to the Financial Aid office at American University is (202) 885-6100 if you have questions regarding the loan process.

12. What is the difference between full-time and part-time status? Am I able to move back and forth between full-time and part-time?

Full-time student status is defined as registration for nine semester credit hours during both the fall and spring semesters, or by enrollment for four semester credit hours during the summer semester. Enrollments in all summer sessions during a calendar year will be added to determine the total summer enrollment. Half-time student status is defined as registration for five semester credit hours during both the fall and spring semesters, or by enrollment for two semester credit hours during the summer semester. Students who are registered for more than a half-time credit load in any semester, but less than a full-time credit load for that semester, will be considered half-time students.

International students on an F-1 Visa must remain full time. Merit award recipients must also maintain full-time status. Any changes in registration from full-time to half-time status may impact financial aid award amounts. Please contact the Financial Aid office for further clarification (202) 885-6100.

13. How do I transfer to the School of Public Affairs?

Transfer students must apply for the program through our online application. Application requirements remain the same for any student applying to one of our degree programs. The maximum number of credits that may be transferred from another accredited program into the traditional graduate programs at the School of Public Affairs is:

  • Department of Public Administration & Policy programs: 6 credits
  • Government programs: 6 credits
  • Justice programs: 6 credits

Exactly which credits and how those credits are applied, is determined by the Department Chair and academic advisor after a student has been admitted. Once admitted, those seeking to transfer credits should forward a course description and syllabus for the course to the Chair of the program for consideration.

14. Is an interview required for admission into the program?

Admission to one of SPA's executive programs, Key Executive Leadership MPA and MS in Organization Development, requires an interview with the Program Director. An interview is not required for admission into following degree programs:

  • MA in Political Communication
  • MA in Political Science
  • MS in Justice, Law & Criminology
  • MS in Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy
  • Master of Public Administration (MPA)
  • Master of Public Policy (MPP)
  • Phd programs (Justice, Law & Criminology; Public Administration; and Political Science)

However, any student may request an informal meeting with a member of the admissions office by submitting the online request form.

15. What should I include in my personal statement?

Your personal statement is a very important part of your application. It should be a well-written and carefully crafted essay between two and five typewritten pages in length. You should describe in detail your:

  • personal and career goals
  • relevant employment experience
  • reason for wanting to study at American University
  • ability and commitment to undertake graduate education at this time

16. Can my recommendation letters be both academic and professional?

Two letters of recommendation, academic and/or professional, are required for admission to traditional or executive programs. Recent graduates are strongly encouraged to include at least one academic source (faculty member) who can attest to their prior academic work and their potential for success in graduate study. Three letters of recommendation are required for the Ph.D. programs.

17. I am required to submit a writing sample to complete my application. How many pages are required?

Two samples of your written work (1-6 pages) are required for application to the MS in Organization Development and the Key Executive Leadership MPA programs. One sample of your written work (12-25 pages) is required for application to the doctoral program. Writing samples can be reports, memoranda, articles, or portions thereof.

18. What if I am admitted to SPA but not Washington College of Law (WCL)?

The admission decisions of each school are independent. Should you apply to a dual degree program and only be admitted to SPA, our offer of admission still stands and you are eligible to proceed as a student in SPA. Note that admission decisions to one program have no bearing on or leverage with another.

19. When is the best time to apply for the BA/MA program?

Undergraduate students in good academic standing may apply for a combined degree after they have completed 75 credit hours towards their undergraduate degree, and, except in rare cases, by the end of the semester in which they have completed 90 credit hours.

20. How do I check my application status?

If you have submitted an online application, you can use the email address and password you created when you started your application to log into your application account where you can track the status of your application. Due to the high volume of mail received by our office during this period, please allow 7 to 10 business days to process your application materials after they have been received. If you have any questions regarding your application status, please contact the Graduate Admissions Office at 202.885.6230 or e-mail

21. Is the spring admissions cycle competition easier?

No. For the spring admissions cycle, the number of applicants decreases and so does the number of students admitted. The acceptance rate, therefore, remains the same.

22. Can I defer my admission once admitted to your school? Will I be able to keep my merit-based financial aid?

You may defer up to one year from your semester of admission with approval from the Graduate Admissions Office and upon receipt of your non-refundable $250 deferral deposit. To request a deferral, send an e-mail to the Office of Graduate Admissions ( indicating the reason for your deferral request and the semester to which you want to defer. Any merit award granted for your original semester of admission cannot be carried over to your deferred semester. You will be reconsidered for merit aid for the next admission cycle, although the award is not guaranteed. Note: BA/MA and BA/MS applicants cannot defer.

23. If I have been denied admission to SPA, can I reapply?

Students denied admission to SPA must wait one academic year from the date of their original application to reapply. Such candidates are encouraged to contact the Graduate Admissions Office for advice on strengthening their applications.

24. Can the application fee for SPA graduate programs be waived?

As an applicant to a SPA graduate program, you will be asked to pay a non-refundable $55 application fee when you apply. This fee is waived for:

  1. Applicants who have received a “fee waiver code” for attending an in-person or online recruitment event;
  2. Current AU students (including BA/MA and BA/MS applicants) and AU alumni;
  3. Active duty members or veterans of the U.S. military;
  4. Active or returned Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, PPIA/IIPP, Teach for America, or Teach for All participants;
  5. First-generation college students;
  6. Recipients of eligible nationally or internationally recognized fellowship or scholarship programs, including FAMU Scholars and McNair Scholars. See the online application form for details.

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Duilio Correa, SPA/MPA ’13

#SPA80for80: Duilio Correa, SPA/MPA ’13

A native of Peru, Correa first came to AU in 2005 for a certificate in Spanish translation, but he stayed on to pursue a master's degree in Spanish and Latin American studies.

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