How to Obtain a Degree in Criminal Justice

Three Parts:Developing the Appropriate SkillsApplying to SchoolsPursuing a Criminal Justice Degree

Learn how to obtain a degree in criminal justice or criminology to start on a path to a rewarding career in homeland security, police work, private investigating, and other related specialty fields. A degree can help you stand out in these fields, and many professions even require it. You'll need to develop the appropriate skills, apply to schools, and follow the provided coursework to get your degree.

Part 1
Developing the Appropriate Skills

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    Take a class in ethics. While you may not have this offered at your local high school, ethics are an important of the criminal justice field; you'll be faced with all sorts of situations where you need to make a choice that falls in line with an ethical code.[1] You can start developing your skills by taking a class in criminal ethics or just basic ethics at a local community college.
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    Do well in school. While you don't need a perfect GPA to go into criminal justice, you do need to do well in a wide variety of subjects. Sciences, social sciences, and humanities are all beneficial to those wishing to enter the criminal justice field. Sciences can help when you're analyzing a crime scene, while social sciences help you to analyze the mind of someone you're interviewing. Humanities gives you the background you need to put what's happening in the criminal justice world in context.[2]
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    Develop critical thinking skills. Critical thinking skills involve being able to interpret, analyze, reason, and evaluate. One way you can begin to develop critical thinking skills is to learn to back up your arguments.[3]
    • For instance, say you want to take a stance on a hot-button issue, such as a flat tax rate or abortion. Don't just make up your mind based on what others have told you. Research the issue, and look at both sides. Pick resources that look at both sides of the issue without making a judgement. Once you've gathered your information, take a stance; you may even find that both sides have merit, and you don't want to pick a side. Now you're able to back up that stance based on what you've gathered.
    • You can also learn to think critically if you analyze while you're reading. Look for what assumptions the author is basing his or her writing on. Constantly question the assumptions that are made to see if they are valid. For instance, say you're reading an article online that draws conclusions about two things because they happened at the same time, such as the rise in eating aspartame being connected to a rise in brain tumors. While it's possible that the two are linked, the rise in brain tumors could have been caused by a number of other factors.[4]
    • If you're in school, your teachers should be helping you to learn how to think critically. You can help by taking more advanced classes that are more on-par with college courses.
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    Be computer literate. Many people take computer literacy for granted these days. However, if you haven't kept up with computers as much as you should, take some time to learn. So much of the professions in criminal justice these days are done primarily on the computer that you must learn. Most libraries offer basic classes, and you can always take a class at a community college to increase your skill.[5]
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    Increase your communication skills. You need to be able to talk to people to find out information or to speak to a group of people about a case. Public speaking classes can help you with the second part of that.[6]
    • You also need to know how to read people. When you're talking to witnesses and suspects, you need to be able to interpret body language; maybe they're saying one thing with their mouths, but their body language is saying they aren't being entirely truthful. Psychology classes can help you with body language, but you can also learn to read body language by observing people more closely. When you're out in public, watch how people use their bodies to communicate things that they aren't saying.[7]
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    Be physically fit. While this isn't an absolute necessary for all criminal justice jobs, you do need to be physically able to do the job in fields such as law enforcement.[8] Develop a regimen of aerobic exercise, flexibility-increasing exercise, and strength training to get in the shape you need to be. If you're not sure where to get started, join a local gym and take advantage of their classes.

Part 2
Applying to Schools

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    Narrow down a list of schools. You can use a database specifically designed for this purpose. For instance, Big Future by The College Board is one option. You have a number of choices to make when deciding on a school.[9]
    • For instance, you'll need to decide whether you want to go to a big public university, a smaller private school, or a community college. Big public universities are cheaper in state than private school, but classes will also be a lot bigger at the public schools. Community colleges are cheap and generally smaller, but you can usually only get an associate's degree, not a bachelor's degree.[10]
    • Decide if you want to go big or small. Even though public universities tend to be bigger than private, that's not always the case. Decide if you want a large, medium, or small school. You'll get more personal attention at a smaller school, but you'll have more opportunities to get involved at a bigger school.[11]
    • You'll also be able to sort by other factors, if they're important to you. For example, you can narrow by how selective a school is, what sports they provide, or how diverse the school is.[12]
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    Understand the differences between for-profit schools and nonprofit. Most traditional schools, such as state schools and private schools, are nonprofit, meaning the goal is not to make a profit. However, today, many for-profit universities are available, such as Kaplan University, University of Phoenix, and DeVry University. One good thing about for-profits is they offer more flexible options for students, often having more night and weekend classes.[13]
    • Many non-profit universities are accredited by the same organizations as non-profits. For instance, University of Phoenix is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.[14] However, some for-profits are not accredited, which takes some of the credibility away from your degree.[15] In addition, some employers do not view for-profit degrees in as favorable a light as nonprofit universities.
    • For-profit universities often cost more than comparable nonprofit schools.[16]
    • For-profits tend to spend less per student on instruction and have substantially lower graduation rates.[17]
    • Nonprofits often have more "extras" than for-profits, such as extensive libraries, gyms, and campuses; many for-profits use office buildings for classrooms.[18]
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    Decide if you want to do an online degree or in-person. Online will offer you more flexibility.[19] However, you may get more out of the experience in person, since you will be able to interact with other students and the professors more without the filter of the internet.
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    Apply to a range of schools. That is, your top choice may be a long shot, and that's fine. However, you also need to apply to schools that you are more likely to get into. You don't want to miss out on going to school just because you only applied to one or two schools.
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    Look at specializations. Each school will offer specializations in your field. Decide what's important to you, as that can affect your choice of schools. For instance, Penn State offers a minor in Homeland Security, which could be helpful if you want to go into protective services on the national level.[20]
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    Gather your information. For each school, the application will be a little different. However, you'll always need things like biographical information, your social security, and your GPA.[21]
    • You'll also need a high school transcript, which your school should provide for you.[22]
    • Most schools require letters of recommendation. It's best to ask early. You can ask teachers, coaches, pastors, mentors, or any other non-family adult who knows you well.
    • You'll also need to write an essay or personal statement. This statement should represent who you are to the college admissions people and why you want to be in this field. Convince them that you belong at the school.[23]
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    Study and take your entrance exams. Most schools require either the SAT or ACT. Some schools will make you take one or the other, but most will accept either one. Your high school or local library likely has classes available to help you prep for these tests; if not, both tests have websites that provide you with study materials, or you can purchase a study guide in a book form. Most books come with a way to take practice tests online, so that you can practice. If you don't do well, you can retake the exams, but be aware it costs each time.[24]
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    Get started filling out applications early. Though it may not be all that beneficial to apply early, it does benefit you to start early. Applications will take longer than you think, so you should leave yourself as much time as possible to finish them.
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    Use the common application when possible. Some schools allow you to use what's known as the common application. Essentially, this application is one that you can fill out once and use at as many as 525 schools. Check to see if the schools you're applying to accept this application.[25]
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    Wait for acceptance. It can take awhile to be accepted. In fact, most schools will push it to their final deadline, usually in March or April. You'll likely need to make a decision by early May.[26]

Part 3
Pursuing a Criminal Justice Degree

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    Complete your general education courses. At almost any school you go to, you'll need to complete some general education courses, which include classes like composition, western literature, government, economics, and American history. Most of the time, you'll spend at least your first year only doing general education, although you may also start an introduction to criminal justice.[27]
    • Often, you'll get to decide what to take when. However, some schools prescribe exactly what you will take each year with little wiggle room.[28]
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    Take the required criminal justice courses. Most schools have specific courses you must take in your field. For instance, at Penn State, you'll need to take courses such as Criminology, Introduction to Criminal Justice, Policing in America, and Corrections in America.[29]
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    Choose your other courses in your field. You will be required to take more classes in your field, beyond the ones that are exactly prescribed. In other words, you'll be required to round out your major with classes you are interested in, allowing you to focus on what you want to do even if you don't pick a specialization or your school doesn't offer them. For instance, if you're interested in environmental crimes, you could choose a few classes focused in that area rather than corporate crimes.[30]
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    Take your electives. Most universities also allow you so many hours to take extra classes on whatever you want, in your major or not. You can take classes just for your enjoyment, such as guitar or art. However, you can also use the time to take more major classes or to take classes outside of your major that would benefit you, such as psychology or philosophy classes.[31]
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    Keep up your GPA. You may struggle at first to maintain good grades, but as you shift into the college environment, you should begin to adapt. You'll need to learn good study habits to stay on top of your work. For instance, it's essential to make out a schedule of all the work you have ahead for the semester so you know exactly what you need to do.[32]
    • Try to enjoy what you are studying. It makes a big difference in how much you take in. Always try to find something interesting in everything you're studying.[33]
    • Use what you have. That is, don't be afraid to make up memory games to help you remember what you need to know. You can put what you're studying to song or make crazy acronyms. Also, you can also make study groups to discuss the material and quiz each other.[34]
    • When you're studying, focus on studying. Pick a quiet place where you can weed out distractions, and only have around you what you need to study. Put your phone and any other distractions away.[35]
    • Take good notes in class. One of the best ways to learn the material is to take notes while your professor is talking, as she will likely point out what's most important. Don't try to take down every word; stick to making an outline.
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    Graduate. Once you've put in all the hard work, it's time to graduate from your program. At most schools, you must apply for graduation. The registrar's office will review your transcript to make sure you've completed all the necessary coursework. Usually, you must pay a fee to apply.[36]

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Categories: Legal Careers