Schools for Computer Careers

Virtually every business uses computers at least to some extent, and almost every piece of equipment from iPhones to toasters contains some sort of electronic chip or computer. It takes experts to run and maintain all these computers. From the first Department of Computer Science at a U.S. school - Purdue University in 1962 - the education field surrounding computer careers has mushroomed dramatically. Today there are thousands of schools that offer associate's, bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degrees in fields of study associated with computer science.

You can choose from a wide variety of technical and vocational schools, community colleges, universities, or online programs. For example, according to USCollegeSearch.org, Washington has 139 schools offering degrees related to computer careers. The same source reports that Iowa has 114 such schools, and

Virginia has 151. Even Rhode Island, our smallest state, offers 83 choices for computer science programs!

There are many factors to consider when choosing a computer school, including whether it is accredited or not. And, just because you choose a school doesn't mean you automatically get accepted to that school. Almost all schools have a competitive application process that weeds out prospective students who are not academically, financially, or emotionally prepared for the degree program.

Choosing a Computer School

Most computer careers start with obtaining a degree. Before choosing a school, talk to other students who attend schools that interest you and schedule campus visits to meet prospective professors and explore the facilities.

Answering the following questions will also help you decide which school to attend:

  • What degree do I want? For an associate's degree, a technical or vocational school may be the right choice. For a bachelor's degree, you'll probably need to attend a college or university. For master's or PhD degrees, you'll definitely need to focus on universities.
  • Does the school offer the course work I want? Just because three schools offer a degree in computer science doesn't mean the curricula at all three schools will be the same. Examine each school's list of required courses for the degree to ensure you'll be learning what you want to learn.
  • What about practical experience? Many employers are just as interested in a job candidate's practical experience as they are in a degree. Therefore, degree programs that offer lab time, internships, and other methods of gaining on-the-job training can be more valuable than those that simply concentrate on textbook content.
  • Is the program accredited? Accreditation means that some governing body, such as the Computer Science Accreditation Commission (CSAC), has evaluated the program and determined that it is of good quality.
  • Where is the program located? Attending a school in another state may result in relocation costs and a higher tuition rate. But some schools offer distance learning (online) classes, which can allow you to obtain a degree from a nonlocal school.
  • How much does it cost? Typically, technical and vocational schools and community colleges are less expensive to attend than larger colleges and universities. However, scholarships and other forms of financial aid from the latter may be available to offset costs.
  • What is the student-teacher ratio? If you find it easier to learn one-on-one with a teacher, you may want to look for a school that has low student-to-teacher ratios. On the other hand, if you are an independent learner, you may be comfortable attending classes with 50 or more students. Choose a school with a student-teacher ratio that matches your learning style.
  • Is there postgraduation support? Computer careers are competitive. Therefore, choose a school that helps with resume preparation, hosts job fairs, offers career counseling and placement services, and has a good track record of placing graduates in quality jobs.

Applying to a Computer School

The application process depends on the type of school (vocation or technical, college or university, or online) and on the type of degree (associate's, bachelor's, master's, or PhD). However, the steps are similar, as are the factors that can contribute to a successful application.

Application Process The time frames given here are generic; each school may have a slightly different schedule. Also, you may want to apply to several schools, especially if the entrance requirements at your top choice are super competitive.

In November or December, complete each school's application package. Schools typically use several criteria to make their acceptance decisions, including GPAs from previous schools, letters of reference, standardized test scores (such as the SAT or GRE), personal essay, and awards and extracurricular activities. Applications are generally due January 1. Be aware that each college will probably assess an application fee - usually around $25 to $50. Some colleges use paper applications; others prefer that you apply online. There is also a time-saving "Common Application" that is used by several hundred schools. During the spring months (March through May), read letters of acceptance and letters regarding financial aid carefully. If you are accepted at more than one school, decide which will be your final choice, and write polite letters of regret to the others.

In June, if you are completing a course of study (such as high school, or your bachelor's before moving on to a master's), send your final transcripts to the school you'll be attending.

During the summer, plan your first year's course work, attend orientation sessions at the school, and meet with your assigned counselor at the school.

Tips for Success

Some of the same characteristics that will help you succeed in various IT jobs will also help you be a successful college applicant: attention to detail, adherence to deadlines, necessary research, and good communication skills. Here are some specific tips:

  • Plan ahead - don't wait until the last minute to ask for letters of reference or to write your personal essay.
  • Gather names and addresses of references, GPAs, internship records, test scores, and other information before you start filling out forms.
  • Keep a calendar and a checklist for each school to which you are applying.
  • Keep a copy of everything you send.
  • Store each school's paperwork in a separate folder; it helps if each folder is a different color.

Computer School Accreditation

It makes sense that, just as not all cars or stereos are of equal quality, not all computer schools are created equal either. But how are you supposed to know if a school is good or not? Does it have talented professors? Is the course work relevant to industry needs? Do graduates tend to get good jobs? Luckily, organizations exist that specialize in evaluating schools. Those that meet or exceed the standards are "accredited," that is, deemed of good quality. Employers are more likely to hire a candidate with a degree from an accredited school. Also, if you want to continue your education, you can be sure that course work from an accredited school will be accepted for credit at your next school.

Accreditation occurs at two levels.

  • First, the entire school can be accredited by an agency approved by the U.S. Department of Education. There are six such regional agencies, such as the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
  • Second, independent, program-specific agencies can accredit individual programs. For schools that prepare students for computer careers, the main accrediting body is the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Within ABET, the Computer Sciences Accreditation Board (CSAB) develops accreditation criteria for computer science, information technology, information systems, and software engineering programs; the CSAB also trains program evaluators.

ABET works with professional societies, such as the Computer Society of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE-CS) and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), to set the accreditation criteria. According to ABET's "2010-2011 Criteria for Accrediting Computing Programs," accreditation criteria include general criteria, such as the quality of student-teacher interaction and how active faculty members are in the associated computing discipline. There are also program-specific criteria such as "[graduates can] apply design and development principles in the construction of software systems of varying complexity" or "[coursework covers] the fundamentals of a modern programming language, data management, networking and data communications, systems analysis and design and the role of Information Systems in organizations."

Computer Careers Certification

Understandably, employers want to be assured that their employees know what they're doing. That is why many computer careers require at least an associate's degree or, more often, a bachelor's degree. But degree programs by their very nature are broadly based. Often, employers want more specific guarantees of knowledge. Hence, computer certification has become a popular way of demonstrating expert knowledge of one facet or another of computer technology. For example, you can become a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer, or get a certification in computer security or networking.

Of course, technology changes quickly; there are constantly new operating system versions, new releases of software applications, new hardware, or new computer viruses and other security threats. Therefore, some say certification is useless, because by the time you study for and pass a test, the knowledge on that test is probably obsolete. This does have a grain of truth to it, but still, most employers value certifications, as long as they are reasonably up-to-date.

If you want to pursue a computer certification, you'll have to research who offers that certification, register for the test, study, then take (and hopefully pass) the exam. Some certification exams can be taken online; for others, you may have to go to a testing center.

What Computer Certification Is

Computer certification is a process by which you prove you have expert knowledge and expertise in a specific area of computer technology. There are certifications for almost all computer jobs. In general, certification is achieved by taking one or more tests. These tests can be typical multiple-choice, or they can be more involved, with hands-on simulations and virtual labs. Some certifications are offered by software and hardware vendors. Others are offered by independent organizations and for-profit companies.

Many computer jobs require one or more certifications, especially for more senior-level positions. Even if you have a college degree, certain certifications can help boost your pay scale and credibility in your chosen computer career. For example, according to a global study conducted in 2010 by TechRepublic (an online technical community), computer professionals with certification in project management make an average of 26 percent more annually, compared to noncertified computer professionals. Another study, conducted by Dice Learning (a company that offers technical training and certification services), indicated that Microsoft and Cisco certifications, in particular, are associated with higher salaries in computer careers.

To become certified, the overall process includes choosing a certification, studying for the exam (which can take several months), then taking the exam. Some certifications involve several separate exams. And, because the computer career world is always changing, most certifications have expiration dates. Therefore, you should be prepared to renew your certifications every so often, as necessary.

Preparing for Certification Tests

As computer careers become ever-more specialized, certifications can make or break your computer career. Computer certification represents a substantial investment in both dollars and time. Therefore, you'll want to prepare for your certification exams as thoroughly as possible. You'll need to register (sometimes several months in advance), study well, and make sure your body and brain are in top form on exam day.

How do I register? The main U.S. testing centers are Thompson Prometric (www.prometric.com) and Pearson Vue (www.pearsonvue.com). You can register at their Web sites. For online exams, you can register at the vendor's or certifying organization's Web site, such as the Institute for Certification of Computer Professionals (ICCP). Check with your current employer to see if they will help pay for the certification.

How do I study? You can study on your own, take courses that help you prepare for the exam, or attend a "boot camp," which is an intensive exam preparation. If you are studying on your own, use the following study tips to increase your chance of success:

  • Find out what the exam objectives are, and study for each objective.
  • Purchase relevant study guides, books, and other resources - skimping on these is "penny-wise but pound-foolish."
  • If possible, find a study group related to your certification. Sources include colleagues at work and social networking Web sites.
  • Set deadlines for each topic to help you stay on track, and avoid procrastinating.
  • Allow plenty of time for each topic - cramming is not a good idea.
  • Keep your study sessions reasonably brief - maybe an hour to an hour and a half each. Longer sessions just tire you out and you won't remember what you studied.
  • Also, occasionally stop and review everything you've studied so far.

Are there practice tests? Practice tests can help you prepare for the real exam by identifying weak areas of knowledge. Also, if you have been out of school a while, practice tests can help relieve test anxiety. You can use a search engine to find tests related to the certification you are pursuing.

What about vouchers? Certification exam vouchers can help reduce the cost associated with a particular certification. Whether an exam voucher is worth the money depends on what exam you are taking, whether you can redeem it locally, and what other products and services come bundled with the voucher. Do your research before you buy to see if an exam voucher makes sense for your situation.

How do I deal with test anxiety? Let's face it - tests simply aren't fun for most people. But you can use these tips to keep your test anxiety to a minimum:

  • Talk to an expert at the testing facility or vendor to find out what format the test will take, such as multiple-choice versus essay answers. Also find out how much time you'll have to take the test, what score is required to pass, and anything else they are willing to tell you about the test.
  • Take lots of practice tests, to prove to yourself that taking tests is no big deal.
  • Sleep and eat well before the test, allow plenty of time to get to the testing center (or to log on to the Internet if you are taking the test online), and pause occasionally during the test to relax and breathe deeply.
  • Keep the test in perspective - although it will be a disappointment not to pass, it isn't the end of the world. You can always try again. Just think of how much you've already learned and how much easier it will be next time around!

Last Updated: 04/27/2014

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