How do I get into a master’s in criminal justice program?

Graduate school applications require a variety of documentation that demonstrates your academic abilities, interest in the field of study and any related work experience. Expect to submit the following information for most criminal justice programs.

Tests or Certifications

Some criminal justice programs require applicants to submit GRE scores. The GMAT or LSAT may also be accepted.


While many students enter these programs with professional experience in a field related to criminal justice, most programs do not require it.


Bachelor’s transcripts from an accredited institution are required. Criminal Justice programs accept a wide range of undergraduate majors.

Additional Materials

Check with each program for an up-to-date list of application materials. Criminal Justice programs may also want you to include a current resume, writing sample, a statement of interest, multiple letters of recommendation and other supplemental materials.

What can I do to improve my chances of getting accepted into a program?

  • Submit strong letters of recommendation. You can also include letters that verify any prior work experience in fields related to criminal justice.
  • Develop your writing skills. Many criminal justice programs place a high value on writing at the graduate-level.
  • If you don’t have an undergraduate degree in criminology, criminal justice or a related field, consider taking an introductory course.
  • Get first-hand experience working with organizations that provide public service and safety resources.

Application Process Timeline

  • Review program requirements.
  • Take standardized tests, as required.
  • Order undergraduate transcripts.
  • Prepare required documentation (i.e., write essay, request recommendation letters).
  • Submit a completed application by the program’s posted deadline.

Note: There’s a lot of variation in the application process across programs. Some only admit students at certain times of year, which may be based on semesters or accelerated terms. Others have a rolling admissions policy that allows students to apply any time and quickly enroll. Completion timelines can also vary across programs within one institution or across a network of schools.

What are the degree options available at the master’s level?

The Master of Criminal Justice (M.C.J.), Master of Science in Criminal Justice (M.S.) and Master of Arts in Criminal Justice (M.A.) are all designed to help students pursue careers in this field, but not all options are offered at all schools. The M.C.J. typically prepares students for advanced technical work in the criminal justice field. The M.S. is usually designed with a research focus that includes more coursework in statistics and research methods. These programs may also have a thesis or capstone research project requirement. M.A. programs often include more humanities courses, and may have additional requirements such as foreign language proficiency. M.A. and M.S. programs can also prepare students for doctoral-level studies and academic careers. Interested students should review specific program goals, course lists, delivery formats and expected career outcomes carefully when comparing options.

Program Length

Master’s programs in criminal justice range from 33 to 55 total academic credits. These degrees can take as little as 12 months or as long as 2 years. The number of courses required varies by program, and students may finish the requirements faster or slower depending on their previous coursework and experience, and whether they are enrolled full- or part-time.

Program Goals

Criminal justice degrees prepare students for a wide range of career opportunities from advanced roles in law enforcement and management of community service organizations to policy analysis and academic positions. These programs address the many components of the complex criminal justice system including law enforcement, legal processes and corrections, as well as the management of related organizations.


Many schools offer several concentration areas, which help students gain additional knowledge and skills related to a specific area of interest within the broad field of criminal justice. Examples of the many specializations available include: Corrections, Global Issues, Law, Leadership and Management, Homeland Security, Forensics, Emergency Management, Analysis of Criminal Behavior and Public Administration.

Delivery Options

Students interested in completing a master’s degree have multiple formats to choose from, and many institutions offer more than one option. Traditional academic programs require students to attend all scheduled classes on campus or at learning centers, while online programs require students to log in to course websites and management systems for access to materials, activities and assessments. Hybrid programs offer a combination of online and in-person learning.

What do the major concepts and coursework look like?

Students in graduate-level criminal justice programs can expect to develop skills and knowledge in a range of topics, including criminal justice policy, administration and theory. The coursework emphasizes analytical thinking, ethical practices and professional communication in the context of the criminal justice system. Prerequisites or foundational courses in research and statistics are found in most programs.


Core courses provide a foundation of knowledge in topics related to theory and practice in the field. Common course subjects include:

  • Criminological Theory
  • Data Analysis in Criminal Justice
  • Ethical Issues in Criminal Justice Administration
  • Public Safety Ethnic and Cultural Awareness
  • Research Methods in Criminology
  • Criminal Justice Policy Analysis

Concentration courses prepare students for advanced practice in their specialization area and include classes like:

  • Program Planning and Management
  • Youth Crime Problems
  • Critical Issues in Terrorism
  • Criminal Law
  • Practices of Probation and Parole
  • Human Trafficking
  • Forensic Science

Electives are part of some degree plans and usually require advisor approval. These credits can include graduate-level courses in a wide range of topics, such as IT Security Policies and Procedures, Psychological Elements of Workplace Disruption and Courtroom Psychology.

Capstone Experience:

Most criminal justice master’s programs include a culminating experience. This could be a formal thesis, other independent research project, comprehensive exam or capstone course.

What about program costs?

Getting In

The graduate admissions process typically includes costs related to the following:

  • Application: Printed and online forms require payment of a non-refundable fee ranging from approximately $60 to $80.
  • Standardized tests: The GRE test administration fee is $195; additional fees apply for special handling and preparation courses. The GMAT fee is $250 and the LSAT cost is $175, although these tests are not accepted by all programs.

Tuition and Fees

Tuition rates can vary based on many variables such as the type of program (i.e., online, on-campus, blended), full- or part-time enrollment in courses, payment plan option (e.g., by course, by semester) and student residency (in-state, out-of-state). Costs range across schools, often including tuition plus a other related fees and expenses.

When estimating the cost of attending a criminal justice program, review the options offered by multiple schools and look for the following details to guide your decisions:

  • Total costs: The amount paid to complete all courses and program requirements.
  • Annual tuition: This is usually calculated based on full-time enrollment for one academic year.
  • Cost per credit: Programs require different numbers of courses and credits. The program with the fewest number of credits required isn’t necessarily the least expensive.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average full-time graduate tuition and fees was $14,993 in 2011. Current programs range from approximately $8,000 to $35,000.

Admissions and financial aid counselors can help research funding options to offset the total cost of attendance. Review our database of scholarships, grants and general financial aid advice for more information.

How does accreditation work?

What accrediting agencies should I be aware of for an MCJ?

The quality of graduate programs in criminal justice is not determined by specialized accreditation. In this field, it’s important that the college or university you choose is regionally or nationally accredited. With an accredited school, you can rest assured its quality has been vetted and that future employers will respect your degree. You’ll also be able to transfer credits to other institutions if necessary. Attending an institution lacking regional or national accreditation leaves you at a great disadvantage academically and when job searching.

Though not an accrediting body, one predominant criminal justice organization offers a certification for schools that meet their high standards of quality:

ACJS Certification
The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences is an international organization that provides resources for professionals working in the field. In order to improve the quality of criminal justice education, the ACJS implemented a certification review process. The certification evaluates evidence-based compliance with the ACJS Certification Standards. These standards are broken into nine sections, including program mission and history, faculty, resources, student services, program quality and effectiveness and more. Associate, baccalaureate and master’s degree programs that have met the standards and received certification are listed by ACJS.

How do I go about evaluating and selecting a program?

  • Review curriculum options. Research the strengths of multiple programs. Each program emphasizes specific aspects of criminal justice through the course subjects offered, available concentration and specialization tracks and faculty expertise. Make sure the program you choose provides a curriculum that matches your interests and career goals.
  • Review the state authorization status of online programs. Not all online programs have approval to enroll students from every state, although many programs are in the process of achieving this. If you are planning to study online, check with each program to make sure you are eligible to enroll.
  • Find out about real-world connections. Working as a criminal justice professional, whether in a direct role in public safety or managing program administration, involves complex situations and advanced problem-solving skills. Programs that integrate case studies, simulations, guest speakers, alumni networking, site visits and other criminal justice activities increase awareness of current trends and issues in the field.
  • Identify options for personalization. Some programs are more flexible than others. Focus on your educational needs and career goals when comparing programs. Will you be able to add a secondary specialization or track? Are there multiple options for internship or field experience locations? Can you select your own research area?
  • Compare delivery options. Consider your learning needs and preferences when choosing to study online, on campus or in a hybrid program. Online programs offer scheduling flexibility, but require more initiative on your part to stay on track with class assignments and activities. On campus programs allow you to interact with faculty members, classmates and support services in person, but class schedules can be difficult to attend around employment and family commitments.

What are the keys to success once I’ve begun my program?

  • Explore multiple career paths. Employment opportunities in criminal justice are available at all levels of government, as well as in private companies, research centers and community and educational organizations. Refer to what you’ve learned in your coursework and from your professors to figure out how you can apply your knowledge and skills to different roles within your specialization. Alumni networks and professional organizations can be great places to meet people already working in your area of interest. These professionals can offer career guidance and even facilitate meetings with prospective employers.
  • Gain first-hand experience. Most criminal justice programs don’t have internship requirements, but you may be able to gain similar experience through employment and service learning opportunities. Talk to your academic advisor and career center counselors about the possibilities. If you are already working in a criminal justice role, find out more about how you can build on prior experience as you continue your studies.
  • Expand your skill set. In addition to finding ways to experience criminal justice concepts outside your courses, consider pursuing skill development in one or more areas that are essential to success in the field. Effective communication and negotiation skills are important at all levels of criminal justice. Multicultural awareness and second language skills are also critical in many communities.