Navigating the Path to Graduate School

This week we welcome Dr. Shannon Dobranski, Director of Pre-Graduate and Pre-Professional Advising at Georgia Tech, to the blog. Welcome, Shannon!

Listen to “Episode 20: Navigating the Path to Grad School – Dr. Shannon Dobranski” on Spreaker.

“I want to go to medical school. Have I taken all the steps I need to?”

“What should I be doing right now to get into a competitive graduate program?”

“Will I fall behind if I study abroad?”

The most common questions I hear from college students is some version of “Am I on track?” One of my tasks as a Pre-Graduate and Pre-Professional Advisor is to reassure the students and alumni who seek my guidance that there really is no track.

Because the path to college is often forged collectively with friends and classmates pursuing similar outcomes at the same time, students assume the next step in their journey is also predictable. They might feel uneasy when they see a roommate or friend from home seemingly making faster progress or taking an unanticipated route to graduate or professional school.

But the truth is the journey to professions that require post-graduate education is not a march; it’s a voyage that requires time spent in exploration and self-discovery.

For some, that journey begins in high school and in the selection of an undergraduate university. High school seniors who anticipate graduate or professional school to pursue a career in healthcare, industry, or scholarship can ask questions of their professional mentors and, more importantly, of themselves to determine their possible way forward.

Health Professional School

You may be attracted to a career in medicine or another health field for many reasons. Perhaps you had a good experience (or a bad one!) with a physician when you were young, or maybe you observed a loved one who struggled with illness or injury. Medicine may be a family calling or a way to give back to your community. Perhaps you’ve dreamed of becoming a physician for so long that you’ve forgotten exactly what attracted you to the field. Now is a good time to get in touch with that motive and to practice putting those impulses to words.

Start a journal in which you capture your health-related activities, such as shadowing, volunteerism, research, or other extra-curricular service or leadership. In addition to keeping a record of these engagements, you should periodically reflect on how they are shaping you into a prospective health professional. Think about the following questions:

  • Why do I want to be a healthcare professional?
  • What steps have I taken already to prepare myself for that purpose?
  • What challenges have I encountered?
  • How have my ideas about my career changed?

Of course, not everything you do will be related directly to health, but that doesn’t mean that the things you are currently doing won’t inform the sort of healthcare professional you will become. Writing down your observations about your current activities and capturing your changing perspectives will show that you have chosen your career intentionally.

You also owe it to yourself to explore the career you have in mind by consulting experts. Talking to current health professionals or to pre-health advisors is a great way to learn more about a field and to test whether it might be a good fit. If you have family members or family friends in health careers, you can start with them and ask if they would introduce you to their colleagues for other perspectives.

If you don’t have the advantage of personal acquaintances in the profession, there are websites that can tell you about the career and how to prepare for it, such as the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions and ExploreHealthCareers.org. Your college or university will likely have advising resources to help you as well, either in dedicated pre-health advisors or in more general career advising or academic advising offices. I also highly encourage you to ask about pre-health advising resources during your college information sessions and tours.

Graduate School

If you are considering a career in teaching or research, or if you want to fast-track your career in some specific professions, you might discover that specialized post-graduate training is in your future. College professors, research scientists, and highly specialized personnel in government and industry all benefit from advanced coursework, usually culminating in a master’s degree or a PhD.

To determine if graduate school is right for you, I again recommend practicing reflection. Get started with these important questions:

  • What subjects am I genuinely curious about?
  • Do I have unanswered questions when I’ve completed a course?
  • Do I enjoy seeking new or additional information to solve problems?
  • Am I able to clearly explain my discoveries to other people?

While your reflection responses will reveal your own inclinations, you should also check with people in your anticipated career to see how much university training is expected for starting positions and advancement. For many fields, graduate school is not necessary, and you could advance more quickly by starting work rather than pursuing a master’s degree. Professors, current professionals, or pre-graduate or career advisors are good resources for this information.

As you consider your college options, ask what opportunities they have for faculty mentoring. A strong undergraduate research program will allow you to explore your commitment to research and provide experiences that will make you a strong applicant when you eventually apply to graduate school.

Next Steps

Whether you are considering a career in health or one that requires graduate school, you will benefit from a regular practice of self-reflection and from the habit of consulting a network of informed mentors or advisors. Here are some other actions you can take, now and as you enter college, to prepare for your career:

Participate in student organizations, research, or service projects. You may have an opportunity to do this in high school, but it is particularly important once you start college. These organizations and opportunities will advance you on your journey toward a specific career. Others won’t directly relate to your chosen field but will develop competencies or perspectives that will be valuable to you now and in the future. Be sure to reflect on these experiences in your journal!

Be curious. The most satisfying careers allow you to engage in a field that energizes you, so be open-minded early in your college career in case you discover that a different major or a minor would be rewarding. (Be sure to ask the colleges you are applying to about their major changing policies.) Be proactive during your college search and in your first year on campus and talk to an exploratory advisor to discover opportunities that fit your interests, and speak with career advisors about how your field of study might translate to a career.

Read actively. Explore your interests by staying current in your field. In some disciplines, the most recent developments will be captured in news publications and other popular discourse. In many fields, you will want to begin exploring scholarly journals and conference proceedings to discover the latest innovations. As a high school student, notice where some of these professionals attended college. This may help you broaden your list of schools to consider. And please don’t be discouraged if these materials are challenging at first; you will soon speak the language of your field.

Cultivate faculty relationships and maintain existing relationships. Professors may seem intimidating in the classroom, but they enjoy talking about their field of study and their research. Visit them during office hours, and try to set a goal for meeting other members of your campus support team. Check in with academic and career advisors each semester if possible.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog. Taking the time to do so is a great indication that you are well on your way to an exciting college and professional future.

Dr. Shannon Dobranski has been an educator at Georgia Tech since 1996. She is currently the Director of Pre-Graduate and Pre-Professional Advising, overseeing a team committed to students and alumni seeking careers in education or health, or pursuing graduate admission or prestigious fellowships. She believes that advising is relationship and that effective advising is critical for student success in higher education. 

The Basics of College Admission: Part 2

Because our family does not watch a lot of TV, my kids are fascinated by commercials. I’m not necessarily proud to admit they quote these regularly and pause to listen attentively when the Geico gecko speaks or the Audi logo flashes on the screen.

While I could not tell you who is currently promoting specific brands, or sing any popular jingles, I do appreciate their ability to emphasize words in order to highlight the quality of their product. Cereal companies seem particularly adept in this arena.

In fact, I’m giving serious thought to utilizing some of these phrases at our next board meeting. “This class is bursting with talent.” “They are simply chockful of future entrepreneurs, innovators, and change agents.” “Packed with students from around our state, nation, and the world, you won’t believe how much better you’ll feel after meeting them.” Then I’ll do that perfect slow pour of milk that bounces off the flakes just enough to entice your appetite without spattering on the table. Incredible!

Actually, since we are on Zoom this year, I’ll probably just stick to a few bullet points and infographics with the board. But this blog is a different story. I hope you are hungry and have a big spoon because these three are filled with nutrients to sustain you through your admission experience. Part II of The Basics of College Admission– It’s burst-pack-chock-O-licious!

Standardized Testing and Test Score Optional

Mary Tipton Woolley (Senior Associate Director) discusses how standardized testing factors into admission decisions, as well as what students should consider this year with so many colleges either test optional or test blind.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Standardized Testing & Test Score Optional-Sr. Associate Director, Mary Tipton Woolley” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Listen for the “signals” schools will send you on the extent to which tests are or are not part of their admission decisions. Ask schools directly about their specific policies and what is going to “replace” testing in their process. An AP score or SAT subject test is never going to be the thing that gets you in or keeps you out.

Listen For: Optional means optional! (It’s not code for spend a lot of time, money, or heartache try to schedule a test during a global pandemic).

Key Quote: “Test scores really play an outsized role in the minds of families.” (Close second: “After asynchronous and pivot, ‘weird’ is my favorite word of 2020.”)

Further Reading: Fair Test and NACAC Dean’s Statement

Early Action/Early Decision & All Things Decision Plans

Ashley Brookshire (West Coast Admission Director) provides key tips for students and families about the alphabet soup of decisions plans, including EA, REA, ED, and more. She provides insight into the college admission timeline and how students can determine which admission decision plan is right for them.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Early Action/Early Decision & All Things Decision Plans – Ashley Brookshire” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Go to the source by seeking out each school’s website, decision plan description, and other requirements. Get organized and know your options. Use your resources (ex: school counselor and family). Apply when you are ready for your application to be reviewed. Never take one number at face value.

Listen For: Beware the traffic jam of applications.

Key Quote: “If you are assuming a decision plan is going to greatly increase your likelihood of being admitted, that is certainly a misconception!”

Further Reading:  Tulane Admission Blog by Jeff Schiffman, Common Data Set.

GPA, Rigor of Curriculum, aka All Things Grades

Laura Simmons (Director of Non-Degree Programs) takes on this behemoth of a subject in order to help students understand what admission readers are looking for when they review transcripts/GPA, grading scales, grade trends, course choice, and how they read/what they’re discussing in committee.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: GPA, Rigor of Curriculum, aka. all things grades- Laura Brown Simmons” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Study your transcript the way an admission counselor would. Be on the lookout for terms like holistic, selective, etc. to get a sense of the expectations a college will have for grades and course choice. Context is everything—you or your school should help colleges understand how Covid-19 has altered and impacted your academic experience. (For more on this check out our blog/podcast about the “Covid question” on the Common Application.)

Listen For: 20,000 transcripts in the last four years! (Translation: She’s an expert.)

Key Quote: “NOTHING predicts success in college like success in high school.”

Further Reading:  UGA Admission Blog by David Graves

Stay hungry, my friends, because we will be releasing new episodes each week throughout October. You can fill your bowl and feast anytime by subscribing and listening on iTunesSpotify, and Spreaker.

Upcoming episodes include:

  • Extracurricular activities (Impact, Involvement, and Influence)
  • Special Circumstances/ Additional Information
  • Recommendation Letters
  • Interviews

If you would like to subscribe to receive blog entries when they post, please enter your email address in the “subscribe” box at the top of the page. We welcome comments and feedback at @gtadmission on Twitter.

Five Important Lessons from Covid-19

Listen to “Episode 21: Important Lessons from Covid-19 – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

Stay at home orders in March, and the phased re-entry we have experienced since, has given us plenty of time to be with family members. If you are like me, this has been both beautiful and challenging. I’ve frequently found myself simultaneously thinking, “I love you,” and “Wow. I need some space.”

In our house, proximity and time have led to some healthy conversations and important debates on issues ranging from politics to healthcare to fashion to sports. Most of these exchanges have led to either a greater understanding of one another or a willingness to respectfully disagree.

Six months into quarantine, one major topic remains unresolved: PG-13 movies. We have a 12-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter. In my mind, it’s easy to round up for our son. My thinking is I’d rather be there for exposure to references, specific words, or other content. While my wife does not totally disagree with that mentality, our daughter is her sticking point.

“How are you possibly rounding up from nine? You can’t even do that by decades.”

Point taken. Honestly, my problem is more with the lack of consistency in the ratings system. First, 80’s movies rated PG would definitely be Rated R today (although I’m not broaching that because it would reduce our options by about 25%). Second, The Hunger Games is PG-13. Who is in charge here?

Thankfully, she has relented on a few must see PG-13 films, including Blind Side, Black Panther, Hamilton, and The Avengers.  One I came across the other night was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  Colorful language, stealing a car, lying to parents, skipping school, and tormenting the principal? No point even watching the trailer.

However, I did share a key quote from the opening scene with my kids: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Covid has pushed pause on an increasingly frenetic world. If you are a high school student, I hope you will take a page out of Ferris’ book—STOP. Look around. And don’t miss these five important lessons:

Consider what you do and don’t miss.

If summer baseball was canceled and you have been having dreams about curveballs and sacrifice flies, pay attention to that. When the things we truly love are taken away, we ache for them. Is there a class this fall not meeting in person and you are bummed about it? That is likely a sign of a subject you have a true affinity for versus one you’ve been told is important or one you should like/take.

Conversely, what are you relieved to get out of? Our daughter was over half way to her black belt in Taekwondo when Covid hit. Last Sunday I was helping her clean out her closet. I stepped away for a few minutes and when I came back she had discreetly wedged her uniform in the Goodwill bag between some dresses and pants.

What is your taekwondo? What have you been on the hamster wheel with and are now realizing is not really your thing? Pay attention to both sides of the coin academically, extra-curricularly, and relationally, because these are critical signposts as you consider which colleges and cultures best fit your personality, goals, and interests.

Control what you can control.

You can order from your favorite restaurant, you just can’t eat inside. You can go to the park but you won’t be able to sit on the benches. While experiencing limitations or being reminded we don’t control everything in life is never a fun lesson, it is good preparation for your admission experience. Students often feel like the admission process “happens to them.” Much is made in the press and school communities about who doesn’t get in or didn’t receive a specific scholarship.

As a result, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that three-fourths of the experience is up to you. You choose where to apply. Then we choose whom to admit. After that, the ball is back in your court as you receive multiple offers and choose where you attend. And the one often left out, but arguably most important: You choose to maximize the resources and network your college offers. In this regard, I think Covid has been a good primer for college admission (and life well beyond). I am hopeful that perspective, relative importance, self-confidence, and personal agency will triumph over the fleeting disappointment of one or two closed doors.

Things change. You adapt.

Before you get up from reading this blog, take some time to appreciate all you have adjusted to over the last six months (six months!). You have demonstrated phenomenal resilience. Nobody would have chosen this situation. Any adult will tell you how sorry they are that your high school experience has been truncated or altered because of the pandemic.

And yet…and yet… you are here. You haven’t lost sight of your goals. You are undeterred. You are resolute. You are building powerful, lifelong muscles of adaptability, resilience, and vision of the future that will provide critical strength and skills as a college applicant, a college student, and well into life after graduation.

Money Matters.

This spring and summer colleges received more appeals and petitions for re-evaluation of financial aid packages than ever before. Covid has served as a harsh reminder of just how fast stocks can drop, markets can shift, and entire sectors can take brutal economic hits. The bottom line is your college list should not only have a range of academic profiles and selectivity levels, but also account for affordability.  While this is not a perfect proxy, I encourage you to strongly consider applying to at least one in-state public university and/or community college.

Before you submit an application be sure to initiate a conversation with your family about: a) their ability/willingness to pay for your college education, b) any limitations or conditions they have about the type of school they will or won’t pay for, c) their expectations of your contributions financially, including loans, jobs during college, etc.  This blog expounds on those topics and important questions.

It’s Not Over.

At the end of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the credits begin to roll after he again says, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” But then there are actually two more brief scenes. If history is any indicator, we will not see another global pandemic in our lifetime. This time pause was hit for you. I hope you won’t miss the critical lessons above. But most importantly, I hope you will make a practice out of stopping and looking around. If Covid has taught us nothing else, it is that life is precious. Don’t miss it!

If you would like to subscribe to receive blog entries when they post, please enter your email address in the “subscribe” box at the top of the page. We welcome comments and feedback at @gtadmission on Twitter.

The Basics of College Admission

Each summer we host a program for faculty, staff, and friends of Georgia Tech who have kids in high school. This has come to be known as “Admission 101.” In about an hour we discuss the landscape of higher education; how students can/should build a list of schools; how to make a good campus visit; what colleges are looking for in applicants/ how admission decisions are made; and how families can go through their college admission experience in a unified and healthy manner. It’s a lot. A lot!

In fact, someone could probably write an entire book on what we try to cover in an hour. Hmmm…

One piece of feedback we received this year is attendees wanted more of the nuts and bolts of each part of the application (academics, essays, testing, extracurriculars, interviews, recommendations, etc.)

So, now that college applications are open and Early Action and Early Decision deadlines are on the horizon, we are launching a two month podcast mini-series as part of  The College Admission Brief (available on iTunesSpotify, and Spreaker).

Holding to the same promise of 10 minutes or less, the first three episodes of The Basics of College Admission are live, and ready for your listening pleasure.

Understanding Fit

Alexis Szemraj (Senior Admission Counselor) discusses the questions you should ask yourself as you consider colleges, as well as practical ways to evaluate and compare schools.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Understanding Fit – Alexis Szemraj” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Use your network, keep an open mind, and ask yourself tough and real questions. Check out the alumni magazine and student newspaper from the schools you are considering, as well as their various social media channels. Think career, not major.

Listen For: Legacy lurk.

Key Quote: “The process should start by looking at yourself- not just a list of colleges.”

Further Reading: Cappex and Big Future

Campus/Virtual Visits

Katy Beth Chisholm (Assistant Director for Campus Visits) provides key tips for students and families about how to access colleges using online resources, such as online tours, sessions, webinars, and other campus resources.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Campus/Virtual Visits – Katy Beth Chisolm” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Take and keep notes, debrief with friends, family members, school counselors. Find authentic sources. Pace yourself.

Listen For: The Massive Matrix Spreadsheet. (I did find this one.)

Key Quote: “Check out the YouTube channel, Facebook Live, and Instagram stories (from individual colleges).”

Further Reading: YouVisit and Inside HigherEd

General Application Tips

Alex Thackston (Senior Admission Counselor) provides great insight on who admission readers really are, and discusses practical tips and common pitfalls students should know while working on their applications.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: General Application Tips – Alex Thackston” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Prepare, don’t procrastinate! Find a trusted proofreader. Be yourself.

Listen For: Underwater karate against sharks.

Key Quote: “We can read the rush in your application.” (aka Don’t procrastinate.)

Further Reading:  College Admission Timeline for Seniors and Common App Application Guide

We’ll be releasing an episode each week throughout September and October. You can subscribe and listen on iTunesSpotify, and Spreaker.

Upcoming episodes include:

  • Early Action v Early Decision
  • Standardized Testing and Test Score Optional vs. Test Score Blind
  • Extracurricular activities (Impact, Involvement, and Influence)
  • Special Circumstances/ Additional Information
  • Recommendation Letters
  • Interviews