narrative advising

On this page, I post reflections that arise as part of my practice.  A couple recent ones are included here:

Remember, you're a package, not a compilation of numbers

I am sometimes confronted with a challenge that confounds students and families, one that reflects how little applicants and families sometimes know about the graduate school admissions process.  I occassionally meet with a student who has a very high GPA and outstanding standardized test scores, and those students expect that those two markers alone will earn them admission to top programs.

What these individuals have failed to understand--deliberately or because no one told them--is that schools are looking for comprehensive preparation, character, and evidence of communication skills.  Test scores and GPAs are only part of the comprehensive preparation part of the equation.  While the exact form will vary, you must consider demonstrating:

  • Mastery of concepts and intellectual leaders in the field
  • Evidence of experience in the field you are pursuing, however tangential (volunteer work or employment)
  • Sustained engagement with professionals in your field, applied or academic

For academic programs, you will need to show:

  • A research agenda
  • Mastery of relevant literature
  • Evidence of research acumen

And beyond that, you need to show that you're a character of substance who has the right motivations (whatever resonates in the field).  Having only earned good grades and a high test score does not demonstrate a well-rounded character.  And then there's the matter of how you convey your skills and talk about yourself (in the written and spoken word).  There are very few fields where you can thrive without strong communication skills, especially if you're interested in upward mobility and a leadership position.

Each of the points made above deserves a post in itself, which I'll get to in time.  But in the meantime, stay focused on being a rounded applicant, not a set of numbers!

Choosing a school?  Qualitative factors matter most

This is a particularly hectic time of year for medical students, but the decisions they face with deciding where to apply and ultimately where to attend school are the same as students in other disciplines:

§  What school is the best fit for me, and how do I assess fit?
§  How much do I care about status and official rankings?  What rankings matter to me?
§  How much should I value extracurricular factors like location, proximity to family, etc.?
§ What would I like to see in my cohort?

The list of relevant questions could go on and on.  With perhaps the exception of law school, where oftentimes the ranking of your school has a direct correlation with your post-graduate opportunities, students are wise to recall that finding the right fit for their needs and interests is much more important than the quest for status and prestige.  When a student fits a program, he or she will be well-supported by faculty, feel stimulated and challenged, have the opportunity to pursue personal interests (e.g. a particular medical specialty), and obtain a degree in a collegial environment of allied peers. 

So remember, reports like those offered by US News and World Report can only capture a small slice of the whole picture when evaluating schools.  It is the job of the student and those advising him or her to identify a relevant suite of factors and make decisions about where to apply and attend schools based on ALL of these factors.  Remember, your education is what you make of it at the end of the day, and the zealous pursuit of status is not a recipe for success or, perhaps more importantly, happiness and career satisfaction.