The Secret to Getting into Professional Schools

by Peter Stokes

In an interesting interview on the web site Poets and Quants, an online community for those interested in graduate business education, Derrick Bolton, Director of Admissions at Stanford Graduate School of Business, refuses to answer some questions about the minutiae of admissions decisions.  When pressed, he explains why he is stonewalling: “There is a lot of information that applicants want that has no value to them in the [admissions] process.  I think the more they focus on how we make the sausage, the more of a disservice they do to themselves…If they are focusing…on what is happening here, what is the black box, what is the secret sauce, I think all that time comes at the expense of sitting down with the recommender and talking about what their dreams actually are.  Or sitting down and thinking about what they want to do.”

The generally rather broad range of GPAs and test scores of those accepted at professional schools shows there is much more to admissions than those numbers.  So what do you have to do beyond classes and a test?  Well, there is no secret, simple formula for getting into professional schools.  If there were, everyone would follow it.  In the end, nobody would stand out in the applicant pool.

A potential pitfall lies in believing that there is a specific profile that a school looks for.  Generally speaking, schools are looking to put together a class of people with a variety of different backgrounds, strengths, and interests.  What they are looking for is people who actually have real interests—who have explored and figured out what they really like to do.  A real understanding of what you really care about, and why you are applying in the first place, can set you apart.  You should understand how the degree program you are applying to will help you progress on the course where your true interest lies.

The central question, then, should not be what schools are looking for, but what you are looking for, and if, and how, the graduate or professional school you have in mind will help you find it.  An MBA, or an MD, or a JD, (or MPA, MPP, MPH, and so forth) is not a reward for having done well, it is a qualification for a profession—usually a highly demanding one.  Simulating an interest in the profession, even if it worked, would not ultimately do the school, the profession, or you any big favor.  So you should pursue opportunities to develop yourself, to experience something like the profession you have in mind and even some alternatives, and try to come to understand as fully as possible what is important to you.

But what should you write in your admissions essay?  Director Bolton dodges this question instructively too: “I have a point of view on what they shouldn’t write.  They shouldn’t write things that they think we want to hear.”  The most effective essays will be those that show that you really have thought through what you want to do, and know why you are making this commitment.  The essay still won’t write itself, you have to craft it, and we can help you with that.  But if you’ve explored the profession you want to go into and have kept in mind the big picture—not just getting in, but what the degree leads to—then you’ll have a good head start.

Post-thanksgiving Pep Talk

So, you’ve followed your career counselor’s advice to do some networking while at home for thanksgiving break and perhaps got a contact – a relative’s next door neighbor, let’s say – who works at the magazine that you’d like to intern at next summer.  Nice job! But now, what do you do with this information?

Even though it seems early to be asking for internships right now, I’d encourage you to connect with this contact and follow up with your referrer this week.  Connecting early gives you more time to learn more from this person about opportunities at this company. Besides, it’s good manners – if you don’t use this contact and follow up, the referrer might be more reluctant to offer you a contact or do other favors in the future.  Remember that at least half of the jobs out there are never advertised. If you’re the first to ask about it, you might just get it and in the process you save the company the hassle of recruiting.

As the resident shy career counselor here, I understand that networking can feel unnatural at first.  The trick for me is to think of these lukewarm contacts as your friends of friends and you’re merely asking for a bit of advice from them. It’s like when you were in high school and you asked your buddy’s cousin who is a Penn alumna about what Penn is like and how fast you have to run to get on the Penn track team.

With that mentality, craft a short introductory email to the contact that includes:

1)   Name drop: “My aunt so-and-so suggested that I give you a call because I’ve been researching design careers in the magazine industry…”

2)   Who you are: “I’m a sophomore at Penn with a Health and Societies major…” Include information about your background and interests but don’t overwhelm with your qualifications

3)   The “Ask”: “Would you have a few moments to talk with me by phone about …? I have some questions about …”

4)   Next steps: “I’ll call your office next week to see if we can find a time convenient to chat.”

5)   Thank you

After you’ve emailed your contact, also send your referrer a thank you note, which could be via email or snail mail. This takes only a few minutes and she will appreciate the feedback that she has been helpful to you. Then next week, call the contact to follow up on the email as you promised. For what to do next, especially once you get an informational interview or face-to-face meeting with the contact, I refer you to the  articles on the Career Services website about networking and information interviewing.

Happy Thanksgiving

Penn Career Services will be closed from 2pm on Wednesday, November 24 until 9am on Monday, November 29th in observance of the Thanksgiving break.

We look forward to seeing you all again after the break.  In the meantime, let Penn & Beyond help with these helpful Thanksgiving-related entries:

Plus our original Thanksgiving classic from 2009:

Happy Thanksgiving from everyone here at Career Services!

The Power of Gratitude

by Sharon Fleshman

As the fall semester and the year 2010 quickly draw to a close, Thanksgiving Break is typically welcomed for a number of reasons.  It is a chance to play catch-up before the flurry of finals to come and papers and projects that are due.  It allows for connecting with family and friends, even if the Thanksgiving holiday is not part of your cultural tradition.  Though it may seem obvious, Thanksgiving also offers an opportunity to be more intentional about the practice of gratitude. We tend to take inventory at the end of a year.  Whether conscious of it or not, we may ask ourselves, “Did I accomplish what I set out to do this year?” In cases where the answer is “no”, unmet expectations can be quite disappointing and perhaps even disillusioning.   Here is where the power of gratitude really comes in handy.  In their most recent blog posts, my colleagues Barbara Hewitt and Julie Vick have already pointed to some wonderful things to be thankful for, such as a Penn education as well as the contribution that those in various careers make.   To that list, I would add a few more items.  I would encourage you to also be thankful for:

1)       A sense of calling and purpose: I think that human beings are wired with the desire to make an impact on the world around them.  How this occurs is going to evolve over the course of your life. You may set goals at a given time and find that you have to shift gears and tweak those goals. Still, it is a vital part of personhood to want to find meaning in life.

2)       A time to learn about yourself: In addition to learning about your discipline or major, college seems to be a great launching point for a self-discovery process that will continue to empower you to affirm your strengths and confront areas that could hinder your growth.

3)       A support system: I can’t stress enough how crucial this is, especially when you struggle with the first two items I mentioned.  I hope you have established a support system at this point, but if not, you can give thanks for availability of campus resources that can help you form one.  Whether it is the campus counseling center, a faith community, or the many other resource centers on campus, support is necessary and available.

All three of these items were really what made my own time as a student at Penn so rewarding.  To reinforce my third point, I refer you to a classic TV episode, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, that reminds me of the importance of gratitude in the midst of unmet expectations.  For those who are not familiar with the Thanksgiving tradition in the United States, it revolves around a meal that brings everyone around a common table for dishes such as roast turkey, stuffing, sweet potato or pumpkin pie, etc… So what happens when you expect this typical Thanksgiving feast and end up around a ping-pong table with plates of toast, jelly beans, pretzels, and popcorn? At first, you will ask questions like: “What kind of Thanksgiving dinner is this? Where’s the mashed potatoes?” In a broader sense, all of us at some point wonder, “What kind of life is this? Where’s the job offer… great relationship…meaningful career?”  But hopefully, you look around, and become grateful for those at the table and the opportunity to eventually help others who have less access to support and resources.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Facing the Lion’s Den: Addressing tough questions during the holidays

By Claire Klieger

Anxious about going home for the holidays because you know your parents or relatives are going to ask the dreaded question, “So, what are you doing after graduation?”, “Do you have a job yet?” or my personal least favorite, “What are you going to do with that English major anyway?” (as an English major, this was one I got a lot). Holidays can often be an anxious time anyway, but most of us dread talking about future plans, especially when we’re not sure what they may entail. Here are some tips to help you get through any awkward questions (for career parallels and lessons on how to survive the holiday in general, check out last year’s post, No “Gobble”digook – Hidden Career Lessons in Thanksgiving Dinner):

Please, please don't ask me about my future!

1) Don’t show fear. Family, like lions, dogs, bears or other predators, can sense fear in the air like they can smell when the turkey is almost done. So, the best way to combat annoying or unwanted questions is with a calm and self-assured response (more on that in a minute). If you seem confident about your options and choices, you’re more likely to inspire that confidence in others.

2) The best offense is a good defense. There’s a lot to be said for that old Boy Scout adage, “always be prepared.” By familiarizing yourself with information and statistics about everything from hiring timelines to salaries (which is actually much easier and faster than it sounds), you can take the wind right out of their sails of doubt and worry. Remember that there is a wealth of information available to you on the Career Services Website. We collect senior and summer surveys annually and produce reports which show what Penn students are doing in summer and full time positions. There is data broken down by industry, job type and major. In that way, you can say, “Well, Mom, since most students don’t get their internship offers until March or April, it’s actually still very early in the process” or “Dad, I know you’re worried that I didn’t get an offer from OCR, but on average, less than 20% of college seniors each year receive their offers that way but almost everyone eventually gets a job so there are still plenty of options for me.”

3) Show them what steps you are taking. Sometimes, all parents (or grandparents and aunts and uncles, or guys we call uncle even though they aren’t technically family) want to know is that you are making progress on something. So, if they seem concerned about your job or internship search, just let them know about the things you are doing (or, ahem, will start doing) to better position yourself for opportunities. You can network with Penn Alumni through PACNet to learn about different possible careers or get advice about the best places to look for openings or what kinds of skills you should stress in an application. You can research employers or industries of interest through a variety of our online resources (see A map to (career research) treasures!), update your resume, or do online interview practice through InterviewStream (one of the new additions to our online subscriptions this fall—it’s fantastic). Or, best of all, tell them you’re planning to come speak to an advisor in Career Services!

4) Embrace your strengths. Each of you brings a variety of talents and skills to any employer. In fact, your Penn education alone has honed many of these attributes and it’s important to get comfortable discussing what we like to call “transferable skills”. These are things that you use on a daily basis at Penn, probably without thinking about them, which would also make you successful in just about any job: strong writing and analytical skills, the ability to research and synthesize information, etc. There are probably even more specific skills that your course of study has enhanced, which you can include in your arsenal of positive traits that make you the kind of candiate that employers want to hire.

So, chin up, and if you like, just say, “Gee, I think that makes for really boring meal-time conversation. Can you please pass the mashed potatoes?” Or, if you want to really throw them for a loop…“You want to hear something really bizarre? My career advisor’s mother packed a 20lb frozen turkey, a package of celery and two bags of frozen cranberries in her suit case to take to Zimbabwe for Thanksgiving!” (yes, that was my mother and amazingly, apparently it all survived the 25 plus hours of travel fine and still frozen).