Learning from Grad Students About Graduate School

Peter Stokes

An essential part of figuring out if you are really interested in graduate school, and getting advice about how to get there, is to talk to people in the field that you want to get into. If you want to get a Ph.D., it’s vital to talk to faculty in a relevant field. If you’re considering an MBA, for example, it makes sense to talk with people in the industry you plan to go into, to investigate what the MBA will do for you, if there are specific programs to be recommended in your field—and even if you will actually need the MBA at all.

It’s also an excellent idea to talk to current graduate students in the field you’re interested in. They have been through this process of making decisions, and submitting applications, quite recently, after all. They can share their experiences of that—and also let you know what life really is like as a graduate student. A superb resource for Penn undergraduates who want to connect with graduate or professional students at Penn in any of a very wide variety of fields is the Graduate/Undergraduate Mentoring Program, run out of the Graduate Student Center. If you go to www.gsc.upenn.edu/mentoring you’ll find information about the program, and the form to fill out if you want to be assigned a graduate student mentor. It’s a terrific way to meet and learn from someone doing what you hope to do.

In a nutshell: deciding to go to graduate school

by Peter Stokes

The vast majority of Penn alumni go on to graduate/professional school at some point (roughly 20% go immediately after graduation, and 70%+ go within 10 years of graduating). These are high numbers, and this seems to me an excellent thing, but it’s important that people go to the right kind of graduate school, and at the right time—and think carefully about what will happen after graduate school. Graduate school is demanding and can be expensive, and it’s important that you make an informed choice to make sure that the investment of time, effort and money is worthwhile. That may well mean waiting until after you have gained some experience other than being a student (a job, service work) before applying.

Here, in as small a nutshell as I can manage, are some good, and some much less good, approaches to deciding on graduate school:

  • Good reasons to go to graduate school:
    • You have figured out the career path you want to follow, at least in the medium term. You have done plenty of research, including talking with people who have advanced in your chosen field, and know that you need a graduate degree, and which one.
    • You love scholarly work with a passion (crucial for a Ph.D.), and are confident you will continue to for 2-5+ years of study of a narrow topic.
  • Bad reasons to go to graduate school:
    • You don’t know what else to do, or you assume there are no decent jobs for people with Bachelor’s degrees anyway. (Have you come in to talk to a counselor in Career Services?)
    • You’re really good at school, so you think you should keep on doing it. And maybe as a result, family or friends, not necessarily experts in the career(s) you’re interested in, have said you should go to grad school.

See also: http://www.vpul.upenn.edu/careerservices/gradprof/grad/consider.html  and of course feel free to connect with a pre-graduate school advisor!

What if I Don’t Get into Medical School?


The really painful part of not getting into medical school is that you won’t know right away.   It’s unlikely that you will be rejected by every school; rather, you will spend weeks trying to figure out what “on hold” or “under review” means or hoping that you will make it off a wait list.  Eventually, you will conclude that it probably isn’t going to work out.

The first step is to work through some of the feelings that are bound to accompany this realization.  Rage.  Disappointment.  Panic.  Frustration.  Relief.  All of the above.  None of the above.  Call upon your friends, family, advisors and let it out:  “Morons!  Don’t they know talent when they see it!”  or “I’m a failure!”  Curse the gods and pity yourself.  And then stop (or dial it down) because you are going to have make some decisions about your next steps.  It will be hard to think clearly if you are consumed with the desire to burn your MCAT materials (don’t do it — you can sell them!).

If you didn’t have a “Plan B” then there may be some immediate life concerns to address.  Do you need a job?  Are you going to stay at your current position?  Are you going to move?  Oy.  Do know, as many premedical students do not, that Career Services offers counseling and services related to finding employment while you are at Penn and after you graduate.  Really!  It’s not just OCR!

The other questions you need to contemplate are also important:  Why didn’t I get in?  Do I still want to be a doctor?  Do I want to apply again and when?  Oy, oy, triple oy.

There is a very good chance that there was at least one major weakness in your application.  Think it through — grades, MCAT score, personal statement, clinical exposure.  Think harder.  Did you apply late?  Did you have a very fancy list of schools?  Did you have a fair number of interviews?  If so, those may not have gone as well as you thought.  Was everything there, but maybe a little thin?  Where could the application be stronger?  It’s possible that you just had bad luck, but usually there is some aspect of the application that could be strengthened.  That isn’t a reason to beat yourself up, but should motivate you take stock of your application before reapplying.

Speaking of reapplying, it’s not a great idea to do this automatically.  Sometimes people reapply without considering other career paths or changing their application, which can lead to two or three years of going through the application process unsuccessfully.  If you want to be a doctor because you have never thought about doing something else, this is a good time to think of alternatives if only to reconfirm your commitment to becoming a physician.  It could be that medical school is not the best fit for you.  Not infrequently, we have alumni tell us that they hadn’t thought of being anything but a doctor when they came to Penn, but have found their niche in another field that they never knew existed.  This is often communicated in an email with lots of exclamation marks and happy faces.

If you remain steadfast in your desire to become a physician do not despair.  Many people are admitted after a disappointing turn through the application process.  You’ll stand a much better chance of reaching your goal if you think carefully about the strength and timing of your application.  If you need to spend more time in a health care setting or take more courses to show what you can do academically, then do it…before you apply again.

Your pre-health advisors are happy to meet with you to consider your strategy for a second application.  If you don’t get into medical school this year, you won’t fall off the edge of a map.  You have many options.  Your personal support network will help see you through and Career Services will support you as you reorient yourself in uncharted waters.

The Revised GRE

by Peter M. Stokes

As any of you who have heard me speak may have guessed, I hail from the United Kingdom, a magical land where Harry Potter casts his spells, entire summers pass without the sun appearing, and graduate schools don’t require the GRE[*]. Here in the real world of the USA, however, most of you planning on applying to graduate schools that don’t have their own kind of standardized test will need at some point to take the Graduate Record Examination.  In fact, though, if you take the test after August 1st, 2011, you will take the GRE Revised General Test.

The test is changing this summer, both in the way that questions are structured and in scoring.  Scary as change can be, this actually looks like a good thing.  Gone from the verbal section will be, for example, antonym questions that permit allow test-takers to succeed purely through memorization.  Instead the test will emphasize things like text completion and reading comprehension that require a more global understanding of the English language in context.  In the quantitative section the emphasis will be on data interpretation and problems explained in terms of real-world scenarios.  There will actually be an on-screen calculator so as to de-emphasize basic calculation in favor of the ability to reason through problems.

In terms of scoring, the 200-800 scale with 10 point increments will be replaced by a 130-170 scale in 1-point increments.  The idea, evidently, is that small differences in scores aren’t really very significant, and they want to make that clear by having differences of, say, 2-3 points instead of 20-30 because the zero makes the difference seem big (really, no kidding here).  Presumably this won’t provide problems in comparing scores across the old and new tests since schools will also be able to look at percentiles as well as the raw scores.

For much more information on the revised test, see: http://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/know

But what should you do?  Take the test now?  After August 1st?  Run screaming in panic down Locust Walk?

One concrete reason to take the test before August would be if you need your score before mid-November (which is before most grad school deadlines—but that’s something to check).  I assume they want to wait that long before giving scores so that they have a big batch of scores and can make sure they’re scoring equitably. In any event, they won’t release any revised GRE scores until November.

A concrete reason to take the test after August 1 is that between then and the end of September, they sweeten the deal by giving you 50% off (and the thing costs $160).

More generally, though, I don’t see a particular reason to rush to take the current test this year if you weren’t already going to do it that soon.  As I say, the test looks like it will actually improve.  However, you might want to take the test this summer, perhaps because you’re planning on applying in the fall and the summer is when you have time, or because you’re graduating and just want to make sure you have the test done before applying later.  In that case, you might consider shooting for before August 1 just because there are plenty of preparation materials and practice tests available for the current, soon-to-be-superseded test.

Having said that, though, there are already some materials and practice tests for the revised GRE too, and you’ll find some available for free by scrolling to the bottom of the page linked above.  And as always, if you’re perplexed about the GRE or any aspects of planning for graduate school, please make use of the pre-grad advising services here in Career Services.

[*] OK, a couple programs at places like LSE might just ask for it, so if you want to apply to programs in the UK, do check, and buy an umbrella.

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.