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Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

August 08, 2007

Mentors & Unpaid Advisers

This is the second in a series of five posts. The first one is here.

First, two stories:

A Happy Story
As I mentioned in a previous post, when I applied to graduate school in 1990, I was fortunate to have an excellent mentor, a PhD student at the University of Chicago, who remains to this day one of my closest friends. I was lucky because he understood the admissions process and the relative difficulty for obtaining admission at a time when the US Economy was weak and many people were applying to graduate school. His advice was timely and practical and helped me succeed.

A Sad Story
In 1988, during my senior undergraduate year, I decided to apply to graduate school. As I was graduating in three instead of the usual four years, I was 20 years old. I sought advice from two of my professors, both were tenured, one had his PhD from Harvard and the other from Princeton. They supported me, wrote recommendations (that I later used successfully in 1990), but provided me with little guidance on the admissions process. I simply followed the application instructions and made a horrible mess of the whole thing. I was dinged everywhere.

There are two differences between my happy and sad stories.
The first has to do with me. When I applied at age 20, I was completely immature and totally lacked a real sense of the process or its relative difficulty. Two years later, I understood what the application process really involved and was able to make the right decisions.
The second has to do with my advisers.

My team of 1988 mentors simply consisted of two professors. While they were great professors who were recognized in their fields and wrote me very good recommendations, they were totally ineffective admissions advisers:
(1) Their advice was not based on actual contemporary knowledge of the admissions process. Since both taught primarily undergraduates and were part of departments that did not have graduate programs, they did not actually know the process because that had finished their graduate work decades earlier.
(2) They did not give me practical advice beyond simply following the application instructions.
(3) They were too busy to be really involved with my process and I was not aggressive enough to really get their full support.

My 1990 team was different. I talked with my professors about academic issues, but as far as the practical issue of applying goes, I had a new mentor, who:
(1) Gave me timely advice based on the actual admissions process.
(2) Provided me with a set of strategies for success beyond the application instructions.
(3) Fully committed to supporting me. He put in the time to advise me on strategy and review my materials.

If you have a mentor like my friend, you are indeed very lucky. If not, you may be able to bring together a group of mentors (professors, friends/colleagues who succeeded at the admissions process, experts in your intended field of study, current students of the school(s) you want to attend, and/or alumni) who provide you with all the support you need.

Alternatively, you may find that your mentor(s) can't provide with all the help you need because
(1) they don't have enough time,
(2) they lack sufficient knowledge about the process,
(3) you are finding that they can only advise you based on their past experience,
(4) your mentors are contradicting one another and you are not sure which one is right,
(5) you want extensive assistance putting your applications together.

Depending on the type of graduate program you are applying to, I think you will find it useful to develop a team of mentors and/or advisers who can support you. Highly experienced admissions consultants can usually provide equivalent support for what I mention below, but even if you use an admissions consultant, I would still get a second opinion from a mentor and/or unpaid adviser.

All applicants: Try to find an alum who has recently graduated and/or a current student to give you insight into each program you apply to.
Students and recent graduates are really in the best position to tell you what a school is really like. This is especially important and relatively easy for MBA applicants. In other fields it maybe more difficult, but many schools have graduate students available for applicants to talk with.

For all graduate school applicants in general and PhD applicants in particular: As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is often extremely valuable to make faculty contact. Check with the admissions office for each program first before doing so. Those applying to MBA are less likely to use this strategy and depending on the school might be told not to contact faculty. Obviously if you contact faculty you had better have an academic topic related to your study plans to discuss with them.

For LLM applicants applying to Harvard Law School and most other top programs. You will need to discuss one or more of the legal issues you are interested in studying in a great deal of depth and thus you would be well advised to consult with a lawyer or law professor who has sufficient knowledge in the field you plan to study to assess the depth and accuracy of your thinking.

For those applying to programs where a writing sample or other sample(s) of past work is/are required. Make sure that you have someone in your intended field of study who can assess the strength of your writing sample. Professors and/or professionals in your intended field are ideal for this purpose.

For those applying to research based programs in the arts and sciences. If possible, have your research plan reviewed closely by a professor and/or other professional in you field who can assess it.

If your mentors and/or unpaid advisers are not enough, you have three alternatives. In the next post in this series, I will discuss admissions consultants.

Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com.
-Adam Markus
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MBA留学, LLM留学, 大学院留学
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