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Interview with Dr. Shirley Chan, Accepted Admissions Consultant [Show Summary]
In this episode you’ll hear Accepted’s own Dr. Shirley Chan share her soup-to-nuts perspective for graduate school applicants. She has worked as an academic advisor, career advisor, and admissions committee member and views the process holistically. During this show Dr. Chan provides information on how best to approach critical aspects of your application, including your statement of purpose, resume, and interview. She also provides insights particularly important to Asian applicants. Read on!
How to Get Into Grad School, and Get Jobs After Grad School [Show Notes]
Our guest today, Dr. Shirley Chan, is a Trojan through and through. She earned her Masters of Education and Doctor of Education from USC. She then went on to work as an academic advisor in USC’s computer science department where she advised students on which classes to take and how to best prepare themselves for life after graduation, whether that be grad school or jobs. Then she transferred to Marshall’s MBA program working with international students, and becoming the Senior Associate Director for MBA Admissions. Most recently she has worked in Career Management at Marshall and as an independent career consultant before becoming a consultant for Accepted this year.
The standard line in admissions is that admissions and higher ed is not a field people decide to go into in kindergarten. What has been its attraction to you? How did you get into it? [2:34]
In college I was a high school outreach coordinator, particularly in low-income communities, helping students apply for financial aid and scholarships. I found it really rewarding to guide students toward achieving academic and career success. Since then my career has been focused on higher education, developing students through academic advisement, career advisement, and admissions. I wanted to understand from the very beginning to the very end of the process, which is why I worked in all of these areas. I really felt drawn to admissions because having that beginning-to-end perspective made me really understand from a candidate’s perspective what they are looking for, what they cared about, and has allowed me to provide a life coaching approach when I work with my clients.
You recently joined Accepted as a consultant after 15 years in different advisory roles both in academics, admissions, and career management. On the graduate level both in the engineering and business world, how should career goals guide both the applicant and student? [5:06]
You don’t start driving until you know where you are going to go, so you really need to know your career path, or at least have a good idea of where you want to go, before you begin. Applicants need to explore in advance, because they will be spending lots of money and time on the program. They should speak with alums or current students, and look at career paths after, and really think about, “Is this the type of career I will want in the future?” For students already in a program they need to fine tune the function they want to do, and that will look different depending on the program. If they are going into electrical engineering, there might automatically be more focus, whereas someone getting an MBA will have a more versatile skillset and could go into finance, marketing, operations, etc. Talk to people and figure out the type of organization you want to work for – the type of culture, big or small, those types of things. For a business degree in particular you need focus as soon as you begin the program. If you have no focus, and without a strong background in business, it will be hard to convince someone to give you a chance.
You’ve worked both as an admissions consultant and as Sr. Assoc Director of Admissions. How did your perspective on admissions change as a consultant? [10:01]
Applicants probably don’t realize how many applications an admissions committee goes through and therefore are not really thinking about how important it is to stand out. When I think about my time on the admissions committee I can remember things that stood out at me – what an applicant wrote in a statement of purpose or in an essay that helped me understand the person and what they wanted to achieve. From a consultant’s perspective, now it is my job to help them shine, to help their voice come out in their writing or in an interview, so they convey their experiences in a way that stands out. You need to show things like impact in your academics or career. It could be something trivial to you, but even small things that show you did something that pushed the envelope or motivated others are important. Bottom line I try to think about my clients from an admissions committee perspective and how to make them unique.
In admissions, I understand that you worked a lot with international applicants, specifically Asian applicants. What are the challenges they face during the application process, not so much statistically, but in terms of cultural differences between the U.S. and Asian educational model? [13:57]
I’ve predominantly worked with applicants from China, India, Korea, and Japan. When English isn’t your first language you should always have someone double-check your grammar and spelling. From a cultural perspective, applicants are extremely bright, but they come from an educational system where merit is based on high test scores and GPAs. In the US most universities take a holistic look, so take into consideration what you do outside of work, who you are and should be in the community when you join. Applicants often miss that and don’t know how to convey the non-academic, non-professional side of themselves. Also, the way they describe short- and long-term goals also tends to be very vague. Part of it their vagueness is because they haven’t really explored enough. They just write about what they want to do, but with no insight into what they want to do and why. Don’t just talk about wanting to work at huge companies that everyone knows about, look at mid-size ones, or talk about ones in your home country. For engineering, if you are interested in particular areas, mention faculty members whose research you would like to contribute to.
How do you recommend a young professional or student explore career paths effectively? [21:34]
There is so much information on the internet, so start there. If you are looking into a school, really explore the website – look at class profiles, student blogs, videos of students and alums, and the clubs. There are also lots of different forums, so see if you can find people to talk to. Expand your network, go to LinkedIn or any other social media platform and find people in similar social interest groups and connect to learn more about their career path. There is no reason why a person can’t get info these days about a particular program or job they want to get. One thing to remember is to be polite, cordial, and patient in the process, as you may have difficulty getting in touch with some people.
What’s an effective way to conduct an informational interview? [23:50]
Consider who you want to contact, how you want to contact them, and what you want to get out of it. LinkedIn is a great way to connect with people. When it comes to contacting them, be cordial, polite, and brief. Respect their time, let them know how you got their info, and make your request – 20 minutes for coffee, for example. Think about what kind of information you want to get from the person – challenges they face in the job, what problems they are solving, why their job is interesting, holistic understanding of an industry, trends, etc. Also be prepared for them to ask you questions, too, as they may want to get info from you to see if they would be an advocate for you in the future (if you are speaking to an alum of a program, for instance).
If someone wants to go into management consulting, from business school or from a graduate program, how can they prepare or position themselves for a career in this really hot field? [27:36]
People that go into management consulting are smart, personable, and curious. They can look at complex information and quickly simplify it to understand it. They work well with people in teams and communicate effectively, and are constantly trying to obtain knowledge about other industries. To be an effective management consultant, you need to be able to quickly extract information that is helpful and be a great problem solver. You need to read a lot, know what is going on in politics, the economy, with business transactions, and talk to a lot of people. If you are an introvert but fixated on being a management consultant, you have to get out there. Clients need to be comfortable with you.
On a very nuts-and-bolts level, what are your top tips for resumes? [30:27]
From a formatting standpoint, you need to have your contact information, professional experience, skills, and educational background. Unless you have more than 10 years of experience you should really keep it to one page. Sometimes for engineers if you have a lot of technical skills you may need to list them out, but for MBA programs, resumes should always be one page.
In terms of content, you may want to provide a scoping statement for each job that helps the reader understand what the organization does and what you do/did for them, especially if you’re working for a smaller organization that an admissions committee might not be aware of. For the bullet points, ask yourself two questions – is this relevant to the position you’re applying for, and are you differentiating yourself from others? Oftentimes this means you need to show impact – preferably with a quantifiable result – otherwise it’s wasted space. Think about using the STAR method for your bullets – briefly state the situation, task, action taken, and result.
What about interview prep? Case interviews? [33:25]
Of course you need to practice a lot. Nowadays a lot of interviews take place online so you should record yourself to see how you are presenting yourself on camera – are you talking too quickly, for too long, or are you too slow. You can find a lot of practice questions online. Also get people to practice with you. Before you do practice with people, you should write down some examples of what you want to talk about. Think about the STAR framework with this, too. People are often tempted to go straight to the action piece when answering a question, not taking into account the fact that the person interviewing you doesn’t have the same understanding of the situation as you. You need to set the stage, and then talk about the actions and results. One exercise I encourage people to do is list out a matrix. For consultants, firms are looking to hire people with strong problem solving skills and analytical skills, so list examples for each of these skills that exemplifies them. Then you have examples ready to go.
As a former admissions director, what are the most common mistakes to avoid in MBA and grad application? [36:14]
One thing is don’t ever copy and paste a statement of purpose from one school to another. You may be applying to USC but have UCLA on it! Another thing is going into too much detail with information that an admissions committee may not understand or even care about. Focus on highlights of a project, conveying impact. Grammatical or spelling errors should not be there, so don’t be careless. Also make sure you take the time to talk about the school and the program you’re applying to. So many applicants completely forget to talk about the school and why they are applying. Relay why the program is the right fit for you, otherwise you’ll be submitting a generic statement of purpose and appear uninterested in going to that school. This is critical for every degree program.
Any last words of advice? [39:39]
Just do a lot of research. Even if you have a family member who went to the school, do your own research. Use online resources, find out about jobs that are out there, and be thorough!
What do you wish I would have asked you? [40:35]
What can international applicants highlight to make themselves unique? Some applicants I work with have worked in different countries, speak multiple languages, and therefore have a global perspective – sharing that perspective brings out that uniqueness.
• Dr. Shirley Chan’s bio
• Work with Dr. Chan
• Applying to Graduate Engineering Programs: What You Need to Know
• Fitting In & Standing Out: the Paradox at the Heart of Admissions, a free guide
• Bain & Company’s Keith Bevans Talks About Careers, Life at Bain
• From Hospitality to Kellogg MBA to Accepted MBA Admissions Consultant
• Society of Women Engineers: The Community for Women in Engineering
• Getting Accepted to U.S. Universities from Abroad