The University Network

How To Choose The Right Grad School For You — Interview With Dr. Kristen Willmott, Counselor, Top Tier Admissions

TUN sits down with Dr. Kristen Willmott, senior private counselor at Top Tier Admissions and former admissions and financial aid officer for Harvard University, to discuss how you can choose the grad school that is right for you.

TUN:  Dr. Willmott, thanks so much for joining us. 

DR. WILLMOTT: Thanks so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Say someone has a desire to go to grad school but has no idea which grad school to apply to. How should students start their grad school search processes? What are some of the main questions that students should ask themselves?

That’s a great question. One of the things that I try to urge students to focus on is placing themselves in the mindset of an admissions officer. 

That is a big part of what we do at Top Tier Admissions. I’m a former Harvard University admissions and financial aid officer for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. So, I approach this process as both a former admissions officer and as someone who has worked for eight years in the field of helping students think about college and grad school. I also am not only a parent but also a former K–12 substitute teacher and someone who has taught at three universities across Massachusetts and New York. 

I like to urge students to think about the various hats that they may wear as they approach the grad school admissions process. What has been their educational pathway so far? What are they hoping to gain? What’s the purpose of that master’s degree? What’s the purpose of the MBA? When is the best time for you to pursue a master’s degree?

I think the best way to do that is to utilize the free resources that exist out there on the web. You can very easily click through a department’s website. you can look up the faculty CVs. You can see the types of introductory courses you’d be taking in your fall term at grad school X. 

I think that, ultimately, it’s very good to reflect on your geographic location preference and the type of field that you’re considering. 

If you’re on the fence about grad school – “Hey, I think I want to go to grad school, but I have no idea what field” – that’s probably not a good time to start applying to these programs that cost $60,000 or more.

I would really urge you to take a step back. Maybe consider a graduate level course. Look on Coursera. Look on edX. Try to think about, “What are some lower-cost options I could pursue before I jump in full-force to the graduate admissions atmosphere?” 

Those kinds of questions would be good to analyze before you even start prepping your essays. Because, if you get into the thick of writing a personal statement and ultimately you’re not sure of the type of institution you want and you’re not sure about the type of courses you’re seeking, then it’s going to be tough to write a very convincing personal statement or supplementary essay. 

If you can do that research on the front end – look at some department websites; look at faculty CVs; look at research-oriented conferences – and get that information upfront before you start applications, that would be great. That way, you can ensure you’re preparing an application that will rise up above your peer’s applications. You’ll be very informed because you have a clear direction. 

You pointed out that there are online resources available. But, what about undergraduate students who have a desire to go to grad school right after undergraduate school? Are there any resources on their campuses that they can use to help them?

Absolutely. Almost every campus that I know of has some form of career services office. Oftentimes, it is merged in with the graduate school admissions office.  

Unfortunately, what we tend to find is that a lot of those are not super well-funded or super well-staffed. 

Some are, though. And they’re more than willing to book a lot of individual appointments with you. I would certainly urge every student to book an appointment. I mean, you’re paying tuition. Even if you’re in an online program this fall, you still have access to career services opportunities on your campus via a Zoom appointment, for example. 

When you’re a paying college student, you should utilize all of the resources that are available to you as an undergraduate student. 

Oftentimes, your help will come in the form of, “Hey, here are options that exist”; “Hey, I can do some resume editing for you”; “Hey, here are the types of programs that are out there for you.”

I do think it can be quite advantageous to at least book some of those initial meetings. Some top colleges are known to have some great webinars. They’ll offer you input on, “Hey, here’s an alumnus that you could meet with who has gone on to a program that you’re interested in.”

Certainly, do utilize those resources. It varies across institutions as to the extent at which the kinds of students I talk with say, “Yes, that was a really beneficial relationship. Yes, I feel like I was set on a great graduate school pathway.” 

Some colleges are great at offering advice and input, and some colleges make students feel a little bit more on their own. 

You’re not out anything to explore if you can get some resume editing or some input from someone at that career services office who could offer you coaching on master’s consulting, MBA consulting or pre-med consulting. 

All of those would be great for you to explore. 

Sometimes I have students who pursue a mix of that, meaning, “Yes, I’m going to rely on my college for the career services office, but I’m also going to pursue admissions consulting because I need a bit more personalized, one-on-one attention.” 

Really, it just boils down to what is most appealing to you in terms of the type of help that you’re seeking and where you’re at in the process. 

What are some ways that students can cut down on the amount of money they spend on grad school and the amount of money that they have to borrow for grad school?

I think that, especially in the year 2020 and moving forward, that is a very important question. To go to grad school just for the sake of going to grad school would not be something that I ever really would advise. 

You would want that to be a targeted pathway that gets you something, not just, “Hey, I have this piece of paper.”

I’m very mindful of students who walk out with a master’s and then come to me later on and say, “Oh, what now? I think I need a different master’s.” 

That doesn’t work for anybody. I’m also very mindful of anybody who leaves a graduate school program with a hefty amount of loans. That’s not something that lets you start your career in the best possible way, to say the least. 

So, I do think that that’s one thing that we at Top Tier Admissions do focus on is, helping students secure merit-based aid and pinpoint the types of programs that they will be successful at in the admissions process.

I’m happy to say that we are able to help a lot of students secure merit aid, which means you’re not relying on the finances that you bring to the table. 

Certainly, completing the FAFSA is something that students need to be mindful of as they think about, “What is the out-of-pocket contribution that I am willing to put into this process?”

The other thing that I like to urge students to remember is that when you apply to graduate school, as long as you’re preparing your personal statement, you should cast a wide net. 

Just because you apply to a school and you get in, doesn’t mean you’re obligated to go. If there’s not an early decision binding commitment – which is way less common in grad school than in the undergraduate arena – and you’re not locked-in, casting a wide net is going to be advantageous for you. Most likely, you’ll be out the application fee. And, you should weigh that – some of those are hefty at $175 –  that’s not a small chunk of change.

But, you should be mindful of casting a wide net so that you can see the type of financial aid that is tossed back at you. Because, it’s a two-way street. Ultimately, grad school is going to be a hefty expense in terms of time, effort and money. You need to weigh all of those as you think about, “What am I walking out with? Is this the type of university where I feel comfortable spending X number of dollars, or am I more drawn to this package that I received from another university?”

My wish for every graduate school applicant is that you have a variety of schools that desperately want you and toss you merit aid in that fashion, versus, you know, “Hey, I got into these schools, but look at these thousands of dollars of loans that I know have to take on.”

That’s not something I want for anyone. 

I’m happy to say that we, for the most part, work with a good amount of students who are pleasantly surprised with the amount of merit aid that they are tossed because of the phenomenal caliber of application components that we help them with. 

Some students have plans to go to grad school right after undergrad. Other times, people will spend a couple of years in the professional world before they go to grad school. Is one path better than the other? 

One path is not really better than the other. The one exception is when I have students who are looking at an MBA. That’s a specialized degree. Most top MBA programs will require, if not very highly encouraging, you to go spend some time in the working world before you apply to them. 

Certainly, some of the students who I work with who head on to top MBA programs are securing a good amount of full-time work experience, climbing the career-ladder, prior to the time of their MBA application. 

I think the biggest thing that we need to be mindful of in the current and future COVID world is factoring in where you’re at financially, career-wise and from an education standpoint. All of that has now introduced some new hurdles and some new things to be mindful of. 

There’s not one pathway that is better than the other in terms of, yes, go straight for a master’s immediately after you wrap up your college career. 

I also have a good amount of students who say, “Yeah, I had a very rewarding time in college, but I need to go find my path a little bit. I want to go obtain 3–5 years of work experience or two years of work experience.” 

My wish for every student is that you don’t walk out of college saying, “Ah, now what?” That’s not advantageous. You want to be able to head into the winter of your senior year with a clear path in mind of where you’re headed. 

So, we do coach students in college even when they’re not headed straight to grad school. We do something called our College Enrichment Program where our goal is to help you feel that you have a clear path, even in the midst of COVID chaos. 

That way, you’re not walking out of college saying, “Oh, I don’t have a job. I’m not headed to grad school. Now what?”

We don’t want that for anyone because that just leaves you confused. 

It can be wonderful to pursue a full-time job post college. It can also be wonderful to dive right into grad school. You’re already in student mode. Take those three months and then dive in on August 15 starting in a master’s program. 

One pathway is not better than the other. We feel that it’s a very personalized process and a very personalized decision, based on your educational and career aims. 

I know going to grad school can be a very big overwhelming and expensive decision for students. So, can you run us through some of the main benefits of going to grad school? What are the rewards of that experience?

Absolutely. I think one of the biggest benefits of going to grad school is that you are pursuing something at a higher level. So, when you go to college, a lot of times students are exploring new fields. Yes, they end up ultimately selecting a major. They end up pursuing some electives that are appealing to them. By the time you apply to grad school, though, hopefully you have a bit more solid direction on, “This is what I’m interested in. This is the field I love.”

And, when you apply and get into a top graduate school, you are working with some of the best faculty in the world at what they do. They’re renowned faculty with impressive research facilities. You’re attending school with peer students who are interested in the same field that you are.

The research experience and exposure that you can obtain will certainly be something that stays with you. Those connections – that networking web that you gain access to –  is very valuable. 

I also work with students who, when they’re in graduate school, work to maximize all opportunities available to them. That may align with a research internship or with a paid position that they do on nights and weekends. They forge connections with peer students and then go launch wonderful businesses. They secure publications. They do conference presentations. They have professional affiliations that are standouts. They set themselves forward on a wonderful career path so that, when they walk out of that graduate school program, they feel confident that, “Yes, this is the piece of paper that I’ve secured. Here’s my amazing diploma. This will sit on my resume or CV for life.” 

Also, they walk out feeling like their career is something that has now been unlocked. Your potential is now set forth and you’re on a wonderful pathway to what will hopefully be a very rewarding career, something that lets you climb the career ladder in the best way. 

Thanks for joining us, Dr. Willmott. 

Absolutely! Thank you so much for inviting me. 

This interview has been edited for clarity. Watch the full video here.