Former UW academic adviser guides prospective grad students

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Todd Faubion is a former academic adviser and current educator at the University of Washington. He now offers support and assistance for those preparing for or planning an application to graduate school.

Q: Whom do you work with, and who is your typical client?

A: About 60 percent local clients and 40 percent from across the U.S. Typically, my client is a college senior or someone in their mid-20s with one or two years of work experience. They’re looking to take that next step in their career by getting a graduate degree. They tend to be very ambitious, driven, Type A personalities.

Q: Are there any typical issues you see in the first meeting?

A: Many people just don’t understand the process, and see the process is analogous to applying to undergraduate school. They can be very surprised by what the process looks like. People can get paralyzed by the work involved in applying.

(Courtesy of Todd Faubion)
(Courtesy of Todd Faubion)

They can also not have the communication skills regarding talking about themselves and selling themselves. It’s not always a strength for Type A personalities. Often, they haven’t yet connected with the letter writers who can support their application. But you can’t apply without appearing to be a good communicator, through written documents and often an interview. You need to make an authentic connection with the interviewer.

Q: Any pet peeves regarding clients or applications?

A: The bane of my existence are generalities, such as “I want to help others” or “I love science.” Any application reviewer needs more tangible and purpose-driven evidence. Be really specific about skills and what you’ve accomplished.

Some families also think it’s all a numbers game. If you have a great test score and an awesome GPA, but haven’t taken time to get a strong letter of recommendation, demonstrate your skill set and how you’ll provide added value to the world, you’re going to be in trouble.

It’s also a red flag if a student needs me to organize the process or if parents are overly involved. This says the student isn’t driven or organized enough to get the job done.

Q: What’s something you ask your clients?

A: What is your accountability network? What do you have in place, what can you put in place — before and after the application — to get it in on time and do it well. That might be your spouse or parent.

Q: What should clients bring to the first meeting?

A: I ask them to do practical work — to identify the discipline they want to be in, to be sure their grades and scores are competitive, to have a strong résumé, to identify two to four recommendation-letter writers who are academics. They need to have laid that foundation for themselves prior to coming to me.

Q: What do you help applicants do?

A: We can work out which schools to apply to together. I personally think this tends to be the easiest part of the process, identifying schools where you’re competitive and where you’re not.

But hands down, the hardest part is almost always writing the personal narrative.

Essentially, what do I want to contribute, how I will go about doing that, how have I prepared, through volunteering, work, academically? It can’t be a rote rehashing of the résumé. Writing is very hard, and I look for threads that emerge that unify your story, whether about social justice or service. It’s my greatest value-add process.

Q: What should students look for in a consultant? Who needs a consultant and who doesn’t?

A: Look for someone who’s a member of HECA (Higher Education Consultants Association) or another higher education professional association [that has] professional standards and assistance. Ask around your professional and academic network for recommendations. Ask for references and ask about their success rate. You might go through several people who aren’t a good fit — maybe your personalities aren’t the right match.

For the graduate school application, telling your story is more important than it’s ever been in your history.” - Todd Faubion

Q: Are there any deal breakers that indicate a student can’t get into graduate school?

A: There’s rarely a true single deal breaker. I worked with a wonderful young woman last year applying to the University of Washington School of Medicine. She had abysmal test scores, and her GPA was mediocre at best. But she had a résumé that blew my mind, with more than 20 experiences interfacing with a vulnerable population and community research experience. We crafted an outstanding application, and she got admission on the first try.

You are a whole package. For the graduate school application, telling your story is more important than it’s ever been in your history.

Q: What’s involved, and how much does it cost?

A: Once we have an initial conversation about what’s needed, we’re mostly exchanging documents and tracking changes in Word. People who need to interview for graduate school will practice two–10 times, whether in person, on the phone or on Skype. Services can be paid for hourly, and those rates range between $150–200 per hour for most educational consultants. Or they can buy a comprehensive package, around $4,000–$5,000 for the whole application. Pro bono services are sometimes available, as well.