Dear Ally,

Home » Posts tagged 'advice'

Tag Archives: advice

Paying for it now…literally

Dear Ally,

A lot has happened since I wrote last. First I had part of a tooth break off. My dentist said it was because a filling had become loose and I would need a crown. She made a mold for the permanent crown and put on a temporary one. She calls it a “little hat for your tooth.” If you’ve never had a crown, they grind your tooth down to a little nub (wasn’t much left of mine anyway) and glue a fake tooth over top of it. The good news was I didn’t need a root canal – a least not then. The permanent crown wouldn’t be as strong as possible in case I do need a root canal in the future and, in that case, they’d need to drill through it. My dentist used extra strong glue for the temporary crown because it was going on my trip to New Zealand with me.

The night before I left for New Zealand, the tooth next to the temporary crown had a piece of its filling come out. The friend I was with introduced me to the emergency tooth repair stuff they sell at the drug store. So, if the rest of the filling came out or if my crown came off, I had a plan.

The morning I left for New Zealand my dentist called me and said my permanent crown had come in and they had a 12:30 appointment. Our flight wasn’t until later in the afternoon, but it would be cutting it close, so I didn’t go.

I went to New Zealand for 17 days – chewing carefully all the while with only the occasional feeling like a cold needle was being jabbed in my jaw and a sore tongue from constantly exploring what felt like a gigantic hole. I had no issues with the temporary crown at all, just had to avoid sticky foods.

I got my permanent crown and had the neighboring tooth refilled on my 41st birthday last Tuesday. Fun stuff! It’s a funny thing when you get used to pain and then it’s suddenly gone. I hadn’t realized I’d been chewing differently until I could chew normally again.

Then on Friday I went to the orthodontist and had braces put on my top teeth. I will get the bottom set put on in a little while and the whole process is supposed to take 15-18 months. I paid for the entire treatment up front, emptying the Health Savings Account I’d been contributing to for the past few years. Along with the braces, I received a wooden nickel (for being on time and good behavior) that I can save towards various gift cards, as well as a balloon and a See’s Candy gift card since that week was my birthday.

Why am I telling you all of this and what does it have to do with college?

I am acutely regretting several things these days: 1) I didn’t get my retainers replaced when they broke while I was in college, 2) I didn’t floss much when I had braces, and 3) I didn’t have a good dentist to go to while I was in college.

These fillings that are beginning to fail are all 20 years old. I had nine fillings when I was in college – done over three separate, but closely spaced appointments. They were all for cavities between my teeth and were done by a dentist in the town where I attended college. I had never had a filling before in my life. A friend of mine went to the same dentist who told him he needed 13 fillings. He got a second opinion and the other dentist told him he only needed two fillings. My dentist later went to jail for selling prescription drugs. Hmm.

Fast forward to ten years ago, I went to one of those chain dentist offices and they were trying to convince me to get a bridge where I was missing a molar. They were suggesting that a 30-year-old woman file down the only two teeth in her mouth that didn’t have filings so that a three-tooth bridge could be glued over top of the nubs. I mentioned this plan to my co-worker who is a D.D.S. and she told me never to go back there and recommended my current dentist. I think this was the best thing she ever did for me!

Back to the present, one of the reasons for the braces is to make room for an implant where the missing tooth is. That’s not going to be fun at all, but it will be nice to actually use both sides of my mouth to chew. By the way, I am genetically missing that tooth and they pulled the baby tooth because that’s what they did back then. The other reason for braces, though, is because my bite is messed up and my front teeth are wearing each other down.

The take home message for you, of course, is to take care of your teeth and wear your retainer! I know, there is nothing sexy about retainers, but trust me, braces aren’t any better the second time around. You are lucky that you are still at home and can probably easily go to your same dentist and orthodontist. Just think, 20 years from now, you might want to go on a huge trip and you sure don’t want to have to worry about your teeth or be in pain.

See you over Christmas!

Aunt Sarah

P.S. You can have my gift card to the candy store!

How [Not] to Nail that Interview

interview cat

Dear Ally,

Last Saturday your uncle and I volunteered to do resume reviews and mock interviews as part of the annual National Chemistry Week outreach event that our local American Chemical Society section hosts. It made me think about some of the outlandish stories I’ve heard as well as some of my own memorable experiences being on the interviewer side of the process. This weekend I polled my Facebook friends to see if they had any advice for you or their own tales to tell.

Here are the people you do NOT want to emulate:

  • Open mouth insert foot. As you know, I work at a Catholic college and an interviewee once hilariously and ironically referred to one of my women religious colleagues as, “Sister-what-the-hell’s-her-name.” Another interviewee for a science faculty position casually remarked that, “Women don’t like math,” one of the last comments to make while interviewing at a women-focused institution. One of my student affairs colleagues once had someone respond to the question, “What do know about our school?” with “I know you have mostly girls and I’m OK with that!” Your uncle’s friend, Housecatt (Do you remember him? He was in our wedding.), shared a story where someone went off on a critical tirade about a national not-for-profit, having no idea that the not-for-profit for which she was interviewing was funded by this very same organization. Lessons learned: watch your language, don’t stereotype, don’t say anything that could be construed as creepy, and do your homework.


  • Not ready to adult. One of my favorite interview stories that your uncle told me has to be about the interviewee who, on a tour of the company’s stockroom, picked up a very large flask and asked to have  a picture taken with it. Another contribution from Housecatt includes the story where he asked why an applicant wanted to go from a full time to a part time job, and the reply was that, “…all my friends are still in college and I missed hanging with them.” There are many stories about candidates who brought their mothers or spouses with them on the interview. So, while it’s good to be yourself and be honest, don’t go overboard, and leave mom at home.


  • Really make an impression. My friend, Jason, shared, “I had a guy show up for an interview with me wearing cat eye contacts. Yeah…no. I asked him why he decided to wear those and he said he wanted to stand out.” Your uncle came home one day with a story about a distracting female candidate who was dubbed inappropriate-top-woman. The same guy in Housecatt’s not-ready-to-adult story came in unshaven, wearing khakis and a shirt that an iron or dry cleaner had never seen – no jacket, no tie. Take home message here: don’t wear anything weird, no cleavage, and look like you actually care what the interviewers think of you.


  • Ramble on.  Jason also commented on my Facebook post, “One time I interviewed a guy for a position and when I would ask a question he would talk for 5-8 minutes. Around the 3rd question in, almost half an hour later, I could not keep my eyes open and I did one of those head-nod things. He noticed, and said ‘Can I assume I pretty much don’t have this job?’ And I said ‘Yes, sorry.’ I was a little embarrassed, but he just didn’t know when to stop talking!” I have had this same experience multiple times and then didn’t have time to get through all my questions, so I couldn’t really judge whether the people would be a good fit or not. You must have concise answers prepared to the obvious questions that might be asked.


  • Distracted much. Once when I was being interviewed, my phone was in my bag in the corner of the room and, although it was on vibrate mode, I could hear it buzzing and buzzing and I was freaking out wondering if they could also hear it and it was hard to concentrate on the questions. My friend, Kamala, had an experience where a candidate was actually texting. It was during lunch, but still inappropriate. The best, though, is my co-worker’s story about trying to do a phone interview while  the other person was driving and the call was actually dropped. Why would anyone schedule a phone interview to be during a time when they would be driving? Make sure that you can devote your full attention to the interviewer(s) by turning devices to silent/ do not disturb mode – nothing is more important at that moment than the interview itself. If it’s a phone interview be sure to be in a quiet, distraction-free room on a phone with a good connection.

I know it will be a while before you interview for a full-time, permanent position, but in the meantime, hopefully this will be useful for part-time jobs or internships for which you might apply or just for a good laugh.

Best of luck in your future interviews!

Aunt Sarah

Resourcefulness Skills

Dear Ally,

In August I joined a scientific study at a nearby university involving different health self-management interventions for people in stressful situations. I was given a survey (which included this resourcefulness measurement tool) and, based on the results, was chosen to take part in the resourcefulness skills intervention. I was told the assignments were need-based, which I interpreted to mean that my resourcefulness skills score was the lowest. I don’t actually know what the other interventions are.

I was surprised by this. I think of myself as resourceful, but, after watching an informative narrated presentation as part of the study, I realized my definition of resourceful is actually self-reliance.

According to Dr. Zauszniewski, the principle investigator of the study and author of the presentation, there are two categories of resourcefulness skills: social and personal. Her theory is that these categories are complementary and have equal importance to one’s health. I am pretty sure my low resourcefulness score is because of my answers to the questions about the social resourcefulness skills. I pride myself on my independence, which, I’m learning, may not always be a good thing.

I was taught an 8-letter acronym that spells RESOURCE to help me remember the skills, which are:

  • Rely on family/ friends
  • Exchange ideas with others
  • Seek professionals or experts
  • Organize daily activities
  • Use positive self-talk
  • Reframe the situation positively
  • Change from usual reaction
  • Explore new ideas

As you might notice, the skills are also conveniently grouped into social and personal, with the first three being the social resourcefulness skills and the last five being the personal resourcefulness skills.

At this stage in the study, I’m supposed to reflect on the skills and write about how I used or didn’t use each skill and whether I found it helpful. If I didn’t use it, I’m supposed to say why not.

So what am I writing in this journal? What examples have I given them?

Rely on family/ friends:

This skill includes receiving emotional support as well as help completing tasks. I’ve written about talking with my parents, husband, and friends when I’m stressed or worried and about a lot of instances of relying on Adam to help manage the day-to-day household duties.

For you, this could include relying on classmates as study partners and to help with homework and, of course, includes asking your aunt and uncle science questions. 🙂

Exchange ideas with others:

It’s easy to talk with my colleagues about professional issues and scientific problems. I’ve come to realize I’m reluctant to share when it’s personal or has to do with my health. I appreciate friends and family who genuinely care and take time to ask how I am doing. I will give these people more than just, “I’m ok.”

For you and my students, I’m hoping the college environment has created an atmosphere of collaboration. I encourage my students to work together both in and outside of class. I hope your professors have done the same. I also hope you’re close enough to someone to share and get advice about issues of a more personal nature.

Seek professionals or experts:

This makes me cringe for some reason – maybe because the phrase, “You need professional help” sounds like it’s so bad. But this doesn’t only include psychiatrists or mental health experts, it includes any kind of doctor or dentist, mechanics, pastors, people specializing in home repair, or other professionals in your own field of work. I’m going to the dentist tomorrow, so that counts!

For the student, this can be your school psychologist, your advisor, an administrator, or a tutor. It also includes reliable internet resources and your friendly librarian.

Organize daily activities:

This is the one skill I am able to say that I used daily and I won’t say more about it, since I’ve written about it in the past.

Use positive self-talk:

I’m going to admit this sounded stupid to me at first. I imagine  ridiculous people talking to themselves in the mirror. But it’s more of a habit of mind – try to think about yourself and your capabilities in a positive light instead of beating yourself up or constantly thinking that you can’t do something. Long-distance running is the one place I can say I use this frequently.

Many of my students come into my chemistry class with this fear of the subject and a belief that they’re just not good at it. Unfortunately, sometimes this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Reframe the situation positively:

People who can learn from mistakes and see failure as an opportunity for improvement are doing this. In other cases, all you can do is think at least it’s not worse. (In “Bridget Jones’ Baby” they call this playing the “at least game.”) When you’re going through a tough time think about how, in the future, you’ll be able to relate to and empathize with other people having that same experience (people who have been through it are also the people you should be exchanging ideas with).

Change from the usual reaction:

This is one I’m still figuring out. I don’t think my usual reaction is always bad, except maybe when my usual reaction is to freak out or get angry. Complaining probably doesn’t help either.

Explore new ideas:

You can’t explore new ideas if you don’t have any. This depends on seeking out these new ideas from family, friends, professionals, or even the internet.

I hope this has been helpful and maybe, if you are in the habit of journaling, you can reflect on your own use of these skills during your time in college.


Aunt Sarah

Listening Skills

Dear Ally,

Last week I basically shared how to shut down or avoid an endless conversation, but what if the person is saying something important and you need to pay attention or what if it’s someone you care about and you want them to feel heard?

If so, don’t be like these bad listeners:

  • Absorbed in technology. This person is wearing earbuds and constantly looking at a screen. Good if you don’t want to be bothered on the bus, bad if you’re supposed to be listening to instructions.
  • The mind reader. You are passionately making your case and they say, “What are you so mad about?” Don’t jump to conclusions, instead just observe the data and make statements like, “I am noticing that you are raising your voice. How should I interpret that?” (Because remember, loud doesn’t always mean angry.) On the other hand, don’t ignore non-verbal cues that contradict what they’re saying. Show you care by asking how they feel, for example, “You’re saying you’re fine, but your eyes are telling me a different story. Is there something you want to talk about?”
  • The advice giver. A grad school friend of mine imparted this wisdom to me: “Women don’t want advice, they want you to just listen, because when you jump in with advice, they interpret this as ‘Bitch, do I have to solve all your problems?'” He’s exactly right and it’s not just women.
  • The busy beaver. They pretend to listen, but never look up from the computer screen. Even if it’s a time vampire, at least stop what you’re doing and tell them you’re busy and suggest they come back later when you can give them your full attention. It’s more polite than pretending to listen and might actually be a better tactic to get back to work faster.
  • The one-upper. You tell a story, they tell a better story. Something bad happened to you, something horrible happened to them. They’re not listening, they’re taking your moment and turning it around and making it about them – but they think they’re being a good listening by sharing a similar experience. Guilty? I know I am. The term for this is match back and it makes people feel like they don’t matter.
  • The daydreamer. It happens in class and in meetings, it can even happen on the phone. Taking notes or doodling can help. If you missed the last minute of what was said, be honest and admit it instead of pretending like you heard, which can lead to miscommunication or missed questions on the exam.
  • The interrupter. Some of these people think they’re good listeners because they’re interrupting with questions, others are simply rude. Don’t be these people or the over-talker, which is even worse.
  • The rehearser. You’re in a group discussion or an interview and your turn to speak is coming up, you didn’t hear anything that was said just before and maybe you’re about to make the same point as someone else or you didn’t hear the entire question. It’s impossible to rehearse and listen at the same time, but it’s hard not to rehearse, especially if you’re anxious about speaking. Focus on what’s being said and try to picture what they are talking about. If it’s a class discussion, perhaps quickly write down your response or ask the instructor to give everyone a minute to gather their thoughts.

Listening is a skill, so use every conversation as an opportunity to practice.

Have a great week!

Aunt Sarah



Beware the Time Vampires

Dear Ally,

I was talking with a student the other day who is an RA. She was telling me how hard it is to get her homework done when she’s on duty in the RA office. Apparently at least one resident will come down there to hang out exclaiming she’s bored and there’s a security guard that often comes around to chat. I said to her, “Oh no, you have got to put a stop to that! Those people are time vampires.”

We’ve all experienced that “trapped in conversation” feeling where you’ve gotta go, you have things to do, and some person is going on and on and your day is slipping away. These people probably don’t have enough self-awareness to realize what they’re doing, especially if you’re like me and have worked on being a good listener, so they don’t mean to be sucking up all your time. But what do you do? You don’t want to be rude, especially mid-westerners like us. For me, this is compounded by the fact that I do actually enjoy talking to people, so I need to make sure I’m not a time vampire myself.

Recognize the time vampires. Once bitten, twice shy.

  • Will ask if you have a minute, are you busy, or can they ask a quick question.
  • Often seen hanging out talking by the water cooler or coffee pot.
  • Generally unproductive.
  • May be known drama queens or gossip gremlins.
  • Any salesperson or similar.
  • “Friendly” strangers.

Avoid, ignore, or flee from them. It’s best not to get stuck in a never-ending conversation in the first place, especially if you’re still working on your assertiveness skills.

  • Take the stairs, not the elevator.
  • Use unisex/ one-seater restrooms.
  • Do not stop walking.
  • Do not make eye contact.
  • Keep your door closed.
  • Do not answer that phone call or e-mail until you have the time (or ignore it completely if it’s unnecessary).
  • Do not linger after meetings, church, yoga, etc.
  • Anticipate questions and communicate all the details the first time.
  • Just say no.

Never invite them in. It’s easier for you to leave than to ask someone else to leave.

  • Arrange to meet in their space or a neutral location, so you have the option to physically leave. Or better yet, speak over the phone or video chat.
  • If they appear at your door, hide and don’t answer, if possible.
  • Make up a reason for which you were just leaving.
  • Tell them to come back later (unless you don’t want them to).

Set aside time to feed them. You’re going to have to interact with some known time vampires, so do it on your terms when you have control over the situation rather than being ambushed.

  • Plan your exit strategy beforehand.
  • Schedule to meet/talk before something else that you must attend so there is a definite time it must end.
  • Never plan to meet/talk before personal time like working out, eating lunch, etc.
  • Multi-task by meeting for a meal or using your phone’s headphones so you can do housework or laundry while chatting.

Slay them. Get away, get away, get away now!

  • Practice using assertive, but polite conversation ending phrases. My favorite is “I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to kick you out now,” one my boss often uses. More good ones here.
  • Utilize your phone by setting an alarm to go off when it’s time for lunch or to go home so you’ll realize you need to go and so will the person who’s trapped you. They don’t need to know it’s an alarm, could be a text or a meeting reminder.
  • Have a friend bail you out either in person or via text.
  • If another person joins in, that’s your opportunity to get out.


I’m writing this to myself as much as to you and hopefully I am not coming off completely anti-social or passive aggressive. The point is that we all have work to do, if we want to achieve our goals, and some people can sometimes kill our productivity. We must not let them.

Hope this help you gain some time back!

Aunt Sarah

Letters of Recommendation – What’s in them?

Dear Ally,

I’m sure you know about the newest member of our household, Tootsie the Tortoiseshell kitten. We didn’t get much sleep last night because her and Woodward’s fighting woke everyone up before dawn. So this one will be short and sweet.

Tootsie 8 weeks 8 -week old Tootsie

Last week, I wrote the first of what will be several letters of recommendation for students who are now juniors that were in my sophomore organic class last year. Most students waive their right to read the actual letter or see the recommendation form, so what they contain might be a mystery.

This particular student is applying to Physician Assistant school and, in addition to a letter, this is what I was asked:

Relationship section:

  • How long have you known the applicant?
  • How well do you know the applicant? (multiple choice)
  • In what capacity do you know the applicant? (also multiple choice)

Likert criteria section:

(answer choices = Excellent, Good, Average, Below Average, Poor, Not Observed)

  • Adaptability
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Empathy
  • Intellectual Ability
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Oral Communication
  • Reaction to Criticism
  • Reliability
  • Self Awareness
  • Team Skills
  • Written Communication
  • Overall Evaluation

Overall Recommendation:

  • Recommendation concerning admission choices:
    • I highly recommend this applicant.
    • I recommend this applicant.
    • I recommend this applicant with reservation.
    • I do not recommend this applicant.

And then it asks you to upload a letter.

I’ve been given recommendation forms that ask about similar or additional criteria such as professionalism, emotional intelligence, cultural competence, maturity, etc. There is always something about collaboration/team skills as well as communication. The “empathy” and “reaction to criticism” were categories that I had not seen before.

Very soon, if not already, you are going to be asking your professors to judge you in these same areas. That fact should be in the back of your mind every time you interact with them and your classmates in their classes. Hopefully, having this list will also help you know who to ask because you’ll know who will best be able to speak to each and every one of these criteria. You should also be thinking about ways in which you can demonstrate or opportunities to develop these skills.

It’s time for bed now, goodnight!

Aunt Sarah


Big Mistakes…Just Run Away!

1 Cor 10_13

Dear Ally,

Last week in church (not yesterday because, admittedly, I overslept and missed it) the sermon was about when Jesus was tempted in the desert. Our pastor talked about how the devil is skilled at making sin look attractive and how, when tempted, we don’t think, “Oh I’m just going to ruin my life now.”

This same week a friend of mine who is also a chemistry professor very publicly admitted to a huge mistake – he cheated on his wife and was fired by the university where he worked.  You might be thinking at this point, “Wait a minute, was it a student?” It was not a student and this is the reason he went public, to dispel any rumors to the contrary. I assume the university is conservative and religious and must have some clause in employee contracts about sex outside of marriage being a fire-able offense.

Also this week I’ve been conducting search committees for several open positions. One candidate let me know that I may find something in the background check from a mistake made when they were young. Turns out this person is a registered sex offender. Yikes! I was thinking maybe it was a DUI or something.

Both of these situations are extremely unfortunate examples of people’s personal mistakes also ruining their careers. With all of this being within a week, I’m sensing a theme and looking over my shoulder like any moment the devil is going to try to get me and I guess maybe that’s how we should be all the time.

Matt 26_41

So what does this have to do with you? Just one thing – don’t get pregnant. There’s probably nothing else that could so easily derail your future. I remember the struggle in college and there was a reason why I had 1 Corinthians 10:13 hung up on my wall and why my roommate and her boyfriend always sat on our floor instead of the bed.

And with that, I will say goodnight and it’s time for your uncle and I to take down some Pokemon gyms.

Aunt Sarah

Get an answer…to the email you sent to your professor

Dear Ally,

In grad school there were a few of us who played practical jokes on each other. This one undergrad in our research group had it in for your uncle and one day he had an e-mail to his chemistry professor open on the shared computer, so Adam wrote at the end of it “P.S. I love you.” The undergrad caught him in the act and a scuffle ensued, during which the e-mail disappeared from the screen. At this point I was hysterically laughing and shouting, “It sent! It sent!” The guy flew out of there to run down three flights of stairs to explain what had happened before the professor got the wrong idea. We never did find out what happened to that e-mail.

At times you might feel like the e-mails you’re sending to your professors are disappearing. It can be frustrating not to get a response when you expect it or not at all, so here are some tips to make sure you get a response in a timely manner.

Introduce yourself via e-mail. Some professors’ first assignment is to e-mail them. Even if you’re not asked to, it might be a good idea to send your professors or teaching assistants (whoever you’d be contacting if you have a problem or question) a brief e-mail at the beginning of the semester. Ask them to reply “Hi” or request a read receipt so you know your e-mail was received. If your e-mail system allows you to upload a profile picture, be sure to do this and pick an appropriate picture where your face is recognizable and takes up most of the space.


Be polite and professional. Always begin an e-mail with a formal salutation and address your professors using their formal title (Dr., Professor, etc). Say please and thank them for their time. You want to be understood, so use proper grammar and don’t use textese or emoticons.


Avoid technical issues. Sometimes we really didn’t get your e-mail. Be sure to always use your official school e-mail so that: 1) your e-mail gets past the spam filter and 2) your professor knows it’s legit and doesn’t delete it without reading it. You should obviously double-check your professor’s e-mail address or, better yet, reply to an e-mail he or she sent you (but change the subject line unless it’s related). You can also use delivery receipts and/or read receipts (although some people hate these).


Don’t let your email get buried. Professors receive a ton of e-mail and not everyone checks their e-mail in chronological order. If you know your professor won’t see your e-mail over the weekend or until morning, then don’t e-mail them on Sunday or in the middle of the night and especially do not e-mail them while they are sending automatic out of office replies. Wait and send your e-mail at a time when they are likely to be looking at e-mail or write your e-mail, but then use the delay delivery option to send the e-mail at an opportune time (it’s under options in Outlook).

Email Sunday.jpg

Be succinct and specific. The shorter the e-mail the better. If it requires scrolling, maybe it’s better to call or go to office hours. Don’t send a whole list of questions or requests, you’re more likely to get a response to everything if you keep it to one topic per e-mail. Better than a short e-mail is the e-mail not sent at all, so check the syllabus and other sources of information first to see if you can answer your own question.


Make it as easy as possible and don’t be annoying. Do your professors a huge favor and sign your full name and include the course and section number somewhere, preferably in the subject line along with a summary of your question/request. Nothing is worse than having to look through several class lists to figure out which section a student is enrolled in so you can finally answer the question. Don’t overuse the important button or it will lose its effect. Give them a chance to reply, at least a day, especially if it’s complicated or requires some investigating, before you resend.



Hopefully these tips decrease the response time to your e-mails and you can get your answer and go back to studying. If you’re still having trouble getting a response, perhaps it’s time to switch to a different mode of communication, some of us are better with voicemails or prefer texting even.

Let me know if you use any of these tips!

Aunt Sarah






Grad School: Choosing Where to Apply

Dear Ally,

You’re only a sophomore, so grad school seems far away. I didn’t really decide to actually apply or go until late in my junior year. I hadn’t really thought about it and, at the time, was thinking, “Oh, I’ll at least go for a Master’s.” I did the Master’s, but had decided well before that was finished that I’d stick around for the terminal degree.

So where do you want to go? There are several answers to this question including:

  • Where the program and degree you want is offered. If you have a specific career in mind, make sure you find a school that offers the exact curriculum and degree level you need to meet your goals. Also, make sure the program is accredited by the professional organization of your chosen field. In fact, professional organizations might be the first place to look for a list of schools from which to choose.
  • Where you’ve been accepted. Grad school is not as competitive as med school, but certain schools and programs can be very selective. I was told to apply to at least 6 different places: one “dream school” that’s a top 10 school for your program (For me, this was Standford), a few in the middle, and at least one “fall-back” school into which you know you’ll be accepted. With common on-line applications, it’s easier than it used to be to apply to multiple programs. Find the grad school rankings here.
  • In a geographic location where you’d like to live. Grad school is a long time, so some people (like me) choose to stay near friends and family, but it’s also a finite amount of time, so if there’s somewhere you’ve always wanted to live, this might be the perfect way to do a trial run of an area. Some things to consider are weather/climate, traffic, safety, cost of living, and availability of housing. If you choose an on-line program, you can live anywhere you want.
  • To a school where you’ll have support. Support can mean a variety of things, but you should definitely consider the financial piece. Are there grad assistant positions, scholarships, or fellowships for which you are eligible? Is grad student housing an option? What about lab and library facilities? Are there grad student groups – what about for women, international students, or professional groups for students in your particular program? Women who already have children or intend to start a family in grad school (yes, some people do this on purpose, especially if the health care is good) should ask about daycare options for children of grad students.

Choosing a grad school should not be based solely on:

  • Where your mentor thinks you should go. Your advisor and current professors, especially those with the degree you are seeking, can be excellent sources for recommendations, but don’t feel pressured.
  • Where your significant other will or will not live. So, I actually got accepted to Standford and my boyfriend at the time responded, “If you move to California, we are over.” It was not a threat, just a fact. He couldn’t afford to move and live there and 4-6 years is too long for a long distance relationship. As you know, I didn’t go to Standford for a variety of reasons nor did I marry that boyfriend. I met your uncle in grad school and have the job of my dreams, so I have no regrets.
  • Where the recruiter had the best sales pitch. Sometimes choosing a school can be like buying a car. Beware of the “hard sell” and random incentives like, “Every new grad student gets a free laptop.”

I found this helpful resource as you begin your search:  where you can filter by degree, category, subject, and state or country.

Good luck getting started on your search. This is the most fun part! Once you choose a few schools, plan how you might be able to visit them during breaks (road trip!). You should also start thinking about whether you could spend a summer doing undergraduate research. The National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergrads (NSF-REU) Program is how I was able to spend summers at two different schools , one of these is where I ultimately chose to attend. Applications are due in February or March.


Aunt Sarah

When will I graduate?

Dear Ally,

This post was going to be about college myths and while reading up about myths like “if the professor is over 20 minutes late, class is cancelled” (true at my school) and “if your roommate dies, you get a 4.0 for the semester” (not true anywhere), I found the biggest myth of them all: “Everyone graduates college in 4 years.”

The fact is that not even a majority of students graduate college in 4 years or less. Nationally only 65% of college students graduate in 6 years! This means that 35% of students take over 6 years to get their degree.

How can you find out when you can expect to graduate?

  • Calculate it. Take the total number of credit hours needed to graduate and divide by the average number of credit hours that you’ve been taking or plan to take each semester. The answer is the number of semesters it will take to graduate. (For example my school requires 128 credit hours and the average student takes about 15 credit hours per semester: 128 credit hours/ 15 credit hours per semester = 8.5 semesters. 4 years = 8 semesters, so students at my school need to take at least 16 credit hours per semester to graduate in 4 years.)
  • Map it. Charting your course through college can be complicated. You need to know which classes to take, in what order, and when they will be offered. Your school should have a general 4-year degree plan for each major – most likely available on the website. Your academic advisor should help you develop a personal road map for your college journey from the very beginning and should adjust the route, if you encounter any bumps along the way. If you do not have such a plan, ask for one when scheduling your next meeting with your advisor.

What can you do to graduate sooner?

  • Take more classes each semester. If you did the calculation and you’re coming up short, then you need to raise your average number of credit hours per semester, especially if your school has flat rate tuition – get your money’s worth since the cost per credit hour decreases the more courses you take at a time.
  • Follow the degree plan. Listen to your advisor and take the classes when he or she tells you to take them. My school requires a minimum of one science and one math course to be taken in the first year. It’s terrible to hear about a student who put one of these classes off because they’re scared of them only to fail it their very last semester.
  • Take only classes you need. Electives are fun, but too many of them add to your time in school. A double major or a minor might be enticing too, but unless you can work it into your 4-year degree plan, it’s going to cost you both time and money.
  • Pay your library fees and your tuition bill on time. What does this have to do with graduation rates? Students who have financial holds on their accounts cannot register for classes, which is the next tip….
  • Register for classes as soon as possible. Get up at 5am or whenever registration opens for your class’ rank. Why? Because you don’t want to get closed out of a class that you need to graduate and be forced to take it later, throwing off your plan.
  • Consider taking summer classes. Although I don’t recommend trying to squeeze a science or math course into the summer, it can be the perfect time to knock out a general education requirement or two. Talk with your advisor about your options – maybe your school offers summer on-line courses or maybe there is a school near your home that has courses that will transfer to your school as equivalent credit. Your advisor can help you figure this out, but you should start thinking about it in early spring semester – February or March at the latest.

Factors such as changing your major or transferring to a different school can have a serious effect on your graduation rate, so be sure to know all the details of your alternate plan so you can make an informed decision and know whether or not the change will be worth it.

All this being said, college is a wonderful experience that tends to fly by so…


(You probably don’t get this references because Billy Madison came out before you were born. This was one of my favorite movies in college.)

Hope you are having a great week!

Aunt Sarah