How to Stand Out as a Memorable Candidate for Grad School

Contrary to popular belief, high test scores and a perfect GPA do not make for a memorable candidate. At least, not on their own. Sure, having test scores in the 99th percentile and a perfect GPA in challenging and relevant coursework are fantastic. But by their very definition, very few people have those numbers. Graduate schools everywhere would surely shrivel up and die on the vine if numbers were all it took to stand out and be a memorable candidate.

We chatted not too long ago with a professor who runs a PhD “program” that, in fact, holds such lofty standards. As a result, they have not enrolled a new student in the past 5 years. If the program is empty is it still a program? I’m not so sure.

For most programs though – and we mean the real kind with actual students here – numbers mostly serve as thresholds. Every program decides their own thresholds based on what they think is a good indicator of potential success in their program.Two neighboring programs at the same institution could have widely different thresholds. Think of these numbers as a way to get your foot in the door: the better the numbers, the more doors you can open (generally speaking).  

What often matters most is what happens once you are “in the room”, so to speak. Your numbers may put you into the consideration set, but most people would be surprised to learn that numbers are rarely what makes someone stand out and be a memorable candidate. Once you are in the room, your due diligence as an applicant and other less quantitative qualities are what matter most.

If not the numbers, what REALLY counts?

So what is it exactly about certain applicants that makes them stand out? Over the years, I’ve become VERY familiar with the student application process and what makes some candidates very memorable while others fade from memory soon after their interview. I’ve reviewed hundreds of applications, interviewed scores of students, and spent countless hours in admissions committee meetings for a handful of our graduate programs at Emory University, including our pharmacology and our MD/PhD programs, which typically have acceptance rates of 10% or less. Since starting Gradschoolmatch, I’ve been even more immersed in these issues, speaking with many people who run programs at other universities and identifying what types of student profiles stand out, so I know that what I’m sharing with you isn’t just my personal opinion – it’s a fact.

Speaking from our joint experiences, standout candidates have the following characteristics in common.

Being a memorable candidate means being a red gummy bear in a sea of white gummy bears.
Stand out in a GOOD way.

A memorable candidate has:

  • A strong background and experiences in an area relevant to what she wants to study
  • Clear insights about his/her core motivations
  • An overarching vision that connects the dots from his/her academic and work history to grad school to future career plans
  • Evaluated the program structure carefully to understand its various strengths and weaknesses relative to his/her own interests and goal
  • Reviewed the program people and understands the scope of their specializations
  • An ability to articulate how well his/her own interests aligns with what the program offers and what he/she can uniquely bring to the program

There is much more that could and should be said on this subject, but the bottom line is that it is not some je ne sais quois. It really is not complicated at all: numbers allow you to be considered, but it is EVERYTHING else that makes you a unique applicant with the ability to stand out. Through due diligence and preparation, a memorable candidate demonstrates clearly that he/she is familiar with what it takes to excel and how he/she can contribute to a program. They stand out because, through self-reflection and researching programs thoroughly, they can make a strong case that they belong.

So you want to be a memorable candidate? Make sure you can honestly and thoroughly answer the following questions.

  1. What about your background (educational or professional experience) has prepared you for an advanced degree in this field?
  2. Why are you interested in pursuing further education in this field?
  3. What do you intend to get out of graduate schools and how does that relate to your future career aspirations? How does this particular program fit into that vision?
  4. Why are you specifically interested in this program out of all of those in the same field? Which of the program’s strengths lend themselves well to your goals? Which professors or courses particularly interested you?
  5. Why is now the right time for you to pursue a graduate degree?
  6. What is it that you (and only you) can bring to the program?

If you’re able to articulate the answers to those questions, you have a much higher chance of standing out from the pack (in a good way). Lastly, it may go without saying, but they don’t want uninteresting or rude intellectuals milling about their campus; they are looking for people they would want to be around and work with, so don’t leave your manners or conversational skills at home.

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From Insights to Action: How To Develop A Recruiting Action Plan

Wondering why you need an action plan? Having data is great, but using it is far more valuable.

Collecting data is only half the battle; it’s what you do with it that really matters. In the words of McKinsey’s big data specialists, “Data is meaningless unless it helps make decisions that have measurable impact...Generating value from [data] is a matter of connecting data to insights to action in a fast, repeatable way.”  (Source: Forbes).  Long story short: collect data and use it to inform your strategy and subsequent action plan.

Your Dashboard provides the data you'll need for your Action Plan
Your Dashboard provides the data you’ll need for your Action Plan

Our new Dashboard tool has the first half covered, but it’s up to you to complete the second half. Continue reading for all the tools you’ll need to put your insights to work.

To develop your program’s tailored (and well-informed) plan, follow these four steps:

1. Figure out where you stand

The first step in deciding on a realistic plan of action is figuring out where you are today. Take a look around and be honest. From 90,000 feet, what do you see? Look over your recruiting results over the past few years – how close are you to where you’d like to be?

Consider the answers to questions like the following to get the full picture:

  • How do your incoming Bookmarks compare to your outgoing Bookmarks?
  • What percentage of your total Matches from 2016 became applicants? Is this a number you’d like to increase? If so, by how much? (Remember, Gradschoolmatch acts as a funnel to deliver your best Matches, but like any funnel, nothing will come out if nothing goes in!)
  • Are your Collaborators bookmarking prospects, responding to incoming Bookmarks and, most importantly, engaging with Matches through personal messages? If not, who could you add as Collaborators to be more effective – current graduate students, faculty, admin, etc – based on the type of questions you’ve gotten from prospects?

Asking yourself these questions will help you analyze your success in different areas of recruiting.

2. Decide where you want to go 

Imagine your action plan as the keys to hitting a bullseye this year.
Set your targets for the year and keep your eye on the prize.

From a bird’s eye view, you might see many possible paths to take, but you’ll need to decide which direction to go. You may choose to address your biggest weakness or you may choose to support a larger initiative your program has already decided to undertake. The point here is to be specific in what you’re trying to achieve THIS year and to limit your scope.

3. Plan your path forward

With your destination in mind, it’s time to plan your route. As a first step, consider which of these three categories you fall into based on your answer to the questions in Step 1 about your Bookmarking performance.

Did you find that your program:

A) Had an equal number of outgoing and incoming Bookmarks,

B) Received more Bookmarks than you sent (incoming>outgoing) or

C) Sent more Bookmarks than you received (incoming<outgoing)?

Your Action Plan should ultimately get you from your starting point to your desired destination.
Map out your starting point and destination and develop an Action Plan that will get you from Point A to Point B.

No matter which category you fall into, you are not stuck there, nor are you guaranteed to stay there. The process of developing an Action Plan is your first step to improving your success.

A few quick suggestions depending on where you ranked (before we move on to the nitty gritty):

  • If your Bookmark counts were equal, that’s great! It probably means you like everybody who likes your program. Go through the Stop-Continue-Start framework (below) to make sure this year is at least as good as last year. Analyze how many of these Matches became applicants (and how many of those were accepted, and subsequently enrolled). To increase the number of applicants and subsequent enrollees you’ll need to increase your engagement with the Matches you have, or generate more. Bookmark a few more prospects each month and follow up with personal messages explaining what about their profile caught your eye, and be specific. Schedule phone calls. Make yourself available to answer any questions they have. Your expertise is your greatest recruiting asset.
  • If your incoming Bookmarks exceeded your outgoing Bookmarks – you are probably missing out on great students! Your program is getting a lot of attention that is going unreciprocated, and if that’s not intentional (as in, they are not students you are interested in), your recruiting funnel has a leak! Consider adding more Collaborators who can review incoming Bookmarks and potentially send a Bookmark (and a message) back, and schedule those phone calls! You’ll definitely want to make the most of students seeking YOU out since they’ve already expressed interest on their end.
  • If your outgoing Bookmarks exceeded your incoming Bookmarks, analyze why your outgoing Bookmarks may not be reciprocated. Is your profile page missing information that may attract students? Are you following up Bookmarks with a warm, personal message to students to tell them why you are interested in them specifically? If not, you may be missing out on making quality connections (students may think you are blanket Bookmarking anyone who fits your criteria). Could your program benefit from having more collaborators engaging with Bookmarked students?

You may also consider using the Stop-Continue-Start framework to connect the dots from your current state to your ideal state.

Stop: Identify activities or initiatives that were unsuccessful or not as productive as you had hoped. If you’re not getting engagement with group messaging, stop sending them. Did you try something new that didn’t work out the way you thought they would? These are the types of things that should be stopped, as the time you spend on these things could be better used in the future (e.g. on the activities you will be continuing or starting).

Continue: Identify areas of strength and past success. What has your team done that has produced great results? Are these initiatives repeatable or scalable? List those activities in this category, as these are the types of initiatives you should definitely continue to leverage (and scale, if possible) to achieve recruiting success. Note: This category can also include activities that may not have been hugely successful, but can be modified to produce better results.

Start: Identify a few tactics you’d like to start this year. These may be things you have seen other programs do with great results or just new ideas you’d like to test. Based on what you decided in Step 2, specify a few tactics that will help you better achieve your stated goals.

The list you just created will allow you to see clearly where your energy is best spent and how to trim the fat. From this list, write out a specific Action Plan that outlines particular goals. These goals should be realistic and quantifiable, and can include things like:

  • How many Bookmarks you’d like to send each month (outgoing)
  • How many Bookmarks you’d like to receive each month (incoming)
  • How many Bookmarks you’d like to send to prospects who meet certain criteria (e.g. URM, particular background or experience, etc).
  • How many candidates you’d like to send personal messages to
  • How many prospects you’d like to schedule calls with
  • How many active collaborators you’d like to have (Pro Tip: Set up different kinds of users – faculty, current students, admin, etc – as Collaborators so that interested students are getting all of the information and attention they need and deserve. More is usually better, but definitely prioritize quality over quantity)

Using the S.M.A.R.T. goal format, try to structure your goals as follows: Reach out (actionable) to ________ (specific, measurable, agreed-upon) students using Gradschoolmatch by _________ (time-based).

3. Go forth and prosper!

This step will take a little longer than others, as you probably guessed. This is when you put your plan to work, where the rubber meets the road. Leverage your team’s strengths to implement your Action Plan – divide and conquer, if you will. Using your Gradschoolmatch account, identify students who would be a great fit for your program(s) and make a personal connection early on. Refer back to your Action Plan to make sure you are staying on track, from time to time.

4. Don’t forget the feedback loop

Rinse and repeat AKA review your action plan and make a new one.
No Action Plan is foolproof or universal so make sure to revisit it every year to make necessary changes based on the outcomes you achieved.

This is the “rinse and repeat” portion of the activity. You must revisit your plan after each recruiting cycle for this process to work well. Refer back to your S.M.A.R.T. goals to see how your results stacked up. Go back through the Start-Stop-Continue framework and adjust your goals for the following year.

Need help collecting insights from your dashboard or developing an Action Plan based on what you’re seeing? Contact us! We’d love to help you make the most of your account using our new Dashboard tool and get you set up for a successful 2017!

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How to Attract the Right Kind of Applicants to Your Program

Attracting the right applicants isn’t an exact science, but there definitely is an art to it.

The short of it: Approach prospective students on a personal, one-to-one level, and be yourself.

The magic happens when a one-way conversation becomes a dialogue between applicants and programs.
The magic happens when a one-way conversation becomes a dialogue.

That’s it. That’s all you need to know to attract the right applicants to your program.

It’s surprisingly THAT simple, and so is the rationale. They need (and value) your expertise and willingness to offer some guidance. If you provide them with what they need, they will respond in kind.

Why is operating on a personal level the key to attracting the best applicants? 

  • You are an expert at spotting the right student.

    Your experience enables you to easily identify someone likely to have the proper credentials and interests for your program. You can see in them what they might not see in themselves.

  • Going to grad school is a HUGE decision.

    They are in the process of making a life-changing decision based on imperfect (and often conflicting and confusing) information. They don’t want to make a mistake.

  • The clarity you can provide is invaluable.

    Prospects have far too many options –often there are a few hundred programs a student might reasonably consider– which makes focusing on “the right few” very, very difficult. The choices can be overwhelming and your guidance here is both valued and welcomed.

  • They operate in a guidance vacuum that only you can fill.

    Applicants coming straight out of undergrad don’t find their campus’ career guidance centers helpful for graduate school decisions. Their college-grad, working counterparts aren’t any better off. They’re likely disconnected from the academic world and are mostly on their own to navigate the process.

  • Influencer networks are everything.

    The set of programs prospective students consider come from recommendations by people they know – their influence network. This network is usually made up of colleagues, family, friends and just about anyone reasonable with something to say on the subject. You can make an incredible impact as an expert in a field they are interested in pursuing. Applicants greatly appreciate information coming directly from the source and they will heed your advice.

  • Spam messages don’t cut through the clutter, but personal messages do.

    Grad student hopefuls don’t pay attention to spam or intrusive advertising any more than do you. Plus, they have spam guards and ad blockers and are bombarded with somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000 messages daily, depending on who you ask. At some point, all the marketing messages and perfectly prepared websites start to look and sound the same. This is when a personal message speaks the loudest.

On the last point, we’d like to reiterate that spam messaging and general advertising (including your website) are very poor substitutes for a human connection.

Advertising can’t:

  1. Spot the right student
  2. Hear what students dream of doing with their lives
  3. Validate (or invalidate) conclusions already reached or provide guidance
  4. Build the relationship you need with applicants in order to attract them to your graduate program

Graduate schools are in a continuous cycle of relearning how to attract top applicants and understanding where the internet comes into play in that process. As Wharton professor and information systems expert Eric Clemons wrote,

“The internet is the most liberating of all mass media developed to date. It is participatory, like swapping stories around a campfire or attending a renaissance fair. It is not meant solely to push content, in one direction, to a captive audience, the way movies or traditional network television did.”  (Source: Why Advertising is Failing on the Internet)

In other words: harness the power of the internet to create a dialogue with applicants and spread good quality information. The key to making good use of the internet to attract the right graduate students is to lean towards participatory systems.

We built Gradschoolmatch to help address this need and allow you to reach and connect with the best students for your program, and we’d be more than happy to help you make the most of it. Feel free to reach out with any comments or questions you might have.

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Advertising is bad manners

Graduate programs shouldn’t advertise.

The alternative?

Ask someone if they’d like some guidance, then just be yourself.

As Doc Searls says

All that should stand between any two entities on the Net are manners, permission and convenience. Any company and any customer should be able to connect with any other, without an intermediary, any time and in any way they both want — provided agreements and methods for doing that are worked out.

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10 Common Grad School Application Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)

Avoid making these mistakes to put together the strongest application possible.

Even silly mistakes are easy to make under pressure and we want to help you improve your chances of getting into grad school.

We’re sure you’ve heard some of these application mistakes before, but we wouldn’t be reminding you of them if we didn’t still see them EVERY SINGLE YEAR. Luckily for you, we’ve put together this list of mistakes to avoid (and what to do instead) to read through BEFORE you start your applications. Think of this as a “how to apply to grad school” from a very high level.

Application Mistake #1: Applying at the deadline

Start now, not later.
There’s no time like the present, so start NOW!

Little known fact: Graduate programs often make admissions decisions on the fly, many of which include scholarship offers. You may be the best applicant they’ve seen all year, but miss out on the money (and maybe even admission) by procrastinating. You may work well under pressure, but that fact won’t matter if there are no seats or money left for next year’s class.

Our Advice: Get your application in as early as you can complete it and ensure that it gives the admissions committee the best picture of who you are and why their program is perfect for you.

Application Mistake #2: Not answering application questions correctly

At this age, there’s NO reason you shouldn’t be able to read and follow directions. Not all application questions are the same and it’s important to read them through and give them EXACTLY what they’re looking for.

Our Advice: Answer questions with specific details and examples. For example, if they ask you to explain why their program would be a good fit for you, you should answer with specific details about their program, university and city. Help them visualize the full picture – one that includes you in their program.

Application Mistake #3: Using poor grammar and misspelling words

Application mistake #3: Bad grammar or improper punctuation. Just one more reason in support of proper punctuation.
Just one more reason to use proper punctuation.

Academics write a LOT and highly value good writing. Read: you will be writing a lot as a graduate student and you need to show that you can do this well and pay attention to detail.

Our Advice: Use spell check and get another set of eyes on your essays before submitting them. Grammar and correct punctuation are very important.

Application Mistake #4: Not speaking with your recommenders

Recommendations tell the graduate admissions committee how others think of you, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t help them identify areas to focus on. Missing the opportunity to have a discussion about your strengths, what makes you a good fit for the program and particular examples to showcase is a HUGE miss; lukewarm letters that don’t focus on your unique strengths will hurt even a strong application.

Our Advice: Schedule time to speak with your recommender WEEKS before the deadline and provide them with something to work from. Explain your goals and tell them where you are applying and specifically what each program is looking for in candidates. Then, remind them of examples and accomplishments that show you’re a great candidate. Provide them your CV and a statement of purpose and anything else they can use as source material. Get them excited about you and make their job as easy as possible. Lastly, don’t be scared to ask them point blank if they feel comfortable writing a strong recommendation on your behalf. If you’re uncomfortable having this conversation, that might be a sign to consider a different recommender.

Application Mistake #5: Applying to the wrong program

Nope – you didn’t read that wrong. Sadly, this is much more common than you think; a whopping 25% of current graduate students admit theyare in the wrong program! Wrong in this sense could mean a poor fit academically or culturally, or one that won’t lead them into their dream career.

Application mistake #5: Applying to the wrong program. Make sure to compare your options thoroughly.
Make sure to compare your options thoroughly before making a decision.

Our Advice: Take the time to figure out what distinguishes one program from another. Speak with current students, alumni and faculty of programs to get a REAL idea of what it would be like to be a student there and if it’s the right program for your career goals.

Application Mistake #6: Copying and pasting answers

Now is not the time for shortcuts, especially not the Ctrl C + Ctrl V kind. If you’re thinking about writing a generic, one-size-fits-all-none narrative, you may as well not apply.

Our Advice: Prepare each answer individually. You may end up using some of the same examples, but be sure to specifically tailor each answer to what each program is asking. Programs are interested in how you fit into their graduate program and the answers you provide help them gauge your interest in their school and if you are a good fit.

Application Mistake #7: Using grandiloquent writing

You’re doing it wrong if the first sentence of your narrative reads like a fairly competitive entry for the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest. Nothing

Application mistake #7: Avoid grandiloquent writing in your applications.
Don’t be an aeolist!

says you really struggle with writing than melodramatic overwriting. Remember: academic papers are generally straightforward, data-driven and avoid flowery language.

Our Advice: Use a natural writing style that’s both conversational and professional. Don’t use a thesaurus. Stories about overcoming obstacles can be very good, but avoid exposing your unresolved issues and psychological wounds in the process of telling them. There’s also a fine line between passion and over-the-top obsession.

Application Mistake #8: Assuming that “Accomplishments” = Resume

You’re missing a huge opportunity to tell the admissions committee who you are and what experiences have shaped you if you simply copy and paste your resume.

Our Advice: Provide some context about your experiences here (what you learned, how they shaped your goals, etc). Avoid getting TOO personal, though, since you want to maintain an air of professionalism.

Application Mistake #9: Assuming nobody will read your narrative

Real people read them very carefully. Programs are looking to understand your personality and what makes you tick. They want to know if their program will satisfy your interests and whether you’d be a good program

Application mistake #9: Making the reader fill in the blanks. Your story should connect the dots for your reader
Your story should connect the dots for your reader. Don’t make them fill in the blanks on their own.

citizen. Good narrative writing will help applicants who might have average numbers, whereas applicants with strong numbers can sink quickly on poorly written narratives.

Our Advice: We might be sounding a little redundant at this point, but we can’t emphasize it enough: take the time to do this right. Make sure your narrative is unique, connects the dots for the reader and strengthens your candidacy for their specific program.

Application Mistake #10: Not using a proofreader

Spellchecking and grammar checking are precursors to this step, but don’t underestimate the importance of having someone with the knowledge and experience to look over your whole application. Skipping this step will hurt you, as your proofreader can help you avoid cliches and remove anything that might be a red flag.

Our Advice: First, identify who can play the role of proofreader. Ideally, he/she is an academic who is writing a recommendation on your behalf AND has experience with admissions. This person will have a good idea of your story and your goals and can assess if your application conveys your message clearly. Offer them your narrative and ask for candid feedback. Lastly, remember feedback is a gift and do not take their constructive criticisms personally – they’re only trying to help.

Keep calm and apply for grad school.
No reason not to keep calm now that you can avoid silly mistakes!

Of course this list is not completely exhaustive, but we really hope this list helps you to prepare a strong application for your graduate studies. Feel free to leave us comments or questions below and good luck with your applications!

 

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Data Take the Wheel: Your New Dashboard and How to Use It

As academics ourselves, we know we don’t have to sell you on the importance of data and the value of data-based decision-making. With that (and your feedback) in mind, we recently designed and launched a Program Dashboard to help you monitor your Programs’ performance at a glance (see our example below).

Dashboard insights are a powerful way to: 

  • Assess program performance in real-time by analyzing the number of ingoing and outgoing bookmarks. Ideally, your programs are receiving a good number of incoming bookmarks as well as proactively bookmarking prospective students.
  • Identify best practices and opportunities for improvement with programs that are not using the platform to its full potential. Find out what the successful programs are doing well and how others can learn from them.  
  • Develop benchmarks and an action plan for the coming year based on admission goals. Decide on target numbers for the coming year and stay tuned for our next post on how to turn your Dashboard insights into action.

We envisioned the Dashboard as a place for program users to gather all the insights you need to take action and make the most of your subscription. Here, you can monitor the programs in your account and make changes immediately. Let’s take a closer look by clicking on one of the Programs (Architecture, in this case).

The dashboard allows you to quickly monitor three key metrics.Using the Dashboard, you can easily keep tabs on three key metrics (called out in the above image):

  1. Program Profile completion – Is your profile complete and does it provide prospects with all pertinent information? Your goal here is 100% completion.
  2. Engagement with prospective students  – Is your program receiving more interest from students than your Collaborators can handle? Together, these numbers are a key indicator of how much interest a program is generating. Your target number here depends on your program size, but you should strive to maximize the number of bookmarks your program receives.
  3. Usage by Collaborators – Who are your top Collaborators? Are all of your Collaborators connecting with prospective students? Ideally, you’ve selected different kinds of Collaborators (faculty, staff and students) to answer different kinds of questions and they have all learned how to use the platform.

We built the dashboard with you (our Program users) in mind, and we hope you find it really useful. We think the new Dashboard will enhance the program user experience by making Gradschoolmatch easier to do the things you need to do to be successful. And like we said, stay tuned for our step-by-step post on how to build an action plan using the new Dashboard.

If we can help you maximize the data from this new tool, or if you have any feedback on it, please don’t hesitate to contact us . We would love to hear from you!

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An Interview with the Founder of Gradschoolmatch

Brian Clark, Camila España and TJ Murphy
Brian Clark, Camila España and TJ Murphy

Gradschoolmatch launched in beta a few years ago with precisely zero users. Today, the platform has over 425,000 prospective graduate student users and is used by almost 1,400 (and growing) graduate programs at over 140 (and growing) universities. The platform has helped tens of thousands of students find their graduate school match.

Camila España is a recent addition to the Gradschoolmatch team. She grew up in California and recently settled in Atlanta after receiving a dual-degree (MBA/MS) from the University of Michigan. Through her work on several marketing, innovation and strategy products, she’s developed an affinity for startup environments such as ours. She reached out to us after a presentation that Brian Clark, President and Co-Founder, gave at Switchyards Downtown Club (Atlanta’s only B2C startup incubator). As someone who has been through the process recently “the old-fashioned way”, she’s excited to play a key role in revolutionizing the way people approach graduate school in their career journey.

Camila recently sat down for something like an orientation chat with Gradschoolmatch Founder TJ Murphy, who asked her to come up with a list of questions as a way to get up to speed on what Gradschoolmatch is all about. The conversation was so enlightening we thought it was worth sharing with you.

Let’s start at the very beginning. What were you doing before Gradschoolmatch?

Before Gradschoolmatch I was just a regular university professor minding my own business, running a small biomedical research group, training students, lecturing on medicines and statistics, yada, yada yada.

How did the idea come to you? Do you remember the moment when you thought of Gradschoolmatch?

Sort of. One day, I listened as a friend discussed a small internet company he knew of that connects high school athletes with college coaches. I must have put two and two together later while sleeping that night because I awoke with the idea for Gradschoolmatch the next morning, so we’ll credit it to a dream, I guess.

How did you know this was an idea worth pursuing?

Well, this seemed like a good idea, and most of my job as a scientist was about making decisions about ideas to follow up. For years, I’d participated in shepherding students into our PhD programs at Emory. I had actually reflected a lot on that very personal process and how crazy it can be. Attracting the right students can be a frustrating experience for a program. You know they’re out there. You just wait and hope enough good people apply every year. Then you select the best and try to convince them to come to your program and not go somewhere else. It’s mostly a reactive system that would work better for all parties involved if it were far more proactive. At some point, you just have to reject the status quo and create something that actually solves the problems everybody admits we have.

What do you mean by that? That everybody admits we have these problems?

Every university writes a strategic plan and puts it online. So I looked up a bunch of them as a sample (around 50 or so chosen at random) to read what they had to say about their graduate students and programs. Doing that, I only found one school that didn’t declare it was important to improve the quality of their graduate students and/or their enrollment numbers. One. All the rest admitted they had problems.

Which one was that?

The University of Southern California (USC), which makes sense if you look at their numbers. They seem to be doing really well out there. 

So where did you go after having this great idea? What did you do to validate your concept after conceiving it?

Lots of data analysis, such as reading those strategic plans, digging up enrollment and outcome data. Concept validation is a continuous process. Early on, for example, a big moment of validation is when I told Brian (Clark) about the idea. I’ll never forget the look on his face. He wanted to get going on the spot. After that, he and I spoke with a lot of people and not a single one said it was a dumb idea. So one day, we realized we couldn’t do much more talking and decided to go ahead and build a beta site.

It sounds like a great idea, but there’s always a difference between great ideas in theory and reality. How did you go about testing the beta site and attracting users initially?

Right after launching beta, we did an email promotion through an academic honor society. Basically, they sent their members an email with a link to Gradschoolmatch. Our beta site got a lot of traffic over the next few days and over 40% of the visitors signed up! That’s a unicorn-scale signup rate for any website. That told us there is a lot of demand on the student side and that was concrete validation for us. Even now, we continue to get very high signup rates (just under 20%). 

Wow 40%, that is pretty unheard of and a great proof of concept. So how does Gradschoolmatch actually work? Could you describe how Gradschoolmatch addresses the problem you first discovered?

There are actually two problems. One is the difficulty students face in finding the right graduate program. The other is the difficulty graduate programs face in being discovered by the right students. Our solution is a simple bidirectional space, where they can meet and greet each other with really high precision.

Tell me about the student side. How do students typically go about their search and how does Gradschoolmatch change the process?

Students have always operated on the basis of word-of-mouth, rankings and recommendations, which makes tons of sense if you stop to think about it. They tend to focus on a very small set of programs beginning with those that someone has recommended. We think they self-limit like that because as soon as they scratch the surface they see way too many options, and they have no idea where to start, so instead they lean on people they can trust. I like to call those people an applicant’s “influence network”.

Gradschoolmatch helps in two ways. First, we make it very easy for people from the graduate programs, who are the real experts when it comes to their program and detecting a fit, to connect with students and offer guidance directly. We often hear from students who’ve been discovered by programs just how helpful that guidance has been. Second, our match algorithm helps narrow down their options to a more digestible number of programs to focus upon. Those matches usually open their eyes to possibilities they hadn’t previously considered. Together, those two processes become a very efficient way for people to explore their options and make better decisions.

Do you think most students end up in the right place through the old not-so-scientific method? What about that process strikes you as especially problematic?

What’s bad is that reactive recruiting is actually incredibly costly. We actually have survey data that show 1 in 4 students ends up in the WRONG place.  That’s over a quarter million people each year who find out too late they’ve made a mistake in choosing a graduate program. That almost surely drives attrition. That wastes the time and money of students, while burning resources at universities that are in no position to be throwing good money after bad.

Wow, 1 in 4? Sounds like a market ripe for disruption, and one that could benefit from a more efficient system. How about from the program’s perspective – what do they stand to gain by using Gradschoolmatch?

Graduate programs just want the best possible, most engaged students. They want people who will add value to their specialized program, and eventually become a great alumnus they can point to proudly. That fit is something that goes well beyond the numbers. It’s very nebulous but the bottom line is that a program can spot a good fit more easily than a student who’s researching options. In the end, what programs gain by using Gradschoolmatch is the ability to proactively shape their applicant stream.

It sounds like you’re delivering a great value to both sides. Are both groups of users charged for the service?

What we provide students on Gradschoolmatch right now is free and always will be. We’re structured in a way that the cost for programs can be as little as a few dollars per program per month when they join in clusters. The basic premise from the beginning has always been to provide a service that every graduate program can afford to use, because breadth makes our concept work better. Besides, we don’t want it to be so expensive that programs would need to steal from the grad student pizza budget to pay for Gradschoolmatch.

What percentage of the US population goes to grad school, just to get a better idea of the market size?

I’m not sure about percentage, but the really shocking statistic is that HALF of all baccalaureates go on to earn an advanced degree. That surprises most people; it surprised me when I first ran the numbers. When you’re in a program or on a campus you tend not to “feel” the thousands of other grad students around you. The programs and people are dispersed all over campus. Most graduate programs operate on a very small scale – the average program class size is only 6 students, which is hardly noticeable individually, but collectively they are a big part of most universities.

Do any direct competitors or substitutes currently serve either audience?

There are a lot of click bait sites and/or email address re-marketers. We don’t do that. If anything, we have to fight against the poor track record of these techniques because they breed a lot of skepticism among our prospective users. It’s hard to overstate how ill-suited graduate programs and students are for what traditional advertising delivers. We’re not a traditional marketing service, we’re probably not even a marketing service. We’re a platform for like-minded parties.

How has being a user yourself shaped your company strategy and the platform itself?

Brian was just telling me the other day that my feedback as a program user has been as important as anything else I’ve done for Gradschoolmatch. I don’t know if that’s a compliment or a criticism. Also, as I’ve experimented with various ways to engage prospects for my program at Emory, I’ve been able to share those insights and tips with other program users. And going back to what you asked earlier, the feedback I hear from my prospects has validated the whole project.

What have you learned since starting it that you wish you knew before?

I wish I knew building a startup was so creative and challenging. It’s been just like running the lab in terms of coming up with hypotheses and testing ideas, solving problems, all of what science is. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been very rewarding to see this idea take flight and see all the people who we’re helping. I was just so naive about business when we started…I just never paid it much attention. Had I known science and business were so similar, I might have started a business sooner in my life.

How do you define success for Gradschoolmatch? Where do you see the company going in the next 5 or 10 years?

Success is solving our users’ problems, for programs and students alike. That’s all I really care about. I have a lot of empathy for both sides and I think universities and the highly-educated specialists they produce are incredibly important. If we do that well, the long term will take care of itself.

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