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Rachel Tolen, Indiana University

Rachel Tolen.jpgUndergraduate academic advisors serve as valuable resources for students by helping them prepare for career and educational paths after graduation. At the time they enter college, a number of students already have aspirations to attend graduate or professional school. What steps can advisors take to help undergraduate students lay the foundation for success in graduate school and their future careers? Here I offer some advising techniques that can support this endeavor, by helping students re-frame their career goals in new ways at an earlier stage of their intellectual and professional development. 

Universities should provide services and resources to help students become informed from an early stage about preparing to apply to graduate and professional school (Bloom & Uiga, 2011). Coaching approaches can be very beneficial in helping students develop their plans (McLellan & Moser, 2011). Encouraging students to engage in service learning and research activities supports the development of important skills for graduate study. To help students prepare for the application process, advisors should begin early to coach them on how to build relationships with professors that could result in strong, supportive letters of recommendation and help them get started early on crafting application essays.

Even while universities provide such services, advisors may see some students falter. Students may find it difficult to write a strong personal statement if they have not clearly clarified their goals and motivations for seeking admission to graduate or professional school (Tolen, 2016). Students may not follow up on an advisor’s advice about obtaining letters of recommendation if they are unsure about their plans for pursuing graduate study. Often when students are not taking early steps it is because they are not certain or not motivated enough to feel confident in acting. To this end, one of the most important things advisors can do is help them clarify their motivations (Bloom & Uiga, 2011). Bloom, Mulhern Halasz, and Hapes (2016) emphasize the importance of actively helping graduate students articulate both their shorter-term and longer-term goals for the duration of their careers, for instance, through the use of an Individual Development Plan document (Fuhrmann et al., 2015). The techniques I describe here will benefit students even prior to beginning graduate study. These techniques also complement approaches such as the Why Project described by Kolson (2021) that was developed to invite students to share their “why statements” that reflect on their purpose and motivation in pursuing their declared majors. If students are able to articulate clear goals earlier, they are more likely to be motivated and take the actions steps required to be successful.

From the time they start college, students frequently are asked the question from relatives and peers: “What are you going to do when you graduate?” As we know, the two most common answers are either get a job or go to graduate or professional school. The problem with this question is that it only brings into focus a few years’ time: the transition into graduate school. Students’ discussions with family and peers often focus only on the next few years leading up to and following graduation. Going to graduate or professional school is never an end in itself though, but a step along a path.

Students who apply to graduate or professional school stating their goals as simply to study in a certain field are less likely to be successful. To be a stronger applicant, students must be able to articulate goals that extend for decades into their careers. The student must be able to articulate in the application longer lasting goals (Bloom & Uiga, 2011). Gaining the ability to articulate those longer-term goals is also likely to increase a student’s motivation to take the necessary action steps earlier.

How can advisors help students define their long-term goals in concrete ways? Advisors may want to avoid directly asking questions such as “Why do you want to go to graduate school?” Such phrasing could unintentionally convey that an advisor is skeptical about the student’s intentions. Using carefully framed, open-ended questions that encourage reflection and elaboration often can be more productive (Magolda & King, 2008).

Instead of asking “What are you going to do when you graduate?” or about the beginning of a student’s career, I like to sometimes turn it around and ask about the end of a student’s career. I have found it productive to pose the question, “Imagine yourself on the day that you retire. What would you like to be able to say you’ve achieved through your work?” This question often brings everything into relief, adding some clarity, and helping a student articulate longer-term goals.

For those students who identify as “premed,” posing this question helps them move beyond focusing on being a doctor and more on what they hope to achieve through their work as a doctor. One of the particular difficulties for many premed students is that some of them have gotten caught in a linguistic trap. Some students have repeated the phrase “I want to be a doctor” without reflecting sufficiently on the reasons why. Often this phrase has been uttered for years to parents, teachers, and themselves. It has become part of a student’s identity and the story they’ve constructed about their lives.

Reflecting on the question of what they hope to achieve before retirement provides a far richer framework to discover what these goals mean to them. Most interesting for me is that students give such varied responses to this question when it is worded in this way, even though all of them state the same goal of being a doctor. Students often provide rich descriptions of what they would like to achieve through their work, opening up new avenues for how they might achieve these goals that may not even involve being a doctor, leading to the consideration of potential alternate careers.

Many students think ahead only to the next decade, and the beginning of their careers. This technique helps to transport them out of their present circumstances while providing a far-reaching perspective on their strongest motivations. Advisors who help students identify some of their strongest motivations aid them not just in eventually gaining graduate admission but engage fully with their undergraduate experience.


Advising is a profession focused on engaging in meaningful conversations with students that can help them navigate their way through our educational institutions and forward into their future lives and careers. As others have noted, advisors can play an important role in helping students build reflective skills (Magolda & King, 2008). When persons speak, they are not just describing or reflecting what exists, but they are in a profound sense creating social reality and relationships (Searle, 2002). For this reason, the conversations students have with advisors can be very powerful and transformative for them.

Advisors can enhance the success of students by engaging them earlier in questions related to graduate study and especially by asking them different questions than they may be getting from parents or peers. Here I have offered an approach that can help students re-frame their intentions and articulate goals that extend decades into their careers. By talking with students about what they may be doing over the long haul in their careers—not just at the beginning—advisors can help them become stronger applicants to graduate and professional programs. The benefits of these conversations are likely to extend far beyond the graduate application stage, but throughout the lives of our advisees.

Rachel Tolen, Ph.D.
Director and Premedical Advisor
Health Professions and Prelaw Center
Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education
Indiana University

The author would like to thank Shauna Melvin for her thoughtful feedback on this article.


Bloom, J. L., Mulhern Halasz, H., & Hapes, R. (2016, June). Advising strategies for graduate student degree progression. Academic Advising Today, 39(2). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Advising-Strategies-for-Graduate-Student-Degree-Progression.aspx

Bloom, J. L., & Uiga, S. (2011, December). Make a difference: Six things undergraduate advisors should know about graduate school. Academic Advising Today, 34(4). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Make-a-Difference-Six-Things-Undergraduate-Advisors-Should-Know-About-Graduate-School.aspx

Fuhrmann, C. N., Hobin, J. A., Lindstaedt, B., & Clifford, P. S. (2015, Sept 14). My IDP- Individual development plan. American Association for the Advancement of Science. http://myidp.sciencecareers.org/

Kosin, K. (2021, March). The “why” project: Helping students to define and value their academic purpose. Academic Advising Today, 44(1). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/The-Why-Project-Helping-Students-to-Define-and-Value-Their-Academic-Purpose.aspx  

Magolda, M. B. B., & King, P. M. (2008). Toward reflective conversations: An advising approach that promotes self-authorship. Peer Review, 10(1), 2–9.

McClellan, J., & Moser C. (2011). A practical approach to advising as coaching. NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources.  https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Advising-as-coaching.aspx

Searle, J. (2002). Speech acts, mind, and social reality. In G. Grewendorf & G. Meggle (Eds.), Speech Acts, Mind, and Social Reality: Discussions with John Searle (pp. 3–16). Springer.

Tolen, R. (2016). Personal statement writing as a developmental process: Reflections from one advisor. The Advisor: The Journal of the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions, 36(1), 25–31.

Cite this article using APA style as: Tolen, R. (2021, September). Advising strategies to promote stronger preparation for graduate and professional school. Academic Advising Today, 44(3). [insert url here] 


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