Samantha Sheetz is currently in her second year at the University of Pennsylvania’s Master's program in Counseling and Mental Health Services. In this interview, I asked Samantha to respond to questions about graduate school and the application process from her perspective. I also asked for her advice to prospective students. Please be aware that Samantha is not an official representative of her university or program of study. Her responses reflect only her personal opinions.
This is an important post for master's degree applicants to read. Many master's program applications deadlines are coming up in January, February, and March.
You now have about one and a half years of your Masters program under your belt. What would you have liked to know about being a grad student before beginning?
You get out of grad school what you put into it. The reading assignments are endless, and it seems impossible to get it all done, but the more you can read and understand, the more classes will make sense to you and the stronger your foundation will be for clinical practice. I have also encountered a lot of group work in my classes, and have found that it is important to get on board with doing this type of work and put your best effort into it, instead of dreading it and complaining about it.
In my experience, it is also very important to be an advocate for yourself with advisers in order to get the type of experience you want at internship and practicum sites. An amazing site did not fall in my lap; it required research and much persistence to obtain a site that was a fit for me. Finally, becoming a counselor requires intense personal reflection that can be difficult and quite trying at times. Though I am comfortable with this, no one told me going into it that this would be the case.
How did you know that counseling was the right field for you?
I had an intuitive sense that I would be skilled at helping others and would feel fulfilled from this work. I view everyone as having certain things they struggle with, and I can always have empathy for someone no matter what their situation. Empathy is the number one personality trait a counselor must possess in my opinion. I also know that I am a listener more than a talker, which is an extremely important skill for a counselor. Finally, I am open and willing to work on myself, which is imperative for a counselor. I feel that if someone is not willing to do this, counseling is not a good fit.
How important do you think having counseling experience and/or research experience before entering grad school is to success during grad school?
I had little direct experience with counseling and research upon entering grad school, but I was able to frame my previous work and volunteer experience as being applicable to counseling. I do not believe that has hindered me at all from learning or achieving my goals. The most enriching experience of my master's program, so far, has been my practicum/internship, in which I have learned more in one year than I could have ever imagined. Many of my classmates have psychology backgrounds and had case management jobs or worked in hospitals, but it is quite difficult to find a job as an outpatient counselor/therapist before receiving a master’s degree, so most of my classmates were on an even playing field coming into school in learning counseling skills. The counseling program at Penn is not research intensive, so my minimal experience in this area has not been a problem.
What advice do you have for those who are currently preparing applications?
It is important to determine why you want to be a counselor and give a consistent message throughout your applications and interviews. I would also recommend hiring someone who is skilled in reviewing applications to review your essays.
Do you have any words of wisdom about going on grad school interviews?
Be prepared to talk about difficult personal experiences and be stretched outside of your comfort zone. I was asked many personal questions during interviews, and the interviewers want to see how open you are and whether you have done work on yourself. If you are going into a counseling program, I would strongly suggest entering your own therapy to see it from a client’s perspective. The most important thing I have learned in grad school is that we, as counselors, are our most important tool and if we have not worked on ourselves, we have not honed our best tool and we are, therefore, doing a disservice to clients.
Many interviews are group interviews, which was a completely new experience for me. In this situation, it is a delicate balance between selling yourself and listening to what the other interviewees have to say (if the interviewers don’t think you can listen to others, they won’t think you’ll be a good counselor!) The most important part is to be yourself so the school can assess if you’re a good fit for their program, and you can determine if the program is a fit for you.
Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D. is a graduate school admission consultant in psychology and related fields. Visit www.gradadmissionsconsulting.com to learn more about working with Laura to improve your application. Follow her on Twitter for current grad school admissions news.