Graduate school isn’t for everyone (it really wasn’t for me), but some years ago, I was dead set on getting my MA in Student Affairs. Looking back, while I know that I made the right decision to not attend graduate school, I can also see that interviewing for graduate school taught me a lot about myself. As cliché as it is, the journey is more important than the destination, and that was definitely true in my case.
Bowling Green State University
My first interviews were at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. I had never been to the Midwest, and this school was my undergraduate Mentor’s alma mater, so I was excited to visit BGSU. I wasn’t excited for the Midwest weather in February, though (and yes, one of our activities did get snowed out).
Arriving on campus made me feel super welcome — the current students in the program came out to greet us with signs and yelling. I was getting flashbacks from sorority recruitment. I almost broke out into a Kappa Alpha Theta cheer in the middle of a crowded bus. Since we arrived later in the evening, we immediately met our hosts and were taken back to their rooms for the remainder of the night. I knew that I would get along with my host when I greeted her by saying, “I hate people,” and she echoed my sentiment. It seemed like a good omen.
Our first day of information sessions went without incident. I was scared about graduate school, and I was getting the vibe that everyone at BGSU was very focused on schoolwork and less so on the student experience. This made me hesitant, but I had always been terrified about attending graduate school. I just reminded myself that I had to grin and bear it so that I could earn my degree and start helping students.
If my first day at Bowling Green had been exciting and welcoming, interview day had been the exact opposite. Since there was a way for interviewers to immediately tell us after a first-round interview if they wanted to see us again, we were quickly seeing not only what interviewers thought of us, but if we had a future at the school.
To my surprise, almost every interview ended with rejection. Every interview ended very quickly, and the interviewers didn’t seem to be interested in knowing me, only my experience that they could’ve just as easily seen on my resume. My jokes weren’t landing, and when I asked questions, they gave me only one-word answers. I completed 7 interviews that day, and only 2 departments wanted to see me again. I wasn’t devastated, however, as much as I was discouraged. This was my first school, so I had to wonder: Would all of my interviews go this way? Was I not cut out for graduate school? Would I be rejected everywhere I went?
I was having trouble breathing and speaking without crying. I texted my parents and my partner about my doubts. They assured me that every school wouldn’t be the same and that I didn’t want to be anywhere that made me feel like I didn’t belong. Those words would have probably been a great comfort any other time, but at that moment, they only gave me a fleeting sad smile. I needed to get back to my host’s room to get a good cry out. She was busy but sent me with her key back to the room.
As soon as I got back, I hopped back into the shower to wash off the day and the rejection. I finally let myself cry about my feelings of failure. What an awful way to start interviews! With my parent’s and partner’s words ringing in my ears, I decided that the shower was my moping space. As soon as I left that shower, there would be no more tears, and I would just accept what happened next.
I stepped out of my moping shower and called my partner to vent — I was moving on to the angry stage of grief. How dare they! Didn’t they care about how passionate I was about helping their students?
While on the phone, I received two more texts from friends checking in on me. Then I started crying for an entirely new reason. My support system was — and still is — so amazing. I had so many people who loved me and wanted me to succeed. Their love brought me to tears, and reminded me that I had a lot going for me, even if I didn’t get into graduate school.
Bowling Green taught me that I could survive rejection. I got to learn how it felt to have hardly anyone like me, and I felt absolutely fine.
University of South Florida
The University of South Florida was the second school where I interviewed. I walked onto campus with eight interviews on my schedule, and I added one more to make it nine — the most interviews I had at any one school. The difference between the first two schools was palpable, even just stepping off the plane into the Florida heat. Yeah, there’s no way we were getting snowed out here.
As each school revealed more about what I wanted out of a graduate school program, I found myself more and more prepared to articulate what I wanted and therefore more prepared to make a decision. I went into this next round of interviews with the knowledge that I just wasn’t looking for a hard school. I had already been out of college and in the working world for three years. I was literally only hoping to get this degree in order to more easily get a job helping students. I wanted a program that would let me focus on that. Unlike BGSU where I felt that the students only really had time to study and sleep, I had USF students directly telling me that the curriculum wasn’t too challenging. They were more focused on the hands-on experiences. I was liking it better already.
With the debacle that was Bowling Green, USF felt like the make-or-break point for me — if these interviews went just as poorly, I was certain I would fail the rest. If they went well, it would prove that all of these schools were drastically different and that I couldn’t assume that I wasn’t cut out for a career in Student Affairs. There was a lot riding on these nine interviews.
The interview experiences were night-and-day — almost every single interview that I had ran out the clock, and the interviewers actually wanted to talk to me. They fully answered my questions and laughed at all of my jokes. Here were people I wanted to work with!
The most difficult problem ended up being choosing my top five positions, because I had really liked all of my prospects. Though, I was certain of my first choice. It was a student leadership program at their St. Petersburg campus. The position sounded amazing and I had really clicked with the interviewers. Namely, a lovely second-year student named Akyanna. She seemed personable and empathetic. I knew that I wanted to get to know her regardless of which school I went to.
Once I made the grueling decision of how to rank the next four positions (and which ones to leave out), it was time for the networking mixer with the current students. After seven interviews earlier that week at BGSU and nine interviews earlier that day, I felt pretty much drained of all of my ability for social interaction. I stood in the back by the cheese, awkwardly avoiding eye contact.
Eventually, others started talking to me and I found my groove. Towards the end of the mixer, one student approached me and said that he wanted me to meet one of his friends. Not knowing what I was getting myself into, I let him lead me away from my new cheese friends and…straight to Akyanna. It was like fate. I mentally thanked him a million times over as I tried to make a good second impression. I wasn’t surprised to find that Akyanna was just the type of person that I typically surround myself with: kind, spiritual, and sassy.
I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but I do remember having a renewed sense of faith in myself. USF taught me that I could actually be cut out for this if I wanted to be.
I did visit two more schools after USF, but for the sake of brevity, I wanted to divide the post up into two parts. Tune in Saturday to read about the rest of my graduate school interview adventures!
Photography by my talented fiancé. You can find him on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/hope_grows_here/