Keeping it real or bursting bubbles?

Sometimes students aim for goals and majors that seem highly improbable, and academic advisers may find it challenging to be the voice of reason– positive yet realistic– rather than be perceived as pessimistic and discouraging. How can advisers help students know themselves better and thoughtfully consider more plausible areas of study without stepping on their dreams? What should advisers keep in mind as they engage advisees in conversations about choices of majors and plans for the future?

What is your opinion?

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    Sometimes I would also ask what the student felt a “day” would be like in the job they wanted. Then talk about how it was or was not accurate. I would use job related websites, so the information came from “somebody” else. I would also share textbooks with them of classes they were to take. So for example, if a remedial student wanted to be an astronaut and was in remedial math, I would share calculus, physics, chemistry textbooks, and sometimes they would realize the academic skills they lacked all by themselves.

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    Matthew White

    As a peer advisor, finding the balance between being realistic and reaching high is a perfect concoction that even as a student I struggle with. Throughout our lives we are told to reach for the stars and aspire to do something great. However, sometimes those lofty goals we set up for ourselves come colliding into the giant brick wall known as reality. Now, when a student comes to me with a dream that at this very moment doesn’t seem probable, doesn’t mean that down the road in 5 years that dream can’t be realized. As a peer advisor, it isn’t my job to go around telling students what is realistic and what is not. Achieving your goals is a journey that for some people is a very slow, long journey, while for other it’s a short journey that is achieved quickly. Nonetheless the journey to achieving your goals is different for everyone. On top of that each individual student is different, although a student may not be at the same level as their peers doesn’t mean that one-day they will be. However with that being said, I do believe being realistic with students is crucial. I say this in the sense of realizing what the student will have to do to obtain their goals. For example, if a student is not at the level mathematically to take upper level math, I do believe it is important to let that student realize that. Without doing so the student may just be setting himself or herself up for failure. Advising them to take a less difficult math and work up to the upper level math would be much more beneficial to the student than having them take the upper level course right away, fail and then have to take it again. There are times when an advisor must be realistic with students, however that does not mean the advisor needs to burst the student’s bubble. Being able to find the perfect balance between the two is something everyone, not only advisors, should strive for.

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    Julissa Frias Perez

    We are the guide not the decision.

    It should be our goal as peer advisors to encourage students to explore all of their interests and to attempt to come up with their own conclusions of what it is want. Of course they won’t do it alone and they will have us as a peer advisor there providing the tools and resources they need to figure out what it is they want. The way in which I approach students is through being a reflective mirror. I have found through my own experience that even though as a student we might feel lost or confused in what we want in terms of classes, majors, and careers at the end of the day the answer really lies within us. I think students come to us peer advisors not for an answer of what it is they should do but rather so that we can inform them of all the possibilities they have to choose from. I have noticed through my interactions with students that many undergraduates have not established short and long term goals for their educational experience. A lot of times they have a very broad objective put no plan of action in terms of achieving it. The essential things for me to do as a peer advisor is to get the students to think critically and ask them to reflect as to why it is they want to go into a major like Legal Studies or Resource Economics. Have them identify what strengths and weaknesses they have that will allow them to excel in that area. Have them think about all of their interests and which one really makes them feel fulfilled. Once they know that then it’s crucial to set the short and long term goals so that they can gain the most out of their experience. Obviously there might somethings that are unattainable for some students and as a peer advisor in dealing with this sensitivity is key. It should never be on a peer advisor to crush a dream but we can assist in finding a way for the students to come to their own realization of whether that dream is possible or out of reach.

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    Rafaela Lira

    As a peer adviser I do believe it is extremely important to be realistic with students yet an academic adviser should never be discouraging or negative. When engaging in a conversation with a student about their hopes, dreams, and studies a peer adviser should always encourage a student to strive for the best they can do or want to do. An adviser can help a student know themselves better and thoughtfully consider plausible areas of study by having the student reflect on what they believe their best skills are, what they are most passionate about. Asking the student questions about themselves and their strengths and weaknesses, instead of looking at their SAT or test scores and telling them what they should or should not do is probably a lot more productive and beneficial for a student. When a student comes to you for help you should never let them leave feeling put down or upset, the point is to help a student feel confident, keeping things realistic doesn’t have to be done in a negative way. I believe that overall engaging in an honest, beneficial and inspiring conversation with students that will help them progress in their academic careers is what is most important.

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    Paul Durkin

    As a peer advisor at UMass Amherst, I have found that it is very important to come up with a set of goals to structure my own education and organize the path in which I have set up for myself. I have found that many students set unattainable goals or may become highly discouraged by the goals by which they have set for themselves. In college it seems like there is a straight course to success; you take the classes that you need to take and then graduate to get a successful job or move on to graduate school. I have found through my own interactions with undergraduates that many student’s haven’t considered or are unaware of the different routes that they can take to achieve their goals. Many students may appear to be close-minded due to their lack of resources or confusion from feeling like they are in competition with hundreds of other students with the same goals as them. I have found that it is very helpful towards the student in distress to provide input on other ways that they can achieve their goals, either by taking a class that os outside of their department or considering other majors on campus that might suit their interests. I like to make it clear that there is no one direct route to follow on this confusing journey. Students who come to me as freshman are usually the most unaware about the different opportunities on campus so I like to provide them with informational meetings that may gauge their interests depending on the field they feel most inclined to study. It is important to keep in mind that these students ave come to you for guidance and support, try to be as positive as you can when talking with these student because no one wants to be that person to crush someone’s hopes and dreams when that may not be the case at all. Letting students know that they aren’t alone and that everyone goes through the same experiences in college will provide a moral boost and open up their minds to new ideas and opportunities that they haven’t considered before.

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    Jenna Bazzurro

    As a peer advisor I often encounter students that are seeking advice on their future or are upset because their college experience isn’t going as planned. This can be challenging for an advisor because we genuinely want to help this student but don’t want to overstep our boundaries. I think a very useful tool in this situation is “Active listening”. Maintaining eye contact with the student while intently listening does this and by asking questions to get all of the information you feel is necessary to help this student. This creates a sense of trust between you and the student because you are making them feel comfortable and assuring them that you are there to help them.
    Once you understand their situation and have assessed you can help a student understand themselves and their wants better by asking the “Five Why’s”. I learned about this technique in my Peer Advising class. By continuing to ask a student “why?” and allowing them to dig deeper into their own minds, they will come to somewhat a conclusion and you can then help them to achieve something they came up with on their own instead of feeling pressured or threatened to do something you tell them to. By asking these questions and coming at a goal, you as an advisor can now set up minor goals this student can achieve to reach their final goal and they will then not be as stressed.

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    Michelle Chung

    Most students change their minds a million times anyways, so advisors need to keep that in mind and communicate that they should be open to change. In addition, advisors should help their advisees draw up a long-term plan to achieve their goals and show how much they would have to do to achieve those goals. They should also tell their advisees to reflect on whether they are willing to do what it is they want to do for the rest of their academic careers. The most important question however, is to ask why they want to aim for those goals, and then further dissect the reasoning behind those reasons. Those reasons can range from wanting a stable job after graduation to doing whatever seems cool to them, as long as they are self-aware and willing to live with those reasons. This approach I feel straddles the line between keeping it real and bursting bubbles.

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    Keeping it real or bursting bubbles?

    As a peer advisor I encounter many students that come in very sure of them selves. They are set on one thing, whether it is a major or long-term goal, but often have not thought out the steps to attaining their goal or dream. As a peer advisor it is my job to help them seek out the steps and barriers in between where they currently stand and where they want to be. Often as the process continues, students start to see that their goals and dreams may change. This is why I like to sit down with students and set up a timeline. In doing so, I am able to suggest resources, services, and alternative options while they create their own path. This allows me to suggest different options that guide them to their ultimate goal, while also leading them or guiding them in other directions. I have found this useful because often students find their passions within newly explored outlets. In order to create a timeline a huge part of the peer advising job is about asking questions and paraphrasing. This helps students to feel fully heard and understood. In terms of peer advisors feeling obliged to help a student avoid rejection of his/her dream, I never suggest that a peer advisor automatically shut a dream down. Being honest is always key, but doing so in a sensitive way. One can be honest that a dream may be hard, but no dream is impossible. It is however, more impossible without support. I suggest that peer advisors empower students and their dreams by suggesting different paths to attaining a long-term goal or dream or offering resources as to how to get there. A peer advisor has the ability to walk a student through their fears and excitements about something that is hard in a very supporting way. I see this as being very effective.

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    Sarah Button

    As a peer advisor, you will encounter people who have goals that may be currently out of their reach. It is important to understand that every person learns at different levels and just because a certain goal may be unattainable in their current life does not mean that they cannot reach it eventually. It may take longer, and may be more difficult, but I believe if you want something badly enough, then you will get it. You do not have to be pessimistic or discouraging. A peer advisor’s job is to identify the person’s goal and also what barriers may be blocking the pathway to the goal. These barriers can be a number of things, such as lack of confidence, failing a class, getting sick, etc. It helps to ask the student to imagine what accomplishing the goal would be like and remember that rejection or failure can be a form of redirection. It is important for students to know there is always more than one way to achieve a goal and that goals should be measurable, attainable, positive, and have personal relevance. These simple pieces of advice can be very encouraging for students. There is always a way to help students plan for their future in a realistic way without being discouraging.

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    Megan Laffey

    Personally, I am the kind of person who always tries to encourage people to reach for their dreams. I believe if a student is passionate enough about a major, they will do everything in their power to make sure they get to where they want to be. As a peer advisor, I would discuss alternative options with the student and see what I can do to help them get on a better track. Perhaps they can explore other majors of interest, with still keeping a concentration in the major they were previously pursuing. Another potential option would be to discuss alternative career paths that are easier to get than their dream job, but still in the direction of their ultimate goal (maybe after years of experience in a certain field, their dream can come true). There are many ways that you can be realistic without being negative. And just because someone may be having a difficult time reaching their goal doesn’t mean that it is impossible in the end. I am a true believer of you can do anything you put your mind to, and I would tell the advisee just that.

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    Morgan Morselli

    In my opinion I feel like there is a very fine line between trying to be positive and being too positive that it could actually hurt the student’s decision making. There is a way to be realistic and not negative. Say a student comes in and they want to become a doctor and their major is chemistry on the pre-med track, but all of their math and science grades are C’s. Even though the student wants to pursue their dream of being a doctor, at that rate it’s not going to happen. As a peer advisor, I would tell the student why don’t you aim for a major you’re more comfortable with. Public Health is a good alternative for students who want to pursue a job in the medical field but isn’t as science or math-filled. Peer advisors should always try to look for the best in the situation so in addition to giving this advice saying something to the student such as “If you have the drive you can achieve what you want to achieve.” Their destination might still be to become a doctor, they’re just taking a different path.

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    Sandra Rybak

    Advisers usually assist students that are complete strangers to them. It is often difficult to build a comfort zone when consulting with a person for a short amount of time. There is no perception of this person’s history, personality, background, etc. With minimal knowledge of a person, it is not easy to influence them on hard choices – especially one’s pertaining their future and goals. This is why advisers should not try to influence but ease a person into making their own realizations and decisions. When a person is acting on something, it is important for them to find reason, purpose and strategy. An adviser can help by repeatedly asking the question: “Why?” Possibly the shortest question might be the most difficult to respond to. This allows students to begin thinking about their decisions and encouraging them to find solutions to their own problems. Advisers should also serve as a resource that informs students of options they did not necessarily know about. Many students have a lens that zooms in strictly on a degree and career while attending college. It is important to explicate all the opportunities offered to them such as earning minors or certificates, participating in clubs, attending workshops, etc. When a student is struggling, they need to be aware of their options and how things can get better.

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    Skylar Cowley

    There are often times when people will come to me as a Peer Adviser and ask me how to reach their goals and what is the fastest, simplest, or just the best way to go about getting to what they perceive as the end goal they have set for themselves.

    Sometimes people ask for things that are highly unlikely to occur or have a very low chance of actually being able to help. One of the things I have learned when these situations arise is to first let the person tell me exactly why they think they need this specific thing. By letting the person voice their opinion, it gives you a starting point in which to plan the course you want to take within the conversation.

    After ascertaining where you should start, there is one sure way of letting somebody down easy without seeming like you’re trying to discouraging. My Professor and Peer Advising Mentor Tim showed us a very interesting way to make somebody realize that what they’re saying might be a little unreasonable.

    The trick is to keep asking probing questions using “The Five Why’s”. Each question you ask of the person will force them to delve deeper and deeper into the reasons they want something but it will also allow you to keep yourself away from interfering with what they say. Over time, most people will realize that what they asked for and what they hope to use it for are not compatible with each other. This is the point in which we as advisers, can step in and tell the person(s) on more realistic ways to achieve their goals.

    By using this method, we can allow people to reach the conclusion we see for themselves and by doing this, allow ourselves to be used as vessels for suggesting alternative ways people can reach their goals.

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    Kalista Creighton Ahouse

    I have found that minors are a very successful outlet for goals that will not necessarily be successful for students. Minors generally give the student the opportunity to explore an area of interest, while not defining their entire academic career. If a student seems ill-suited to a major, but still enjoys aspects of the course work, minors can be helpful to give them a taste of the major work, but also be able to work on a different major that may be more conducive to their strengths. I think it is very important to remind students that they do not have to know exactly what they are doing with the rest of their lives, and that exploring is a large part of the undergraduate experience. Without such exploration, it becomes very difficult for students to learn about their strengths and weaknesses. In meeting with students, it is vital to not jump to conclusions. If a student who previously has not shown a great deal of interest in a certain kind of work comes to an advisor and wants to talk about it, the advisor should listen and act as a sounding board, because this allows the student to work out some of the kinks in their overall idea.

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    Johanna Ortega Mendez

    As an adviser you are there as a source that the student is coming to, to be enlightened. While it is true that America is the land of opportunity and we encourage everyone to reach for the stars, the reality isn’t always so when you actually encounter it. Part of growing up is that hard realization that life isn’t always going to be fun and games, but can sometimes be unfair but only serve to help us for the better. If a student comes into my office and needs advice on a goal or major that just seems impossible within the time boundaries and school regulations, the best thing to tell that student is the truth. It will be more helpful in the long run for the student to know now that the goal is unattainable in the situation. Of course you have to gentle and careful with the way you go about this. But it will better for their future for you to guide them in the right direction. If you could advise them to do another major that will be easier and they could graduate in four years instead of five years, it will save them money and time. If you lie to the student and set them up for failure, they will always remember and suffer from the bad advice when they find out a month before graduation that they’re not graduating. The role of an adviser is to make sure the student comes in with a problem and leaves with a positive resolution.

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    Sophia Gundersen-Herman

    Often times students goals seem lofty, but whether or not it is a peer adviser’s place to criticize such dreams is difficult to assess. There is no doubt that peer advisers should most definitely not be harsh or discouraging if they choose to be a voice of reason to the student. I believe the best way to approach the situation would be to give facts while making alternative suggestions. For example if the student’s goal is to acquire a dual degree, get a certificate, have a minor, and a concentration all starting as a junior; that would be fairly impossible to attain within a four year college career. Describing the time commitment, the number of classes, and the work-load may help the student get a more realistic perspective of the situation, but this should be done in tandem with a more attainable suggestion and its benefits.

    It is important when giving advice about students’ goals, for peer advisers to keep many things in mind. It has never been helpful to be extremely negative, and peer advisers must remember that. A positive attitude will not only be more helpful, it will also make the student more likely to take advise. Another important factor for peer advisers to think about is that everyone is capable of different things, and though someone’s goal may seem unattainable perhaps it is actually very plausible for that person. Get to know the student before suggesting alternatives.

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    Mirabella Pulido

    We use the words “dream job” to describe something out of reach and we perceive it
    as an unrealistic goal. I think that one of the most challenging things of being a peer
    adviser is having the role and responsibility to analyze someone else’s, usually a
    complete stranger’s, goals and career and education paths. I think it is also crucial
    that as peer advisers, the main objective is to be helpful. People do not come in
    looking for criticism; they come in looking for guidance and that is our job to
    provide it. It is important to be honest and let students know that if a certain goal
    might be a bit more difficult to attain, or if it’s not possible at all, that we inform
    them of those difficulties. Like the prompt states, we must be positive yet realistic,
    rather than pessimistic and discouraging. Advisers can help students know
    themselves better and help them reevaluate less plausible goals and modify them
    into something within reach without stepping on their dreams. One way to do this is
    by narrowing down their interests and creating a more specific goal, that isn’t so
    general. For example, for students who haven’t fulfilled their Global Education
    requirement by junior year, they might feel overwhelmed and lost with how to start.
    It’s important to delve deeper into the conversation and relationship with the
    students to find out more personal interests that can help them decide what they
    would like to focus on and study. Things like personal heritage, an interest in foreign
    films, genuine curiosity in a certain area of the world, or the desire to travel
    somewhere specific can help narrow down broad goals like Global Ed, and turn into
    something more realistic and doable. Also, it is wise to advise students to try
    something out before making any major changes. For example, if a student wanted
    to change his/her major, as advisers, we should make sure they are absolutely sure
    of it before switching around their college path. Things like trying out extra
    curriculars, talking to a professor or professional in that field, or sitting in on some
    classes could all help solidify big decisions. It is always important that advisers
    remain biased, but still be honest. We must remember that these are not our dreams
    and there is always a reason behind why someone wants to achieve. Just because it’s
    not for us, doesn’t mean it isn’t for someone else. But with that being said, we have
    to use our knowledge and expertise as advisers to help them navigate their plans.
    The number one rule is to always be helpful and help our peers move forward with
    whatever they want to achieve. I think it is very possible to “keep it real” without
    bursting any bubbles, like the prompt title suggests, because there is always a way
    to reach goals.

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    Daniel Myers

    I believe that the most important aspect of advising or guiding someone is being honest with a person. By being honest, a person can view their choices ahead of them in a much more clear view. Opposed to idly believing that opportunities are available to a person when they are not, it is important to reiterate that a person makes opportunities for themselves. By being honest from an encouraging point of view, a person can be instilled with the passion required to make a future, for themselves. Rather than have someone make a future for them in an advising office, I’d rather be honest, real, and truthful to a person and give them the motivation to build a future on their own terms and not on someone else’s criteria based on who they believe you are as a person.

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    Jonah Frielich

    The most important thing as an advisor is to give good advice. If a student is aiming for something that is beyond their abilities, it is not helpful to them to tell them to follow their dreams if they can not achieve them. The best approach is explain that a balance of challenging and realistic is ideal. In order to do this, it might be important for the student to meet with the dean of the program that they want or with the advising office of that department to see how difficult it would be for them to keep up. An other option would be to try to introduce the student to an older student who is in the program or a related one in order to get a realistic perspective.

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    Dana Ulwick

    As a peer adviser for the social and behavioral college at UMass Amherst I deal with people looking for advice on the future often. It is especially challenging as a peer adviser not to seem like you are telling the student what to do and crush their dreams because we are the same age so it does not seem like we have authority over them. So, we need to find the line where giving helpful directions and being taken seriously is. Active listening is probably the most important quality to have while people are looking toward lofty goals. Active listening looks a lot like making eye contact, occasionally nodding and asking questions. It will make the student know that you are understanding what they are saying without judging them. All advising offices should have a judge free vibe to them so everyone feels comfortable talking about their problems, with active listening and this setting students will feel comfortable talking about their big dreams. My peer advising instructor Tim taught us to use the five whys when talking to students that need help, and in this situation it would help a lot. Keep asking why until the student comes to the conclusion on their own about what they want to do so they are not feeling threatened by you telling them what to do. It will also help break their large goal into simple steps to help them achieve that goal. Sometimes when you stop looking at the big picture and start breaking it down into smaller pieces it can become easier to achieve. With asking the 5 whys, active listening and breaking down large goals into smaller pieces you can be the voice of reason for students by making their goal a lot more realistic without shattering their goals.

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    Emily Rose

    I agree with Merrill; I think often students may not really understand what their chosen path or career entails. I have spoken with students ranging from high schoolers to master’s students who wanted to be either models or actresses or high school counselors. None of them had the background for it, or really understood the difficulty they personally would have in those fields.

    It is helpful to not immediately knock down these ideas, but rather to encourage them to look at the reality of the field, or major, or goal, and learn all they can about it. They need to be making informed decisions anyway, so this is a good idea for anyone. If we work with them to find information, and continue listening and asking questions, it is more likely that our students will see us as being on their team. If that’s the case, I believe they will be more likely to also listen to us when we challenge their ideas and help redirect them toward what may be better for them.

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    Merrill Landgrebe

    I think it is important for students to be able to describe the requirements of a position that interests them. So, if I have a student who loves to be outside, traveling and meeting with people who tells me he wants to be an accountant, I will ask him to describe what a day is like in the life of an accountant. What skills make an accountant successful? What does an accountant’s office typically look like? What activities do they do on a regular basis? If the student can describe this work environment, and seems excited about the possibility, I will ask him how he plans to balance his other interests with this lifestyle?

    I have had students come to me with grades that do not support successful completion of their degree requirements. In those cases, I challenge students to look at why they are struggling. Often, it is because the major they are in does not meet what they thought they would be doing. It could be as simple as a change of major. Some of my Management students were really better suited for Hospitality and Tourism Management. Once they changed, their grades improved and they went on to be very successful.

    Often, students just don’t know what options exist to them so they become frustrated with their academic pursuits. I feel that advisors need to encourage students to be knowledgeable of their options, understand that flexibility is often the key to success and that students need to align their interests with their major pursuits.

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    Reginald Nichols

    As an academic counselor, I always use my first key skill, “listening”. I believe it is important for our students to have high expectations and goals. My approach is to allow the student explore a few areas of interest by using personality and career tech tools.

    Using these tools can help students either reaffirm their set career interest and/or provide them with other career options they never considered. I believe self-discover is the best way for a student to determine if he or she is on the right path towards the best educational fit.

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    Jeremy Taulbee

    As a Pre-Health Advisor, I live with the reality of lofty expectations and reality checks on a weekly basis. There are no two Health School applicants who are alike and there is no one ‘magic bullet’ formula to guarantee your acceptance into a health program.
    I always encourage my students to pursue their dreams, but have a ‘parallel plan.’ The parallel plan is what they would do if their dreams of going to a professional health school doesn’t work out. Looking at the activities and academic coursework that the student enjoys the most and succeeds at the most, could help the student see where their interests lie, whether in healthcare or another field.
    I explain the expectations that a health school has of their applicants and then help the student to compare that with what they’ve already accomplished and what they plan to accomplish in their academics and extracurricular activities.
    We as advisors have to keep in mind that our student’s are capable of thinking critically and making decisions and judgments for themselves. We can show them the road they must travel in order to fulfill their dreams, but they are able to see whether it would be a smooth road, or a mountain to climb. I’m not in the business of bursting bubbles. In tough cases, I encourage the student to see the situation from the perspective of an admissions committee or in other cases, a potential employer. Looking at their qualifications from the outside, would they see themselves as a competitive applicant for health school? A good candidate for their dream job?


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