Let’s face it, nobody really likes to talk about rejection but for those of you in the middle of interview season or anxiously awaiting program emails it is an important consideration. Genetic counseling programs as well as most other graduate programs are small and I mean seriously small. However, with genetic counseling in particular there is a disconnect. The field has grown by 75% since 2006 and is currently one of the fastest growing STEM careers. Programs have struggled to keep up with this rapid expansion – my program in particular enlarged its class size two years ago by an entire one person. This unparalleled growth has also created professional concerns – with programs graduating fewer genetic counselors than the mounting number of available positions, who will end up filling these posts? Specially trained nurses and other healthcare professionals may be brought in to satisfy a demand that the limited number of program graduates is failing to meet. So what does this mean for applicants?
Current applicants and interviewees are in between a huge expansion of the profession and the graduate programs that are struggling to produce more qualified, competent genetic counselors. This boils down to a lot of talented and qualified people who end up without an offer at the end of the final matching day. So if you are one of these people, whether you weren’t offered an interview or you didn’t move off of the waitlist, what are your next steps?
First off, try your best not to get too discouraged. There is a huge volume of competitive applicants. Thus, offers for interviews can come down to truly nitpicky details. I have had program directors specifically mention my “B” where other applicants had an “A”. Don’t take this personally, they have to narrow down the number of applicants they’re interviewing somehow. Once you make it to the interview stage, look around you, everyone there is qualified! Successfully matriculating into a program becomes more about being the “right fit.” Do you mesh well with the current program staff and students? Would you be able and willing to relocate? How will you fit in to the new class? Programs generally have a certain dynamic that they’re looking to find, sometimes you just won’t be their cup of tea and that’s okay.
Now, to get back on the horse… Self-care is an incredibly important part of the genetic counseling profession and dealing appropriately with rejection is an excellent way to practice or hone this ability. This could mean watching a movie with your friends, taking a trip somewhere nice, spending a day out of doors – remember nothing needs to happen immediately, so spend some time getting yourself brushed off and picked up before you begin moving forward.
Here’s what you can do:
- Contact the program directors of the schools where you applied. Remember, this is a counseling profession and the people who are drawn to this type of work are people who genuinely want to help others! Program directors are fantastic, wonderful people who have a lot experience and are generally more than happy to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of your application with you. Understand however that application and interview season is a tremendously busy time, if you do not receive a response try contacting them or other program personnel again in May.
- Read the biographies of current students. Most, if not all, programs have a website. Make sure you are paying attention to the language used in program and class descriptions as well as reviewing the bios of current students. Not only can this tip you off to the types of experiences and background a program values but it can also give you ideas on how to beef up your resume.
- Make greater time commitments. Now, this doesn’t necessarily have to mean more hours – trust me, we all understand you have work, school, friends and family, as well as yourself to take care of… What I mean by greater time commitments is greater stretches of time. If I have two applicants in front me, one with six months of advocacy experience and another with over a year of advocacy experience, who would you imagine gets the interview? I’m speaking from experience on this one. You’ve been given time until the next round of applications, use it. Even if that means volunteering once or twice a month, you’re gaining experience and building your skills.
- Focus on advocacy and crisis counseling experiences. There is no denying that shadowing looks great on a resume and it is where you first get the chance to evaluate the profession and ask questions of practicing genetic counselors. However, although informative, shadowing does not make or break an application. Many programs understand that student access to a counselor or a clinic can be limited (phone interviews or online counseling videos can fill in some of these gaps). On the other hand, advocacy and crisis counseling experience is a must. Not only does it put you in a position to work directly with clients, allowing you to practice and develop certain counseling skills, but it also helps programs assess your ability to deal with the realities of a field such as genetic counseling. Focusing more time and energy on these experiences strengthens your application and gives you a greater background to pull from during interviews.
- If possible, seek out genetic counseling internships or other types of field experience. This may not be possible for many applicants to achieve but if you are able to find a clinic or a genetic counselor who is willing to pull some strings for you, this is absolutely ideal experience. It never hurts to ask! Oftentimes program directors may be able to point you in the proper direction or connect you with a former student. The Northwestern Program actually offers a one-week summer internship and begins accepting applications in February. (http://www.cgm.northwestern.edu/education/graduate-genetic-medicine/summer-internship.html)
- Revisit your personal statement. A lot of things can change between one application cycle and the next. It is important for your personal statement to reflect your most current feelings and attitudes so yes, you should be writing another one. Make sure to have a few readers look it over. If you’ve developed a good relationship with any of the counselors you’ve connected with or shadowed, ask them to give it read! They may not have a lot of time but they still might be able to offer some useful suggestions. If you received any feedback from programs regarding your personal statement, make sure you are addressing these concerns.
- Reconsider your references. Again, this comes back to any feedback you received from programs. Now that you are free to discuss your application with program directors, they may tell you which letters of recommendation really stood out and which ones did not. Many recommendations can be good but not glowing. Is there something you can do to further your relationship with one of your letter writers? Or should you be looking for someone else? Letters from individuals who really know you can have a greater impact than letters from people with impressive titles.
- Tell programs you are applying a second time around. As you may have guessed from this post, I chose to apply a second round for genetic counseling programs. I struggled a good deal with whether or not to discuss applying a second time. In my experience, mentioning this in my applications and interviews was actually beneficial. Programs like to know that they would be investing their resources in a committed student who can take their feedback seriously. So in short, if you’re applying again, say so, making sure to discuss what changes you’ve made to improve your skills and increase your experience.
- Apply to more schools. Lastly, applying to more schools gives you more opportunities for success. In such a competitive field, this really is one of the best ways to increase your odds of getting invited to interview or accepted into a program. Most students, genetic counselors or program staff will tell you that generally speaking all genetic counseling graduate programs are well-rounded and offer great educational opportunities. With such consistent “hireability” for program graduates, you really can’t go wrong, so don’t be afraid to take a chance on some other schools. There are also advantages to applying to newly founded programs – being one of the first classes at a new program can mean greater time spent with supervisors and program staff as well as quick adjustments in response to student concerns. New programs are set to open at Baylor University, University of Iowa, Rutgers University and others.