It’s kind of crazy that I don’t remember her name, but I’ll never forget the way she made me feel—and how much she influenced my entire college career. The person who ultimately helped me make my decision about where to go wasn’t a friend or family member. She wasn’t even a teacher or counselor at my high school, but a member of the admissions team at the college that eventually became my alma mater.
For a lot of us, the admissions counselor will be the first person we meet at a school, and will end up having a BIG impact on our decision to apply somewhere. I remember that at some schools, I felt neglected, ignored, or instantly evaluated based on my GPA and SAT scores. And at other schools, I felt welcomed and engaged by this influential person.
And at the graduate level, the stakes are higher—you’ve already invested in your undergraduate education, so it’s a much bigger decision to continue your studies. [Trying to decide whether grad school is right for you? Check out our post to help you make that decision.]
If you love university life and culture but don’t want to continue your studies right away, you might want to consider getting a job on campus, and working in admissions is the perfect place to start for a recent grad. We caught up with Margaret Okada, Assistant Director of Admission at Teachers College, Columbia University to find out what it’s like to work in this influential department on campus.
What is your employer and job title? If you’ve changed titles since you started, what was your job title when you started?
I work in the Office of Admission at Teachers College, Columbia University where I am an Assistant Director of Admission. I’ve been here for about ten months. Prior to this I was working for the past four years in the Office of Admissions at Harvard Divinity School.
What is a typical day on the job like for you?
One of my favorite things about my job is that every day is filled with a lot of different kinds of activities and I utilize a wide variety of different skills. Among them are:
- Advise prospective students who are interested in one of the more than 100 degree programs here at TC
- Give presentations
- Travel across the country to recruit new students
- Read applications and serve on admission committees
- Come up with fun and creative ideas to market degree programs and Teachers College as a whole
What are your favorite aspects of your job? What are some of the challenges?
I absolutely love meeting new people and hearing their incredible stories. As I recruit for graduate programs, I get to speak with a wide range of prospective students: from those who are still in undergrad to senior citizens and want to come back for a degree. I also love that I get to counsel and help people fulfill their personal, professional, and academic goals. Sometimes programs offered here are a good fit, and sometimes they aren’t. It depends entirely on the individual and I love that I get to speak to folks about this.
Challenges to my job have to do with working for large bureaucratic non-profit organizations in general. There are almost never enough resources or time or people, and professional movement is really slow. Generally speaking, I feel like you need to leave an organization to move upward. Also, to get a job in higher education, you often need to have a master’s degree to get a foot in the door. In addition, compensation in higher education is not like what you could make in the corporate world.
What did you study in college? How does your major relate to your current position?
I graduated from the University of Buffalo in 2003 with a degree in Political Science and a minor in Music Performance. I had vague ideas about working in international relations, but really had no idea how to go about doing it or what I was doing.
I applied to grad schools and didn’t get in so then I went to volunteer in Namibia (Southern Africa) for a year. This led me to be interested in international education, so when I came back to the US, I began working for the Foreign Fulbright program at the Institute of International Education.
As I primarily was doing exchange programs for foreign students coming to the US for graduate degrees, I found that I wanted to work more directly with students and so I made a career shift into graduate admissions. I actually had to take a step back in my career because I was switching fields (which can be a harsh reality for career changers).
As it turns out, I am currently the admission liaison for two Departments at TC, The Department of Education Policy and Social Analysis and the Department of Organization and Leadership. Surprisingly, I find that I utilize some of the knowledge from my social science background when speaking to prospective students about education policies, leadership, and research. I feel really lucky that I get to work with prospective students who already have amazing backgrounds, and who all want to make the world a better place in different ways.
What advice would you give to college students who are interested in working in your field?
If you are currently in college, I recommend that you begin volunteering, interning and/or working in either the undergraduate admissions office, or any graduate admissions office at your college or university.
Offices are always looking for help with events, tour guides to lead groups of prospective students, guest bloggers, and a whole lot more. Many of these jobs are part-time or work-study positions, as well.
Not only will you get some professional experience in the field, but this is the way many folks actually end up working in higher education. In addition, if this is really your passion, I recommend considering a graduate degree in Higher Education.
One of the downsides of this field is that many people entering the profession already have this and so the competition is pretty tight if you don’t have it.
Finally, I definitely recommend informational interviewing with as many people on campus as you can speak with. Get their perspective on the pros and cons of their daily work lives and how they got to where they are and what keeps them motivated in their work.
What are some unique aspects about working in higher education?
If you really love working in an academic environment, but don’t want to be an academic, then working in higher education is a great place to be. At most college and university campuses, there are always really wonderful lectures, concerts, and events that you can participate in.
In addition, many colleges and universities have great tuition benefits that can enable you to work full-time while getting a degree paid for. This was how I was able to fund my graduate degree.
Finally, I love the work I do and that I get paid to help people figure out the graduate admissions process and to see if the programs offered at Teachers College are a great fit for their personal and professional goals.
Homework time! Could you see yourself working in the Admissions office, either at the undergrad or graduate level? Check in with that department at your school to see if there are any opportunities for you to volunteer or work for them.