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How I Recruit | A Conversation with Stephen Ostendorff about Grad School Admissions

A recent college graduate looking on to another institution.

A few years back, Idealist sat down with Stephen Ostendorff, Director of Graduate Admissions at Bank Street Graduate School of Education. And while times have certainly changed, his advice still rings true!

Read on for Stephen’s tips for evaluating whether grad school is right for you, as well as how to make the most of an Idealist Grad School Fair.

Can you tell us about your experience working in higher education?

I’ve worked in and around higher education for 15 years, doing a number of different things, from student affairs to financial aid, residence life, athletics, and admissions. I also ran admissions marketing verticals for a few agencies. This prepared me to be able to work directly with students and understand the many things that go into applying for and getting into college, and understanding what attracts students to a particular school.

How would you describe the student “profile” at Bank Street?

Bank Street students are driven to move education forward, promote social justice through teaching and school leadership, and work with children. They look at education as a vehicle for change (in schools and communities) as well as learning. They are passionate, caring people, called to the field.

Bank Street students are different in the way they look at education. The decision to be part of a school with a progressive education model shows that they care about the process of learning—for themselves, for their students, and their communities. In the school’s credo, education is tied to the continued growth of a democratic society and is focused on developing socially-minded educators. The students drawn to Bank Street believe in this credo and are looking to be change agents for social justice.

What are some misconceptions potential students have about graduate school?

Grad school is not “Undergrad, Part Two.” It’s what you need to do from a passion or career standpoint. Sometimes a grad degree right after undergrad is the right way to go; other times, working for a while can help you find your calling or focus. That being said, a graduate degree does not etch your career in stone. The focus and skills you learn in most programs can be applied to other fields. With a master’s in education you can definitely teach or lead a school, but it’s also possible to go in different directions. Some Bank Street graduates run nonprofits, work for teacher unions, become authors, and do many other things in and out of education.

What are some misconceptions about the admissions process?

There is no Graduate Common Application—it just doesn’t exist. Don’t think that it’s going to be the same as the undergrad process. It’s not. Every application is different, asks for different information, and requires varying forms of writing samples. If you try to use the same writing sample for all of them, you’re missing the point and it’s not going to look very good. Each application should be geared towards the school, its mission, and what they are asking. Look at every one that you are filling out as completely unique.

What would you advise a student who is not sure what they want to do as a career?

When I have a student who’s not sure what they want to do but know they want to go to grad school, I ask them what they are doing now and why are they looking at graduate school at this time. From there, I pull the conversation toward the questions, “What have you always wanted to do?” or “If money was no object, what would you do for the rest of your life?” By understanding their intentions and thought processes, I can help them start their search.

I then dig a bit deeper by asking where they are in school and what their grades are. If they are out of school, I ask what they are doing now and if they like it. We talk about the likelihood of following their dream career path and the steps required to follow that path. If they are not enjoying their current work, we look at alternative ways to be in the field they like without doing that specific job.

Let’s say they’ve always wanted to be a doctor or nurse, but the second they got into a lab to draw blood, they fainted. We talk about ways to work in the healthcare sector without having to draw blood, such as public health administration, healthcare management, health education, or various other career paths.

One last point: there are so many extremely unique programs out there. If I’m talking to someone at a grad school fair, I will have them walk around to every table and ask the representative what their most unique grad program is—not the most popular, not the best or largest, but the most unique. There are so many programs out there that no one has ever heard of. That can be a starting point, because you just don’t know what you don’t know.

What qualities do you look for in applicants?

At Bank Street, we are looking for people who want to move the field of education forward. We are looking to get to know applicants. The reflective autobiography, writing samples, letters of recommendation and resume, coupled with an in-person meeting or interview with a program director or faculty member, are crucial for us to find out who the applicant is, what their educational philosophy is, their experience with children, if they are the right fit for Bank Street, and if Bank Street is the right fit for them. No test or GPA can really tell us that.

In general, if you’re at the point where you’re looking to go to grad school, there are a few things you need to do:

  • Be able to prove you can write well.
  • Showcase your personality and passion, and be able to carry on a conversation about it.
  • Show up in professional attire. If you are coming in to talk to me about going to grad school, you should look like you are going to grad school.
  • Be prepared to show you are a serious and solid student. You need to be able to prove you can handle the academic rigors of the program, no matter which school or program you are going to.

What skills are necessary for success in Bank Street’s programs in particular?

Bank Street looks for people who are mature, passionate about education, and have a true desire to work with children. Being able to write is also key, as well as having an open mind. Going to a school that has such a progressive model takes expanding your mind and allowing these new concepts and ways of thinking to sink in and influence your own education. 

Our progressive education model is the key piece that differentiates us from other schools. We provide a lot of one-on-one counseling and face time with faculty members. Our students engage in supervised field work, which is integral to everything they do when they are in a classroom, and they have conference groups, which is a way to share their experiences with their fellow students.

What are some questions applicants can expect during their interviews?

It’s going to vary from school to school and program to program. It depends on who’s asking, but no matter what the school, you’re likely to have to respond to these fundamental questions:

  • Why are you interested in this school? 
  • Why this program?
  • What do you plan on doing with this degree?

This is a great starting point, and the follow-up questions will get more specific. If you can’t answer those three main questions, you have not prepared for the interview. Schools want to know that if they are selecting you, you are going to be a valuable addition to their program and the school's community. If you can’t answer how your career goals coincide with the institution’s mission, it’s not going to reflect well on you.

"Going to grad school to make more money" is a realistic answer, and it matters, but find a way to say that while tying it to the goals of the program/school. In the long run, why does making more money matter? Do your homework, but also be honest and truthful about who you are. 

What are some of the best ways to prepare for an admissions interview?

This is good advice for all interviews you’ll go on: get a good night’s sleep, dress professionally, eat a good meal beforehand, and show up 15 minutes early—if you’re on time, you’re late. Beyond that, you really want to prepare. Understand the program you’re applying to, what it leads to, and what certifications you need. You should have done your homework learning about the program, the institution, and its mission. You should know what that college is looking to accomplish. Lastly, practice your own story—this way you can be detailed and honest without rambling too long.

When an applicant is on an interview, what sets him or her apart?

Passion, knowledge, and preparation make a candidate stand out. Not having the ability to converse with the person you are speaking with will make you stand out in a bad way. If you respond with one-word answers, or you’re not giving a lot of details, you are missing your opportunity to differentiate yourself from other applicants. Be prepared to speak and offer your opinions on things you see going on in the industry.

What questions do you wish applicants asked you?

I wish they would ask me questions based on outcomes, such as where our alumni are going. I want to hear questions that dig deeper into their desires and what they are looking for in a program beyond “I want to be a teacher.” They should want to know what makes a Bank Street teacher different from ones in other programs, digging deeper into who we are as an institution and what we stand for. That way, when they are comparing us to other schools, they know what differentiates our program. If they are not doing that, they might be missing a big part of the message. Part of this is our responsibility, but at a graduate school fair, when multiple people are competing for the representative’s time, good questions can prompt great answers filled with information beyond just the program details and admissions information.

What are some measures of success grad students should use to help them self-evaluate their skills?

Self-evaluating your skills in graduate school will be built into your program. Papers, practical training, residencies, evaluations, etc. will all give you a sense as to how you are doing. Keep an open dialogue with your faculty members and advisors as well, as they will help keep you on track.

Evaluating your goals and knowing how you’re doing as a lifelong learner is a more personal task. It comes down to whether you are truly interested in what you are learning and if you’re looking to continue.

You chose your program for a reason—does that reason still hold? If it doesn’t, that’s a much harder question to get to the bottom of, as transferring from one grad program to another is pretty much not going to happen. Grad school is a pretty significant financial investment, so you should have done this kind of evaluation early on in your selection process.

What are some mistakes you’ve noticed prospective students making during grad school fairs?

The biggest mistake is not talking. They come up and expect that college representatives can read their minds, or that we will just give them the information they need unprompted. Before a graduate fair, make sure you have prepared a list of questions to ask the schools. You don’t have to ask all of the questions to all of the schools, but based on the answers you receive, you’ll determine what else you need to ask.

People who want to go to grad school tend to know what they want to study and, for the most part, what they want to get into as a career. As for questions, it would be good for them to know what the program entails, what it leads to, where graduates get jobs, etc. It’s also good to ask about financial aid—what the school offers, if there is a way to apply for scholarships, and whether there are graduate assistantships or work study positions available.

What are some tips prospective grad students should use to maximize their time at a grad fair?

Do your research. Look at the list of schools that are attending ahead of time to find ones that offer programs similar to what you are looking to pursue, are located in an area where you are willing to live or offer online options that allow you to stay where you are while studying, and that fit the type of school you’d like to attend. At most graduate school fairs, you’ll have a list of the schools that will be attending. Create a plan of attack to see them all with the list of questions you've prepared ahead of time. 

Next, understand what is feasible—can you leave your job and study out of state, or do you need to focus on a program that allows you to study and work at the same time? If you’re currently working, look at your benefits and compensation package and see if you are eligible for tuition reimbursement. Many companies or unions provide financial support to their employees. It may not be a lot, but every little bit helps and can be a factor in deciding when and where to go to graduate school.

Be prepared to give your contact information—name, phone number, email—to learn more about the program. You can always ask the school not to contact you, or unsubscribe later, but the best way to get the information you need to make the right decision is to allow people to email and call. You’ll miss out on events, deadlines, and more if you are not willing to share your contact information.

Understand the school’s reputation. Speak to people in that field, find out where professionals received their degrees and what programs stand out to hiring managers or supervisors. Bank Street is a very small school with a long reach in the field of progressive education. If you want to become a school teacher or leader and a progressive educator, you should know that’s what Bank Street does. Whatever field you want to study, seek out the schools—big or small—with great reputations that offer the program you need, and then find the one that fits you best.

What are your best tips for locating financial aid support?

First, fill out the FAFSA. It makes you eligible for loans, grants and other institutional and outside scholarships. You are putting your name into a pool to find free money. It happens more on the undergrad side, but does not preclude you as a grad student. Remember that many schools need you to fill out the FAFSA in order to consider you for institutional aid, too.

Next, do not forget about outside scholarships. Start small, get big. “Small” being where you work, your church, an organization where you volunteer, anything like that—find out if they offer any scholarships. Then go online and check your town, county, borough, city, and state, and figure out what scholarships are available for grad students. Make a list and apply to a few a day. Also, look at big companies like Google, Pepsi, GE and others. They offer all kinds of scholarships for all kinds of programs—why shouldn’t you get one?

There are scholarships for almost everything, and there are a number of scholarship websites out there. Look for them and see if they have any for which you’d qualify. If you apply for 10 scholarships and it takes you 10 hours to fill out the applications, but you get $10,000, you just made $1000 an hour. The more you apply to, the more opportunities you have to help yourself make graduate school more affordable.

One simple note: if there’s an option to write an essay, do it. Why? Most people won’t. Most don’t want to write an essay or do that much work, so the number of people applying for that scholarship is likely to be smaller and increases the chances of being a recipient.

My last piece of advice on applying for scholarships is, do not pay to apply for any of them. You should not have to pay for free money, and that’s what a scholarship is—free money to help you pay for your graduate degree. A good starting place for legitimate scholarships is the US Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop.

Any other thoughts or advice?

Visit the school. Go to an open house or information session, take a tour, or just show up and see if you can walk around. Even if you plan to enroll in a school's online program, try to visit if you can. Visiting is the best way to get a feel for the institution, its campus, its faculty, and the students. It’s a big investment, so visiting is a good way to take the school for a test drive.

Going to school is a very personal decision and no one can make it for you. You have to find the place where you fit best. It has to be about fit—what you want to do with your life from a career standpoint, how you feel the program is going to support you, and how you fit into the atmosphere of the school. It should be clear that it’s right for you and you are right for it. I wish more students thought about fit more than they thought about the name of the institution. They should be saying, “I’m going to this school because I belong here. It’s the right place for me.”


Interested in learning more about what graduate school can do for you? In 2020, all the Idealist Grad School Fairs will be virtual—and, as always, are free and open to all. Sign up for one, two, or all 12 fairs this year and start planning your future today!