Understanding University Admissions: Getting Into Your Top School Choices With Shirag Shemmassian

Everyone dreams of getting into their choice of top schools. This means not just working hard for your stats and grades but also means standing out to admissions officials. In this episode, Dr. Diane Hamilton sits down to talk to Shirag Shemmassian, the Founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting. Shirag talks about how he got into the business of helping other students get into top universities. They talk about what you need to do if you want to get into the top college of your choice. Tune in and learn more about how you can improve your chances of landing that school you want.

TTL 885 | Top School Choice

 

I’m glad you joined us because we have Shirag Shemmassian. He is the founder of an academic consulting firm, where he helps people get their children into well-thought-of schools. It’s going to be an interesting conversation if you’re thinking about what you need to do for your kids or yourself.

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Understanding University Admissions: Getting Into Your Top School Choices With Shirag Shemmassian

I am here with Dr. Shirag Shemmassian, who is the Founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting, which is one of the world’s foremost college admissions companies. I’m very interested and he has spent more than fifteen years helping thousands of students get into top programs like Harvard, Stanford, MIT using his approach. I am happy to welcome you here, Shirag. Welcome.

Thank you for having me, Dr. Hamilton.

You’re welcome. I was fascinated by what you do because that’s not easy to get into these schools. I’ve worked for people who went to Harvard and different top universities. I’ve had many people on my show that are super bright individuals. I want to know how hard it is and all that. I want to get a backstory on you to see what led to your interest in doing this.

The schools don't make the person. The schools are almost a validation of what that person brings to them. Click To Tweet

My journey was a roundabout in the sense that I grew up in Los Angeles and both my parents are immigrants to this country from Lebanon and we’re ethnically Armenian. They came here and had high expectations for my brother and me as far as go to a great school, get a good job, start a family, all this stuff, except they didn’t have any playbook or experience. It was like, “Get into great schools. Good luck.” I went to this small Armenian school in Los Angeles, and then a lot of the teachers didn’t go to school here in the States either.

Even our college counselor wasn’t super well-versed in schools that were outside of Southern California, especially greater LA. The goal was to get into UCLA or another local school and that’s a success. UCLA, USC and all this stuff are wonderful schools. I always wanted something different or was wondering what’s outside the palace wall almost to make a Latin reference. I started doing a lot of research into different institutions and also was like, “There were many other places that I could be a great fit and that would be a great fit with me. Some of these are not in Los Angeles.”

I started researching what it takes to get into these programs and how to write strong essays. I ended up getting my degree from Cornell and got a bunch of scholarships and financial aids. I didn’t have that following college, which was awesome. Along the way, people started asking me for help. It was almost like there were these closeted individuals as far as like, “I want to do something different too. Can you help me?” I was happy to help and then they were having success. They were getting into top schools, and then they started telling friends and it grew from there. Over time, I was helping a few more people than early on. I want to send people resources.

TTL 885 | Top School Choice
Top School Choice: People love to get fixated on stats because we can see them. We can touch them. We can quantify them.

 

I found that there wasn’t much good information online. There were a bunch of listicles or tips about how to do X, Y and Z, but people were craving deeper information. That’s why I started writing about it online. Random people were reaching out, people who are not connected to me in any way through a friend of a friend, a cousin or whatever. As I was helping more people, they were having success. My interest in the work was growing. It’s such a privilege to help people with their educational and career goals. I decided to go from doing it on the side to doing it full-time, and I’ve been doing it for quite some time now. That’s the more built-out answer but the short answer is it started organically and out of necessity to scratch my own itch.

That’s interesting, as you were saying about some of the schools. I was thinking a lot of the Hamiltons. My family all went to Yale. My uncle, D. Ralph Millard, a famous plastic surgeon, who was my dad’s cousin gone to Yale and Harvard. He ended up going to both. You would think that my family would have pushed that we need to get into universities and different ones but they didn’t care where I went. It was so weird.

I look back and think, “I wonder if I should have tried to do something different.” I ended up going to Arizona State University. I was happy with that but I never ever had that like, “I need to go to Harvard.” Now, I would. That would be great to go there and get that experience. How much is it based on your GPA or all the activities you do in high school if you have to have the dragon parents or helicopter parents that gets you into everything? Is it ever too late?

There’s so much to unpack there, even with what you were saying about parents who push and parents who don’t push. That’s something we could talk about too. To answer your question about how important one component is over the other, schools do it differently where they ascribe different weights to different factors, whether it’s academics versus extracurriculars versus personal factors like upbringing, context, essays and things of this nature. They’re all important. People love to get fixated on stats because we can see, touch and quantify them. If I get 1540 on the SAT, I know what that means. I know the percentile associated with that. I know how well I did. When it comes to extracurriculars, no one is grading you. No one is saying, “This person’s extracurriculars are at the 87th percentile.”

That’s why people maybe go too deep into the numbers game. Numbers are critical. If you’re trying to go to a top 20 or a top 10 school, you have to be academically at the top of your class. At the same time, that’s only to get your foot in the door to even be considered. It’s like the baseline. When people say, “I have a 3.98 unweighted GPA and 1560 on SAT, what are my chances?” I’m like, “You will be considered seriously,” but to stand out, that’s when extracurricular, essays and recommendation letters come into play. For the most part, people don’t take those pieces as seriously until it’s late.

If you come to me at the end of junior year and say, “Please, help me with my applications,” I would love to do it but the process starts much sooner. The material and the achievements you bring in heavily influenced your odds. It’s critical to get that stuff right, not just take X amount of AP courses, do well in them, and then show up last minute and say, “Now I need awesome essays,” because the material for those essays, your resume, and the way things look on your application start years ahead of time. I would argue that stats are necessary but not sufficient. We have to use extracurricular and essays to impress. That’s what helps people stand out. The stats are the, “We’ll consider this person.”

I’m thinking of some of the stories I’ve had of a previous boss who told me that the only person he ever had to fire was somebody who graduated from one of these major universities because she couldn’t figure anything out. I’m wondering, is there a chance you can go to Harvard, Stanford or one of these big schools and not be the one you’d even want to hire. They get in for whatever XYZ reason but they are maybe no smarter than anybody else? Is that a potential?

People associate values with different brands. There's something like that with schools too. Click To Tweet

Being smarter than others and you being a desirable hire are associated but different. There is enough research at this point for us to be confident in saying that someone’s social and emotional intelligence are probably going to be more valuable to them long-term as far as their desirability to be an employee for their longevity, career advancement, and all these different things. Someone can be academically incredibly high-achieving but you might not want to work with them. There are going to be plenty of folks at top institutions who can solve incredible problems and are thoughtful people, but if they don’t have the emotional or social intelligence to match, they might not be rockstars.

Anecdotally in my work, there are people who have applied to work or join our team and assist our students. They have the greatest pedigrees, top 5 colleges, top 5 medical schools, even maybe have served on the admissions committee. I’ve turned people away with that type of background because either their own editing skills weren’t as strong, or maybe they came across as incredibly arrogant and I didn’t feel comfortable introducing them to the students that trust us.

When people go to great institutions, they’ve gone through various filters in some ways. They’re high-achieving and the person recommending them have spoken highly of them. If you’re a recruiter or a business owner, you will strongly consider people with strong credentials. If you’ve been in the professional world long enough, we’re all going to know people who might look better than the other on paper, but then in practice, the person with the “lesser academic credentials” might be the better employee or professional. That doesn’t mean that the schools aren’t good. The schools don’t make the person. The schools are almost a validation of what that person brings to the table.

That’s an interesting thing that you pointed out. Do they teach them anything harder at Harvard, Stanford or MIT? Let’s say you went to Harvard for a Business degree, is that any harder than going to a state university? Are you still learning the same kind of things, it’s just that the names behind it, the networking, and all that are coming up later?

All of these questions are highly layered. Every question you’re asking is a rabbit hole.

That’s why I’m a curiosity expert.

As far as is it harder, from my experience going to a great school, I don’t know that the content is harder. Two people at two very different schools can use the same textbooks. They’re going to be great professors, even at schools that aren’t in the top ten. People will always argue, “My education was just as good.” I won’t discount that, but your average peer is likely to be more high-achieving, perhaps more thoughtful, intense and push you.

There’s the “Rising tide lifts all boat” situation. Oftentimes, professors at top schools, won’t just be people who’ve who teach this stuff but the people who actually lead the field and create the knowledge. That’s hard to replace. The resources at top schools, which have massive endowments, your labs might be nicer. There’s all this stuff that comes with it. Frankly, part of the value in going to these schools is not just where the course is harder but having that brand name. That’s like asking a question like, “My Louis Vuitton bag that has the same cubic volume, does that hold more stuff in it?” No, it doesn’t but people associate values with different brands.

There’s something like that with schools too. If I go to a local state university that’s not a big name versus an Ivy League school or whatever if I graduated with a Biology degree, will I come out of there knowing something about Biology? Sure. I might know the same amount of Biology, but as far as career advancement opportunities, networks, exposure to people from all parts of the country, it’s hard to argue about the value there.

It’s an interesting discussion. I had written my Doctoral Dissertation on the link between emotional intelligence and success. When you brought that up, I’d love to see what they’re doing for younger people to get them prepared so that you can get through it and have a high IQ, you might end up a Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory without that. Do they teach a lot of those social skills to get into these major universities? Is that part of what you help them with? I’m curious.

I don’t know that schools are doing anything formal. I don’t know that they have a social or professional development kind of stuff. That would be incredibly valuable. It’s unfortunate that our research and our findings on how important these things are like EQ, and then we say, “This is so critical,” but then our institutions aren’t necessarily applying that, which is sad. It’s very different from if you’re found something in medicine like, “This drug will help you with cancer.” “We would want to use that now.” When it comes to things like this that are harder to touch and feel, people feel lesser urgency.

TTL 885 | Top School Choice
Top School Choice: Stats are necessary but definitely not sufficient. We really have to use extracurriculars and essays to impress. That’s what actually helps people stand out.

 

As far as what we do, it’s a natural part of our work to prepare our students professionally and emotionally. I’ve observed over the years that a lot of our high schoolers struggle with their writing skills. It’s not just as far as grammar, punctuation and word choice. We can teach those. What I find that students struggle with is, whether you want to call it empathy or theory of mind, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and considering what they might want or not want. For instance, when we assist students with cover letters, I talk about this ad nauseam. It’s not just about what you want and how you’re going to benefit there. Many of the letters come down to, “Hi, I’m so-and-so. I want this experience. You offer it. I want you to give it to me.”

I’m sure you get that constantly.

That’s all the time and I was like, “Let’s slow down. What do they want?” They want someone bright, committed and looks like someone who did their homework about why they’re going to join that lab or why they want to go to that school specifically, and how they’re going to contribute there. I say, “How does your letter reflect those things?” All of a sudden you get the, “I did not do that.” That’s the thing. I always use dating analogies for this. I’m married and I have a son. Imagine back then if I told my wife, “We should be together because I find you attractive. You do nice things for me. I’d be a better person with you.”

It has to be reciprocal. That analogy works and you have to demonstrate fit, whether you’re applying for a job, trying to get a research position on a volunteer basis, whether you’re trying to get into a certain school, make it about the other person and how does your communication come across. That’s one example of how we try to set our students up for success, not just for college admissions. That’s a nice checkpoint but we want them to be great professionals and great citizens. That stuff matters.

Close to twenty years, you have over 90% of your students have gotten into at least one of their top three schools. Is it always young people out of high school that you’re dealing with? What if I wanted to go to Harvard and I came to you, and I haven’t gone to high school in a few years, what would you do for me?

There's so much data to suggest that the higher your level of educational attainment, the higher your career earnings. Click To Tweet

Primarily, we help people in college go to medical school. We do that even more than high school to college. We do work with students who are in their early to mid-twenties very routinely. We have people who come to us as “non-traditional” students, which is what you would be, either you wouldn’t be in your early to mid-twenties or you’re looking to change careers. We call them career changers. It depends on what you’re trying to get into. Given your education level, chances are, you would not be able to go back to undergrad at a place like Harvard because you’re too educated for that.

If you want to do another Master’s or a doctor in a different field, first things first, we have to evaluate your resume. Also, understand what you’ve done up to this point, the field that you’re looking to get into, how close or far is it from where you are now, and how do we make up that Delta. Let’s say somebody has a PhD in Biology. They’ve been doing a ton of research and now they want to go to medical school. The research record is wonderful so we’d have to evaluate, “What’s your community service level? How much patient exposure do you have?” Chances are you’re not going to have as much as you need. We need to maybe spend the next two years beefing that up, and then applying to medical school, versus someone says, “I’m a high school History teacher. I want to go to medical school.”

That’s a bigger departure. What we have to do is we have to build your research profile. You might have to take prerequisite courses. You still might have to get that patient exposure, even though your commitment to service, given that you’re in high school is probably going to be a little bit stronger. We have to see what are the holes between where you are and where you want to be, and then in a concerted way, help you identify and secure the opportunities that you need, help you write those essays, or assist you with test prep if you have to take the MCAT. Everything is done on an individual basis. We don’t pull out a checklist and say, “You’re good to go.” That’s the high-level framework.

My husband’s a physician and he did his undergrad in Chemistry, and then went to Ohio State for medical school. You’ve mentioned taking the MCAT. I have many people who are older, who were talking about going back to school and all of this. I don’t even know if I took the SAT because I didn’t care about it at that age. Do they make everybody take that?

You asked this question at an interesting time because prior to the pandemic, pretty much every noteworthy school require the SAT or the ACT. You had some notable exceptions like UChicago going test-optional. During the pandemic, testing centers were closed or people couldn’t get tests in certain states so the schools said, “We’re going to make this optional.” That also happened not just in the backdrop of the pandemic but also in the backdrop of the major social justice movement in our country. There’s been a long history in our country of people from certain minority backgrounds and low-income backgrounds who weren’t doing as well on these tests. There were always these questions of bias. There’s the pandemic and the social justice movement.

Schools went test-optional. What ended up happening this last cycle is that a lot of schools reported their most diverse class and that was being celebrated. Meaning, we get rid of tests, we reduce our reliance on this, lo and behold, we have a more diverse class. Even if testing centers are open now, it would be very unpopular for these schools to return to requiring tests. How do you go back to a system that says, “That system we had that was leading to less diverse classes, let’s go to that?” People would rub their pitchforks.

Do you think they’re not going back? Could you take the SAT if you’re old?

You can totally take it. They’re optional now. What I say and people ask me all the time, “Should I take it? If I take it, should I submit it?” The answer to that question is it depends on whether it’s going to help or hurt your profile. What do I mean by that? Let’s say you have a 3.98 unweighted GPA. You’re amazing in your courses. You have 5s and 4s on your AP exam but now your SAT is 1420. That is a fine score but it pulls down the rest of your achievements, versus if I had 1560, that’s congruent with everything else so then it’s fine to submit.

What are the kinds of questions they ask on SAT? I’m curious. It’s been so long since I’ve even taken it.

It’s going to be a lot of reading comprehension and thinking through analytically, and then there’s going to be math as well.

Is it Algebra level Math? What kind of level of Math?

Algebra and it’s going to be a little bit higher. There will be Geometry and pre-Calculus. There are going to be questions from a lot of different areas of Math. Their goal or the way they’ve designed it or at least this is the intent is to not just test your Math knowledge but also your critical thinking skills. The way they send you problems and the answer choices they give you. Some are meant to be a distractor. In other words, to purposefully lead you astray and see how you think through those confusing options. It’s a test of critical thinking, at least that’s how it’s marketed. Schools use this to predict who’s going to be successful in college but also beyond.

I often wish that I had more of a focus on that when I was young. It never was something my family ever talked about or thought about. I graduated high school early just to get out. I was surprised that I ended up going as far as I did with my education because I don’t like sitting in class. I like learning but as I got older, I appreciated more and more the learning aspect. That’s why I do so much in online education because you can do it your own way. I’m a rebel when it comes to that. With my kids, I put a lot more focus on it because I wish somebody had done that with me. We’re going back to what we talked about at the beginning, you get some parents who push and some who don’t. How much pushing should we be doing as parents?

TTL 885 | Top School Choice
Top School Choice: There are going to be plenty of folks at top institutions who can solve incredible problems and are very thoughtful people, but if they don’t have the emotional or social intelligence to match, they might not be rock stars.

 

I’m thinking about my own experience and many of the families we support. We have to have a conversation about what these schools mean to people. I’ve read so much and I’ve talked to many people about college admissions and the value of these schools. “Do they matter? How hard should you try? Isn’t it just a crapshoot?” I get all these questions. We have to be sensitive to what schools mean to people. My parents came to this country during the Civil War in Lebanon in the late ‘70s. To them, going to a great school meant establishing yourself here.

We left a war-torn country. People always say, “I had little to my name.” That was true. They probably had a few hundred dollars. They came here with not much community and all that stuff. To them, going to a great school meant you’re going to get a secure job and you’re going to be stable in this country. We support many students whose parents are from Asian countries, whether India, Korea, China, the Middle East, South America or Mexico. For a lot of these families, this isn’t just like, “Wherever they go to school is fine.”

There’s an emotional investment in it. The emotion is like, “We came here and it was hard and we’ve worked our tails off. If our kids get into certain schools, that validates our efforts.” Maybe even as parents, they’re like, “We were good parents. We did the right thing. We made the right choice for our family.” When people say, “Whatever, you can get a great education. It’s not what it used to be, anyway.” That’s a little bit insensitive to say that in general.

I hear you on that. My son-in-law is from Lebanon and I’m sorry about what’s going on there. I hear horrible things about their economy and everything going on. I look at his family and everyone’s a doctor. My son-in-law is a genius. He works at Apple. You look at what he went through and he’s so humble about it. It’s such a big part of the culture. Since I write about curiosity and perception in my books, that fascinates me to look at the perception of every group and how they look. It is something to be very proud of.

I would be proud to say I went to Harvard or Cornell. It’s something that I wish I’d had instilled more when I was young. I don’t know why my father’s generation didn’t. My father was born blind, so he had to go to Marietta because it was a smaller school but his entire family all went to Yale. It’s interesting to me that none of my cousins even got a college degree, none of them was even encouraged to do it. It’s weird that you’d have a whole generation that all goes to Yale and Harvard, and then the next generation, no one cares. Where does that disconnect?

There’s the reality of it’s gotten harder. If I was applying to college several years ago, I would have had an easier time of it than I will now. It’s harder than ever. There is that level of challenge. There are differences in who people are. Your son-in-law is here. Who knows? Maybe he’s like, “There’s an opportunity here that I didn’t have. I’m not going to take that for granted. I’m not going to squander that so I’m going to work my tail off until that happens.” For other folks, if you’ve been here for multiple generations and your family is doing okay, you’re probably going to feel less pressure.

I can’t speak for my parents but I can tell you that they were like, “You need to do this. You need to make sure to go to schools like this.” I don’t know that I will be that way with my son necessarily. I’m going to push him to put forth his best effort and I don’t want him to dilly-dally, but will I be married to the idea of, “You must go to a school like this?” I don’t know how he’ll feel about his kids if he asks his kids one day. Over time, for some people, maybe the education piece or the brand name associated with the schools is less critical or whatever the case might be.

It's important to find out what you don't want to do, so when you land on something, it's actually the thing that you stick with and enjoy. Click To Tweet

It’s hard to answer over time how things will look. There is also some evidence or data about how much going to certain schools helps you. If you’re well-established in this country, you’re coming from a higher-income background, or you’re part of a group that’s been well-represented historically. If you come from a White family, there’s going to be less mobility that you get from going to a great school. There’s data to show that for people who are from low-income backgrounds or people of color, there’s a greater leap that they avoid going to schools like this with social mobility, financial mobility, and all those stuff.

There’s probably more at stake for people who haven’t historically had the same opportunities. If things in our country get to the point where folks from different backgrounds have similar opportunities, will people across the board put less value in this stuff over time? Maybe, but they’re always going to be exceptionally popular and mean different things to different people at different times. We might have different immigration waves. We might have more biracial children in our country and how old the convergence of cultures impact things. It’s so hard to say.

As you’re saying that, it makes me think that just because maybe I had gone to university, my brother and sister ended up going as well even though we weren’t told to or encouraged to, it was important for some reasons in my own self wanting to do it. When my kids were young, it’s always it’s not if you’re going, it’s where you want to go and what degree you want to get. It was an expectation without. I never did the thing of like, “You had to have great scores.”

I was never that kind of parent but it was always on the table that they’re getting a college degree. Since 2006, I’ve been teaching and I see less of a focus on degrees. The Medical degree will always be important for doctors but in other aspects, some of them are going towards certificate programs and different things. Do you think that we’re going to have as big of a focus on getting a degree? How will that impact what you do?

We have to hone in on for a moment. Even with certain families, if the expectations aren’t explicitly communicated, what you see around you matters. If I grew up in a family where everyone has a Doctorate level degree, or a Master’s level degree and good jobs, that’s my normal. If I come from a family where my parents immigrated from a different country, they were agricultural workers and people didn’t get college degrees, my worldview is different. That’s our privilege. I don’t use privilege as a yucky word or anything like that. It’s wonderful for kids to be able to see all the different opportunities available to them and to aspire to those.

Over time, I hope that students across the board, no matter what their background is, see this as a realistic possibility for them, to get a great education if they want it. As far as, will these degrees increase or decrease in importance over time? I think the field matters. Medicine is a great example. If you want to be a physician in this country, you need a Medical degree. You just can’t do the job. Sometimes people ask, “Should I get a PhD?” I’m like, “I don’t know. Do you need the PhD to do the job you want to do? If the answer is yes, then yes, get it. If the answer is no, let’s talk about it. There’s more to dig into here.”

Jobs are always going to change over time. We read a lot about entrepreneurship and software engineering. For entrepreneurship, you don’t need any degree. For Software Engineering if you want to work at Apple or whatever, they might expect a certain background, a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Over time, might that decrease in importance? Yes, especially more people are participating in the gig economy and their skills are good enough where they can’t be ignored and they can do their own thing. At the same time, there’s so much data to suggest that the higher your level of educational attainment, the higher your career earnings. People with Master’s over their career earn more than people with Bachelor’s degrees.

People with Doctorate degrees earn more on average than people are. People are always going to say, “Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates dropped out of college.” They’re the unicorns. Most people are not going to become them. You have to think about, “Do I want to do this?” but also looking at the data and seeing, “Are there more opportunities for people who have more education?” Oftentimes the answer is yes.

I remember this several years ago, it was like, “I have a Bachelor’s degree and I applied to this job.” Now, that’s the basic thing for a lot of jobs. It’s the floor requirement. There are going to be other jobs in our economy and it’s going to change over time. Is there going to be value in education, not just from the schooling but also the maturation and networks that you develop? I believe that will always be the case.

It is fun being in the field of education, just to watch what’s changing and the opportunities. I got my PhD to see how hard it was. I have no desire to do anything specific with it. My company had paid for my Master’s and I would never want to do a Master’s either. Since they were paying for it, I thought, “I’ll do it if you want to pay for it.” I’m one of those strange cases, neither of my parents worked so I worked seventeen hours a day kind of person. I liked doing unusual things but that’s not the norm. There’s going to be people who stand out in one way or another.

A lot of people need help with motivation to get them to want to do things. They get them in the right direction maybe. What you do is important. I wish somebody had even suggested some of this to me when I was young because it wasn’t even on my radar at all. I wanted to get out of school. I didn’t want to get into it again. It’s funny that I ended up with so much. If you’re talking to somebody about their future getting into Harvard, you have to get to them pretty young, don’t you? You can’t just start this in your senior year of high school. When do you start?

For college admissions, ninth grade is when you have to start thinking about extracurricular profiles and course trajectories. If you take certain easier courses early on, that might mean you don’t get into certain harder courses later. People ask, “What about junior high?” Junior high technically doesn’t matter for your college admissions. No one’s going to look at your grades from seventh grade. No one cares. The habits you build in middle school are extremely important for high school success. You’re not going to have students most of the time who suddenly wake up in ninth grade and say, “Time to get serious.” The habits and the skills matter. Those have to be instilled in our students younger than high school.

You used the word helicopter parents or dragon parents. That’s not what I’m suggesting at all but making sure that you help your kids explore what they might be interested in. One of the words I hate most in my field is passion. That might surprise some people. The reason I say that is not because I disliked the word passion but I disliked the way that people use it. They twiddle their thumbs a little bit too much until they “discover” their passion. Your passion, it’s not like you wake up one day on April 27th and you’re like, “Finally, I’ve got it. This is my passion. This is what I’m doing for the next 50 years.”

That’s not the way human beings work. Even when you get your Doctorate or your Master’s, whatever, it’s not like it’s done. How many people do we know as professionals, our peers or our spouses, who are doing one thing? They decided to pivot, maybe they decided to start a business or leave a business or change careers. It’s a fluid thing and students should be encouraged to try different areas, to go deeper in certain things, to nerd out about different things. The worst-case scenario is they don’t like it and you make a switch, but don’t wait until you know what you want to do before you do it.

The work that I do, it’s not like I specifically went to school for it but I’ve discovered through an intense pursuit out of necessity and wanting to help people that I love it. I don’t know anybody who’s eight years old and then I asked them, “What do you want to do?” “I want to help people get into college.” No one has ever said that to me. I don’t expect anyone to ever say it to me. Why do we expect people in other fields to know or wait until they find out what it is? It doesn’t work that way. That’s why I disliked the way passion is misused.

I love that since I write about curiosity. I’m curious because you meet people all the time who go to college that constantly change their major. I remember going in, going out. I got to get a Business degree because that’s the smart one. Not that I was passionate about business but I knew that you could do anything with it. I didn’t know what I wanted to do so much but I knew if you had a Business degree, it was smart if you’re not going to be a doctor or a lawyer. No one I knew went in and came out with the same degree. If you’re going into Harvard, don’t you pretty much stay with what you go in for or can you switch around?

TTL 885 | Top School Choice
Top School Choice: Students struggle with empathy or theory of mind, with putting themselves in the other person’s shoes and considering what they might want or not want.

 

Not necessarily. I remember in college, it was during orientation where they told us, “The average student here changes their major 2.1 times.” Even the schools knew and expected you to change your mind. It doesn’t mean that everyone changed their mind. Some people never change majors. Some people change it more than two times. That’s how you get that average.

I don’t think that it’s critical for someone to know exactly what they want to do. That makes parents nervous. I work with a lot of families where the parents are immigrants and this was true with my parents too. They get super nervous. It’s like, “If they don’t figure it out, then in three years’ time, they’re not going to know, and they’re not going to pursue that thing that we hope they pursued.” There’s a lot of worry about it.

I never expect a student to necessarily stick with the same exact thing. Someone might want to be a physician and they go to college thinking they’re going to do Molecular Biology, but then they realized they liked Psychobiology more or something different. They still pursue the medical route but the route they take to get there is different from what they thought initially. That’s fine.

How great is it to know what you don’t want to do? “This thing that I don’t like, I’m glad I’m not doing that for four years.” There’s a real value in that. I don’t know why we’re obsessed with knowing at twelve years old. It’s just as important to find out what you don’t want to do so that when you do land on something, it’s the thing that you stick with and enjoy.

Having worked as a pharmaceutical rep for several years and being married to a doctor, I know a lot of them did not love Organic Chemistry but you had to take it. It’s interesting when I was in pharmaceutical sales and I would call these guys, what came to mind, which was frightening, was somebody had to graduate at the bottom of their class. I’m thinking and I’m calling on them a few times. I’ve been calling on them and sitting there going, “I wonder if this guy was that one.” You hope when you go to a doctor that you’re getting the one that graduated at the top of their class.

You have to believe that. By definition, most people are average. When you’re placing your care in someone, no one’s going to say, “By the way, your doctor is an average surgeon.” “It sounds good.” You believe. Our minds don’t allow us to believe that the person we’re entrusting our care to is the average one.

It’s tough. I know a lot of doctors would get upset, and that seemed to happen with women sometimes. Women would get a place in medical school, and then they would stay home to have kids and not go back. That would make some of the men upset because they missed out on a physician if they weren’t serious about being a doctor for life. That’s a tough thing. Do you see that people are going through medical school maybe not to stay home with kids but for another reason not doing it and that’s taking up a position that they weren’t passionate about?

I know a lot of people go through medical school. We’ve assisted many students over the years to become physicians and I see different roads. Sometimes people will finish their Medical degree and realize that they don’t want to be practicing physicians. They might want to go fully into research, start a company, teach, join an investment firm to advise on healthcare stocks or whatever the case might be. I don’t think that’s a problem.

We need a lot of care providers in this country but that’s not the only value that someone with a Medical degree can add to our world. That’s okay. As far as a big trend of people going to medical school, but then are not practicing medicine and raising a family, that’s not something that I see very much. If people found exceptional value in raising a family, that’s great too. I don’t think of it as like, “I wish they hadn’t “taken” a spot. I don’t think about it that way.

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I don’t either but I haven’t heard some complaints from some of the other doctors about that. It’s interesting to look at the whole medical field in general and what they have to go through. My husband’s a Plastic Surgeon, so they had seven years of residency. After what they go through, you got to give these guys credit.

It’s a monster journey.

You’re helping them go through it and that’s wonderful. I know a lot of people who are reading this are probably fascinated and want to learn more about how they can find out more from you and contact you. Is there some way they can reach you?

The best way to reach is to go on our website, ShemmassianConsulting.com or you can just type Shemmassian.com. There are contact forms and email addresses that you can reach out to. It would be a pleasure to connect with people. Every single year, people reach out to me saying, “I got into such and such place. I used your site with that. You haven’t met me yet but thank you.” However, people want to access our support, it would be an absolute pleasure.

This has been very insightful. I enjoyed our conversation. Thank you so much for being on the show.

This was a treat. Thank you again for having me.

You’re welcome.

I like to thank Shirag for being my guest. We get many great guests on the show. If you’ve missed any past episodes, you can go to DrDianeHamilton.com. I hope you enjoyed this episode and I hope you join us for the next episode of Take The Lead Radio.

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