Last spring, I was asked to provide a welcome for a professional development event members of my admissions staff were hosting on behalf of IACAC. I welcomed the invitation—indeed I was enthusiastic about spending time with relatively new admissions professionals—but because of the busyness of the season, I waited until the last moment to prepare my remarks (a fact I did not share with them).
As I made my notes, I thought of the many people and events that shaped my own professional development and did my best to try to summarize them for this great group of young professionals. I offered the following advice to those seeking to improve and advance in the admissions field.
Ask questions—If you are seeking to advance professionally, there is nothing more important than being curious. In an increasingly fast-paced, Facebook and Google-centered world it seems easier to search for the answer to a question than to make time to ask someone in person. With email taking the place of face-to-face communication in so many cases, asking a question has become a lost art. Take time to formulate a good question and request the answer from someone you respect. It’s a great way to stand out. Moreover, asking questions can get you some valuable one-on-one time with the person who has the answers. If you really want to develop your skills as a professional, ask someone whose work you admire, “how did you earn the position you have today?” This single question will open a dialog that will lead to more questions, and the answers will help you on your way. At the time I began in my career in admissions, I had an uncle who at had been working in college admissions and financial aid for more than 25 years. I asked him countless questions about his work, how his institution did things, and I listened intently as he shared his wisdom and told stories. His answers to my questions helped shape my path toward increasing responsibility.
Take an interest in your organization beyond your job—Higher education is full of silos and defined roles, which makes it challenging to stand out. Sometimes it seems awkward to become involved beyond the known parameters of your job, and you may get strange looks when you try to take an interest in areas outside your paddock. But, looking beyond your job is critical to advancing and developing as a professional. How frequently do you participate in campus-wide events where you will be seen by campus leaders? Do you volunteer to do committee work or serve on a task force? Have you told leaders that you’d like to learn more about another part of the college? Do you let your job stand in the way of learning more about your organization? Exploring related passions or extending your interests within the organization is worth it, even if that work not directly related to your job. I’ve witnessed great employees become even better when they began taking classes, coaching, advising students, attending campus forums, and even sharing meals in other locations on campus. Get out of your silo, see others and be seen.
Choose your mentors wisely and thank them often—I’ve never had only one mentor at any point in my life, and for that I am grateful. In fact, my list of mentors has grown and shrunk through the years as people I admire have moved in and out of the profession. My list is much like another support system I know: my grandmother’s ever-changing list of pallbearers, with names crossed out and added. My mentors have most frequently been people with a different world view than I have, and with strengths in areas where I could improve. I frequently call upon these mentors for advice and am deeply grateful for all they’ve offered me through the years.
Who are your mentors? Do you have a list in mind or close at hand? Do you thank your mentors and let them know why you value their advice and good example? For each of the countless mentors who have influenced my professional growth, I make a point to reach out with a note to thank them at least once a year.
Stretch beyond your comfort zone and say yes a lot—While doing something really well is laudable and true expertise is something to celebrate, those seeking to grow professionally need to stretch. Volunteering to do things outside your comfort zone is proxy for confidence; and confidence is what sets the stars apart from the rest. For me, stretching beyond my comfort zone has varied over the years. It started with leading the supervision of a telecounseling program. I recall thinking, “I don’t know anything about this.” But I also knew someone had to do it, and even though it was uncomfortable, I knew I could learn something. I also knew it would impress my boss. Most recently, my stretch was to accept an invitation from the president to lead a campus-wide strategic planning process and just last week it was to respond to a request to supervise the General Manager of our Public Radio Station. Through the years I’ve said yes a lot and I been willing to try something, even if I wasn’t fully confident about my knowledge or experience. If you want to advance, learn more and develop more fully in your professional field, are you willing to say yes, even when you’re thinking yikes?
Don’t forget about the basics—For me, the basics revolve around garbage. A great friend and mentor once told me that if you ever think you are too important to pick up the garbage on campus, then you are no longer qualified for admissions work. I am proud to walk the campus before admissions events, on the lookout for beer cans, McDonald’s wrappers, Starbucks’ cups and cigarette butts. This activity never gets old for me, and makes me remember it’s my job to make sure families see our campus at its best. I am quite sure the basics will mean something else to you, but as you think about advancing in your profession, do not forget that what keeps you grounded may quite literally be underfoot.
In putting my comments together for the group of aspiring professionals, I also was reminded of the things I need to do to continue to grow as a professional, too. So I dropped a note to my mentors.
This is timeless advice no matter where you find yourself in your career.