Keeping college students’ grad school dreams alive during the pandemic

Higher education looks a lot different than it did this time last year. Universities are seeing a serious drop in virtual classroom attendance since the academic year began this fall. According to Dr. Chandra Pemmasani, students may also be wary of applying to grad school in a distance learning environment. As someone who moved from his native India to the U.S. to earn the medical degree that he coveted, he believes that students are better served keeping their “educational momentum” going.

Pemmasani is the founder and CEO of UWorld, which creates and delivers online learning tools for students preparing for high-stakes exams in a wide range of disciplines, including medicine, law, accounting, and finance. He founded UWorld during his medical residency, in response to his personal disappointment with the tools that were available to help him prepare for the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination.

The company that started in his university dorm room has now helped more than two million students succeed on exams and in their careers. Here, he talks about how educators, families, and students themselves can all work together to keep college students engaged and keep their graduate school dreams alive during this time of unprecedented disruption in education.

eCampus News: What challenges are college students facing about the prospect of going to grad school during the pandemic?

Dr. Chandra Pemmasani: They have no doubt already battled learning loss, a lack of stability, and the many other challenges and distractions that have arisen this year. As they work through the application process, a major challenge these students are facing is that their initial vision of attending grad school is being thwarted by the pandemic. It’s just not going to look like they imagined, and they have to prepare to begin their graduate degree in a distance or hybrid environment. As a result, many students are wary about enrolling in graduate school right now.

eCampus News: If you had a college-age student in your family, would you tell them to go to grad school as soon as they can, or wait?

Pemmasani: If my hypothetical student could attend grad school during this time in a safe way, I’d encourage them to stay on their path to begin that next phase of their education. College students have most likely already adapted to online learning to some degree, and it’s so important to keep learning momentum going while the structure of academic life comes naturally. There’s already such a high risk for graduate schools—and ultimately future job markets—to lose highly trained professionals due to decreased enrollment rates. To my mind, safely continuing academic progress is crucial for our students and our society.

eCampus News: How can professors and academic advisors help students successfully prepare for their grad school entrance exams?

Pemmasani: Department heads, professors, and academic advisors should be holding virtual office hours for students planning on continuing their education after college. While you might not be able to look over your students’ shoulders to help them, professionals in these roles should be familiar with the online resources available to students that are either offered by the university or tailored to their subject area. Many universities offer free or discounted memberships to online learning tools, but there’s a chance your students are unfamiliar with these options. More than ever, students need to know they’re not alone. A quality online learning tool can act as a progress monitor, educator, and exam simulator—basically an all-in-one virtual gateway to exam success without the health risk.

I’d recommend that professors get the word out as much as they can about resources that the university offers, as well as other quality preparation tools that students can access independently to help them on their grad school exam preparation journey.

eCampus News: What role can families play in this process?

Pemmasani: Families are more important than ever at every level of education right now. College students can certainly benefit from the sage advice from their parents. Something as simple as drawing up a list of pros and cons can bring enormous clarity. For students actively engaged in preparing for high-stakes exams, time, space, and focus are essential. Families can offer or help students find a quiet space to study, a reliable internet connection, and a clear and achievable plan to prepare for their exams. Exam-taking is a stressful situation for everyone, whether a parent or a student. Being more compassionate with each other also reduces stress. Rarely does anybody enjoy taking exams, and the pressure only increases with high-stakes tests, so providing some perspective coupled with understanding that the difficult time will pass is beneficial.

Once all these things are in place, students will be well-positioned to overcome the difficulties that the pandemic has created and look forward to opening the door to the next phase of their lives.

Dr. Chandra Pemmasani is the founder and CEO of Dallas-based UWorld, an online learning tools provider that helps prepare students for high-stakes exams. He served as an instructor at Johns Hopkins University/Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, before moving to Dallas in 2010, where he established the corporate headquarters of UWorld.

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