Toppel Peers Blog

the inside track to your career



How to Nail UShadow

By Mia Lama, Junior, Industrial Engineering

As a two-time veteran of the UShadow opportunity, I have learned a few tips and tricks to really get the most out of the experience. Here are the crucial things I’ve learned:

Step 1- Make a Great First Impression

When first reaching out to your UShadow Host, you want to share some insight about yourself with them but also demonstrate eagerness and knowledge about their company and position. Add them on LinkedIn and read through their biography. Google search their name and see if they have been featured in any public writings or have co-authored a book. Learn as much as you can from the internet and start developing questions you have for them. In your initial email, show personality and enthusiasm. You want them to be just as excited to meet you as you are to meet them!

Continue reading “How to Nail UShadow”

Ways to get Ahead this Spring & Summer in Your Grad School Application Process

By: Alexa Lord, Ph.D.

Use Spring & Summer (1)

Each grad school application has many components. Multiply that out by however many schools you’ll be applying to, and it can be a dizzying amount of information to keep track of. If you plan to attend grad school, you typically need to apply in the fall/winter one year before the fall that you’d like to start school. So if you’re reading this as a current junior in college who would like to go straight from undergrad to grad school, now is the time to start the “application process.”

The application process is more than just filling out some forms and writing an essay or two. Once you’ve decided that grad school is a good route for you and you’ve narrowed down the type of degree/program you’d like to pursue, you’ll need to carefully curate the list of schools you’d like to apply to, do research on those schools to make sure they’re a good fit, write and revise (…and revise and revise….) your personal statement and/or statement of purpose, and more. Use this spring and summer to get ahead in the ways mentioned below. The more time you give yourself, the easier it will be to manage all of the application details, especially while still taking undegrad classes.


1. Create a list of schools that you’d like to apply to.

The number of schools you apply to depends on many factors, including the number of programs that exist for what you’d like to study (for some highly specialized degrees, there may not be that many schools to choose from), how competitive the type of degree/program is that you’d like to pursue, and the amount of money you have available to pay for application fees and the other costs of applying (although sometimes these can be waived). Consider asking current UM grad students in the field you’re interested in how many schools they applied to. For Ph.D. programs, 8-15 schools is a fairly reasonable amount. When you’re first curating your list, don’t worry about the amount, you can tailor the list as you go. That’s the benefit of starting to prepare in the spring/summer.

Look for schools that have renowned programs in the field of study that you’re most interested in. It’s not just about the school’s reputation as a whole. Talk to UM faculty in the field to get their take on a particular program’s reputation if you’re not sure.

Consider the program’s faculty. Quality of faculty and the number of whom are experts in your area of interest should be a deciding factor. For some programs, you’ll need to be prepared to identify which faculty you wish to study under as part of the application.

See if the program/campus meets your needs. Do they have adequate resources, labs, libraries, funding opportunities (e.g., assistantships, fellowships)? It can be somewhat difficult to tell just by looking online, hence #2….

2.  Do research! Email faculty AND graduate students of each program on your list.

This will help you narrow down your list a bit. For some programs, you’ll need to ask faculty if they’re going to be taking on any new students in the first place. If they are, you should be able to get in contact with their current students (or past ones) listed online. Conduct an informational interview with those students about why they chose that program, would they choose it again, and why. They are the experts.

Tip: Emails should be professional and make a good first impression. Clearly and concisely state who you are, what you’re interested in studying, and what questions you have. Remember, they’re doing you a favor by answering your questions.

3. Look at each program’s requirements and other qualifications you’ll need to be accepted.

Make sure you meet them and if you don’t, participate in additional experiences as soon as possible so that you can meet them in time to apply. For example, do they prefer that you’ve done independent research? Do you need a portfolio?

Consider taking time between undergrad and grad school to gain any additional experience needed. What that experience looks like depends on the field of study. For business school, you’ll likely need work experience to be a strong candidate. For doctoral programs, you’ll need research experience (e.g., posters, publications, research assistantships, independent study, thesis).

4. Keep track of the application requirements and deadlines in an organized way.

Spreadsheets are very helpful for this, and you can find some online that others have already created. One strategy is to have a separate row for each school/program and a separate column for each application item required (e.g., personal statement, statement of purpose, exam scores, number of recommendation letters, application fee, application deadline), putting a yes/no in the cell depending on if that item is required for that school. That way all of the information is in one document that you can easily refer to and update (adding additional columns where you keep track of whether you completed each requirement or not).

5. Prepare for any exams and take them early!

This will give you time if you need to retake the exam to boost your scores. Don’t underestimate the importance of regularly taking timed practice exams.

Obtaining high exam scores, along with a high GPA, is great and can help you “make the first cut” when grad schools are reviewing your application. However, high marks alone do not guarantee that you’ll be accepted into grad school. To make the second cut and get offered an interview, you’ll need strong application materials that demonstrate your fit with the program in other ways (e.g., relevant experience, passion for and knowledge of the field, desire to learn more).

6. Start writing/creating your other application materials (e.g., personal statement, statement of purpose, resume, transcript, portfolio).

Start drafting these early. Expect them to go through several rounds of edits to the point where the earlier draft is no longer recognizable. Good writers know that earlier drafts are often of poorer quality anyway.

Just start. It can be difficult to write about yourself. Get something on the page. Even if it is absolute garbage. Staring at a blank screen doesn’t get you anywhere. Let your thoughts flow onto the page — don’t worry about sounding smart or professional at first. You can revise that later.

Be yourself. The faculty reviewing your application materials don’t expect you to be an expert in the field — that’s why you’re applying to grad school to learn more — so don’t try to act like you are one. Instead, be honest about what you do know, what piqued your strong interest in this field, what you’d specifically like to learn/research more about while in grad school, and the overall impact you’d like to have with an advanced degree.

Get help. Ask people to proofread your documents. By people I mean professionals. Go to a professor’s office hours and ask if they can give you feedback on an essay or two. Schedule an appointment at the UM Toppel Career Center. We’ll help review your materials, including resumes. Read up on and attend workshops about writing application materials. Toppel hosts these every semester and a career advisor can help you determine whether certain resources or pieces of advice are legitimate or not. Maybe that blank screen has gotten the best of you and you’re not sure how to even start — Toppel can help with that!

7. Decide who you’d like to write recommendation letters for you.

Your letter writers should ideally be professionals in the field. Grad schools not only look at the content of the letters but also who wrote them. That said, you shouldn’t walk up to a professor you’ve never had, asking them to write you a letter just because they seem important. You want to choose people you have a relationship with, that can write you a strong letter. They don’t all have to be professors either. In their letters, these people will hopefully be vouching for your ability to do well in grad school. So choose people who can speak to that.

Reach out to these people early, asking them if they can write a strong letter for you by a specific date (a date that’s in advance of the application deadline but still gives them a couple months to write the letter).

If they agree to write you a letter, provide them with all of the information they’ll need (e.g., drafts of your essays and other application materials, school/program information, links for letter submission). Provide this information in a very organized fashion (remember, spreadsheets are your friend and theirs). You might also consider asking your writers to provide feedback on your essays. Send them gentle reminder emails as the deadline gets closer.

8. Come to Toppel!

No one said you have to do it alone. The Toppel Career Center is here for all UM students, at any point in the grad school application process. Perhaps you’re not 100% sure that grad school is the best route for you. A career advisor can help you see all of the options you have and discuss the best ways to get to where you want to go. You can also check-out the great assessment tools we have that show you the different career opportunities for your major/interests (click here to take the Sokanu test).


Overwhelmed? Even more of a reason to start earlier. Putting one foot in front of the other and breaking the application process down into more manageable pieces can help to ease that feeling of anxiety and keep you on track to meet the deadlines. Make the most of this spring/summer. You got this.


About Alexa:

Alexa is the Associate Director of Assessment & Communication at the University of Miami Toppel Career Center. She oversees the development and implementation of the Toppel’s stats and marketing.

Alexa earned a Ph.D. in psychological and brain sciences from Washington University in St. Louis and a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and political science from the University of Michigan. Her research focused on social-personality psychology, specifically on personality and achievement (e.g., how people’s self-perceptions and beliefs influence their coping, relationships, and goal attainment). Alexa’s background in statistical analyses and passion for personal and professional development brought her to where she is today—helping the Toppel Career Center and UM students reach their goals!

Lying on Your Resume: Don’t Do It

By Andrea Trespalacios, Peer Advisor


Oftentimes, we are all tempted to embellish our resumes a little too much, omit some slightly important information, or if we’re struggling, add some strong non-truths. Yes, the job market is competitive, and many other people also want that job you really, really want, but securing a job with lies can be very dangerous. While it’s obvious that lying on your resume goes against the whole purpose of a resume, there could be potential career damaging repercussions.


One of the main ways in which some people alter their resume is by purposefully eliminating any unemployment periods. This is easily done, just extend some dates and it’ll look like you’ve never spent a day without a job. This of course is attractive to employers. However, this easy change, which might seem like a quick fix, could ultimately cost you that job you really wanted and could have gotten without having to lie.


To demonstrate the severity of lying on your resume and that no one who does it is safe, take Yahoo’s CEO Scott Thompson. After five months in the new charge, it was discovered that he did not have a computer science degree, but instead he had graduated with an accounting degree from an institution that didn’t even offer computer science (Stewart 2012). The claim was investigated and after a very short tenure, Thompson was fired.


For students and young professionals, a common area for embellishment is the skills section. Some people get a little carried away with their proficiencies – stating they know much more than they actually do. Taking one semester of French and remembering a string of words does not count as being proficient. Similarly, knowing Microsoft Word and PowerPoint really well does not mean you are an expert in Microsoft Office. While these small white lies may make your resume and application more competitive, the potential consequences outweigh any benefits incurred. The last thing any professional should want is to be hired, realize you cannot do one of your assigned tasks because you do not actually have that skill, and subsequently be fired. These actions will set the tone for the rest of your career, as having a bad relationship with a previous employer or reference can cost you many other opportunities.

What Makes a Great Elevator Pitch

By Kara Davis, Peer Advisor

Let’s say you’re at a career fair, a luncheon, or even in an elevator.  There will be lots of people that you are eager to meet, but what’s the best way to introduce yourself and make sure they remember you? That’s the beauty of the elevator pitch! If you find it difficult to talk about yourself to others, rest assured. An elevator pitch is only 30 seconds.

So, what does this elevator pitch consist of?  First you want to talk about who you are. You’ll want to greet the person you are talking to and then give them your name. Then you mention what school you’re currently attending, what year you are in school, and your major. If you have a broad major, like psychology, feel free to mention what your focus in that major is. If you are working while in school, or you’ve finished school, you would then tell the person your occupation. If the person you are speaking with is a potential employer, you’ll want to clarify the position you are looking for with their company. It’s important to do your research! What jobs are they offering? Do you meet those job requirements? Don’t forget that your elevator pitch is meant to make you stand out to the person you are talking to; you’ve got to include a “WOW!” factor.  What makes you unique? What fact can you mention that will spark interest and help people remember you?

After you’ve given this amazing pitch, you want to make sure that the person you met at this luncheon or the potential employer at the career fair can contact you. If this is a potential employer, feel free to leave them with a copy of your resume. In other cases, you can give out a business card. If you don’t have either, make sure to give them your name and at least one form of contact information (phone number or email).

To make sure your elevator pitch is perfect, practice all the time!  Have your friends, family, or even your pets act as potential employers.  Record yourself so you know exactly how you sound and what your posture looks like. A great elevator pitch helps you get your foot in the door for that dream job and allows you to grow your professional network. Good luck!

“Tell Me About Yourself;” A Trap?

By Qismat Niazi, Peer Advisor

Ah, the dreaded “tell me about yourself.” Many students, myself included, have been stumped by the broadness of this very inquiry. Do I tell them about my dog? Do I tell them I have a very unhealthy obsession with chocolate? All probably extremely interesting points, but it’s not what the employer is really asking you.


One important thing to note is that the employers, although they might have an interest in you as a person, want to know more about how you and your unique traits will be of value to them; your obsession with chocolate might not cut it (unless you’re interviewing for Hershey but that’s a different story).


I have come up with a three step answering process that seems to touch base on everything the employer wants to know while not deterring from the question at hand. I call this the Past, Present, and Future Method.



By starting out with your past, you are giving employers a little background to lead into your current and future endeavors. You can briefly touch upon where you’re from or a monumental life-changing experience that you feel is necessary to mention, but you should really set this up in a way that highlights any past experience you have had in the field of the company you’re interviewing for. This is a good leeway into talking about how you got interested in what you’re currently doing: any research, jobs, even the reasoning behind which you chose your particular major(s).



This is your chance to, in plain terms, brag about all the amazing things you are currently doing. You want to make sure this ties into what you did in the past or address why it doesn’t quite align (I found my passion to be something completely different). Again, you want to make this company specific; mention characteristics/skills that would be useful in the position you’re applying to and brand yourself.



This is where you can outline your vision of the company in the future. Talk about where you want to take the company, if you have any new initiatives, and where you see yourself involvement wise. This shows the company that they have your interest and you definitely see yourself aligning with their mission.


This three step method has really helped me structure my interview answers and make sure I’m hitting all the necessary talking points, and I wish that it does the same for you! Good Luck Canes!

3 Things Equally as Important as Academics

By Jordan Lewis, Peer Advisor

As students, the pressure is on to get good grades, whether it be in order to maintain scholarships or gain admittance to graduate school or simply reach personal goals, combined with participation to extracurricular activities and possibly even a job can be draining both mentally and physically. We often think we need to prioritize our academic success over our general well being, as if the two cannot coexist; this mentality is NOT a healthy one!

Continue reading to learn more about three things (other than your academics) that deserve some serious attention.


Many students find themselves skipping out on a good night’s sleep to study or put last minute touches on an essay and do not realize the benefits they are giving up by doing so. Mentally, sleep improves learning in addition to helping you pay attention, make decisions, and be creative. Sleep deficiency, on the other hand, negatively effects those things, in addition to being linked with depression, suicide, and risk-taking behavior. Physically, sleep helps heal and repair your heart and blood vessels, decreases the risk of obesity, and supports healthy growth and development.

Long story short, next time you find yourself at 2 AM choosing between pulling an all-nighter and getting some rest, consider choosing the latter; you won’t regret it.


We all know that constant exercise helps us look better, but that’s not why it’s on this list. Yes, exercise is important physically; it decreases risk of cardiovascular diseases and other health problems, including stroke, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and cancer. What many do not consider, however, is how vital it is in maintain a good mental state. Frequent exercise not only stimulates the brain chemicals that make you happy, but also boosts confidence and energy.

It doesn’t have to be long; a 15/20 minute walk a few times a week can improve your life in ways you never imagined.


This one needs little explanation. Right now, we’re at the time in our lives where we have the fewest responsibilities. Most of us don’t have house payments or children to support, and we should take advantage of that! College is about getting a degree, but it’s also about making memories and growing as a person. Set aside time during the week to enjoy yourself, relax by yourself or with friends, and recuperate before the next hard task you’re given.

Take care of yourselves. Work hard, but remember to play hard too!

The 3 Rules of References

By Carly Smith, Associate Director, Career Readiness

This summer, I have been thinking a lot about references. Being at the same company now since 2011, it’s been a while since I’ve had to think about who I would use myself if asked to provide a list of 3-4 people who can speak highly about me to a future employer, grad school, etc. However, this summer reminded me why I should always be thinking about who these people might be. In my position at the Toppel Career Center, I have both given many references to those who have worked for me or with me. I have also been on the other side, calling references for those I am considering hiring. I had the opportunity this year to serve as a reference for someone who I admire and love working with, and it felt wonderful to know that my positive endorsement might help support that person in their goals. However, there have also been a few situations I encountered recently that made me realize that finding a great reference is tricky, and not everyone may know the best tips and strategies for finding the right person. So, here are my three major rules for finding the best reference for you.

#1. Make sure the person you are asking to be a reference knows you well enough to speak well of you.

I learned this lesson as a college senior. Not knowing who I wanted to write me a recommendation for graduate school, I chose some faculty members that I had taken classes with recently and performed well. Everything seemed all great, until one of those individuals turned me down. I was caught off guard. Why is this person saying no to me when I took the time to ask for a recommendation? Well, it was for one huge reason. This individual was a lecturer at my university and the course that I had taken with her was only a one credit course, so she felt her recommendation would not be as well received as from someone who I knew better and spent more time with. In the end, she was right, and I chose a professor who I had a better relationship with. I have carried this with me into my current job, and will sometimes turn down a reference request if I don’t feel that my recommendation will be able to be as great as I know it should be. These people usually agree and find someone much more knowledgeable about them. Continue reading “The 3 Rules of References”

The Art of Interviewing

By Anna Kenney, Assistant Director, Internships

Over the last few weeks, your trusty Toppel staff have been interviewing candidates for some of our vacancies. As luck would have it, we have interviewed a ton of truly qualified people. This has proved to make our job that much harder in trying to identify the best candidate to join our staff.

It got me thinking about the nature of interviewing and the fact that it is a learned skill. It takes a lot practice to get to the point that you are comfortable talking about your skills, accolades and yes, even your weaknesses.

You may be thinking, but Anna, I do not need to worry about this now, I already know what I am doing this summer. However, you would be incorrect, you should worry about it now, before the pressure of a potential interview for a job or internship hits you.

As I reflect on individuals I have interviewed over my career, I wanted to share with you the top traits that I feel you should work to master.

  • Being well prepared: It is so important to do your research on an organization before you speak with them. Take the time to read over their mission, goals and/or strategic plan. If possible, learn more about the people who will be interviewing you. Also, make sure you have an understanding of the position you are applying for. An informational interview with a current employee there can never hurt!


  • Dressing for the role you want: Please show up for your interview dressed appropriately. Find out what works for your specific industry. For many roles, a full business suit is the most appropriate, however for others it may not. If you are unsure of the “dress code”, PLEASE ASK! We advisors at Toppel are always here to offer you a second opinion if you are not sure. Sometimes students will come in or will email us a photo of what they plan to wear, and we are more than happy to provide feedback. The best rule of thumb however is, do not wear something for the first time on an interview! The last thing you want to do is stress over ill-fitting clothing a few hours before an interview. For inspiration, check out our Pinterest boards with suggestions or come in and see what is available in Sebastian’s Closet.


  • Concise in presenting answers: It is pivotal that you prepare ahead of time to how you might answer questions in an interview. You do not want to ramble your way through and then realize you never actually answered the question. While you may not be able to anticipate every question that could be asked of you, you can prepare by knowing what types of questions will be asked of you. Generally, in interviews, you will be asked resume-related questions or behavioral based questions. The goals of these types of questions are to learn more about your experience or how you would handle things. Variations of behavioral based questions could be things relating to culture/fit, situational scenarios and/or case studies. Depending on the field, you may get questions that are more technical. There are two main ways to practice this. #1: Schedule an appointment with a Toppel advisor for a Practice Interview #2: Utilize Big Interview as a way to practice online whenever you would like.


Do not forget that Toppel is still open over the summer. We are here Monday – Thursday from 8:30am-5pm. All our services are available just as they are during the academic year. For those of you that may not be physically on campus or in Miami, do not fret, you can schedule phone or Skype appointments as well. Our staff is committed to serving you, so please keep in touch and reach out over the course of the summer. August will be here before you know it!

A Career For Every Major in the Federal Government

By Kim Burr, Assistant Director, Business Consultant


The federal government is the nation’s largest employer, with open positions to match countless interests and skills. If you are unsure about what you can do with your major or degree, consider a career in the federal government! As a government employee, you will work to solve the most pressing challenges and issues while making a positive impact on our country and our world.

Here are ten more reasons to consider a career in the federal government from

The work of government employees impacts the lives of every American and the lives of people around the world. Federal employees can play a vital role in addressing pressing issues, from homelessness to homeland security. Students interested in working in government can engage in high-impact work, such as helping disrupt the laundering of billions of dollars derived from illicit U.S. drug deals.

Average government salaries are competitive with the private and nonprofit sectors. Recent graduates can expect a starting salary from $32,415 to $42,631 a year. Pay can also increase fairly quickly for top candidates with experience and a strong education. Federal benefits, including health insurance, retirement and vacation, are extremely competitive with, if not superior to, other sectors.

By 2015, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) projects that more than 550,000 federal employees, one third of the entire full-time permanent workforce, will leave the government. In 2013, 76,735 new employees were hired government-wide.

Federal opportunities are not only found in the D.C area. 84 percent of federal government jobs are outside of Washington D.C. If students are interested in international job opportunities, more than 50,000 federal employees work abroad.

Working in the federal government is not just for political science majors. In fact, 28.4 percent of federal employees work in STEM fields. There are federal jobs for every interest and skill, from art history to zoology.

Federal employees have many opportunities for career advancement in government. An internal Merit Promotion Program helps ensure that new employees succeeding in their job have easy access to information about job openings within government. The government also offers excellent training and development opportunities and has human resources personnel to help connect current employees with these opportunities.

Today’s government workers are leading and innovating on issues such as developing vaccines for deadly diseases, fighting sexual and racial discrimination, and keeping our massive systems of transportation safe.

Flexible work schedules, including telework, are a major plus for those with busy schedules or long commutes. Competitive benefits also include generous vacation time combined with federal holidays and sick leave. All of these packaged together make government an attractive employer for students looking to successfully balance their work and personal lives.

Government work is steady and secure, an attractive selling point, especially during difficult economic times.

Some federal agencies can help pay back up to $10,000 per year in student loans, up to a total of $60,000.”

For more resources to explore a career in public service, visit or

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