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Admissions 100:
Getting In: What the Experts Say

Aknowledgeable college consultant can help high school students find good school matches, assist in getting admitted, and offer critical advice students and parents may not be able to find elsewhere, such as these insider tips from consultants throughout the U.S.

RJ: What are your best little known tips for helping me get into the college of my dreams?

Dr. Michele Hernandez, Hernandez College Consulting LLC and Application Boot Camp, former Assistant Director of Admissions, Dartmouth College: Demonstrate your commitment to scholarship. Take the time to develop your academic niche. What do you do beyond top scores and grades that shows you’re a standout? Colleges want “sharp” kids, not well-rounded kids. Explore the match carefully—why this school is a better fit than another—and take the time to explain what you would add to the campus. Are you going to be the star of all the musicals, a champion fencer, their top classicist?

Janet Rosier, Janet Rosier’s Educational Resources, Woodbridge, Connecticut (HECA, IECA, NACAC): The two most important factors in admissions are high grades in a rigorous curriculum and high test scores—and unless you are number one in your state for an athletic ability or your grandfather donated the library, everything else comes in a distant third.

Beyond academics, colleges want students who demonstrate a passion—an athletic pursuit or musical accomplishment or devotion to a cause that is near and dear to your heart. Colleges are unimpressed with students who are “a mile wide and an inch deep,” belonging to many clubs but only superficially
involved with them.

Also, colleges want to hear your voice in the essay. They don’t want to hear your English teacher’s voice or your mother’s voice—they want the real you to come through.

Wendy Kahn, Wendy Kahn College Consulting, LLC, Highland Park, IL (HECA, IECA Associate Member, NACAC, UCLA Graduate Certificate in College Admissions Consulting): Demonstrate your interest in the school. More than 50% of schools consider an applicant’s “demonstrated interest” when making admissions decisions. Simply put, colleges want students who want them. They don’t want to waste a “fat envelope” on an applicant who probably won’t attend.

One of the best ways to show genuine interest is by making a campus visit. Colleges do understand, though, that sometimes distance makes a visit impossible. Other ways to demonstrate interest include attending a local info session hosted by a college, participating in a college fair, subscribing to a college blog, “friending” a college on Facebook, meeting with an admissions representative who comes to your high school, and/or scheduling a local interview with an alum or admissions staff member. Always follow up any personal contact with a thank you note by either snail mail or e-mail. Refer to one or two topics you discussed and confirm your interest in the school.

In your “Why College X” essay, cite specific educational or extracurricular programs that attract you to the college and reflect on what you believe you might get out of attending the school. Next, tell the college what you might give to it. In other words, this question isn’t just about why the college is right for you; it’s also about why you’re right for the college. Resist the temptation to state the obvious. Schools already know they have a world-class faculty, a gorgeous campus, and that you “love the energy of Manhattan!” Here’s the litmus test of whether you’ve truly explained why you like a school and the value you bring: Write in a different college name. If your essay still makes sense, you’ve written something too general.

Is getting into a prestigious school my best route to success?

Dr. Michele Hernandez: That depends on how you define success. If you’re thinking in monetary terms, the answer is not necessarily. A study by Alan Krueger at Princeton University and Stacy Dale at Mathematica Policy Research, based on data from 1983 through 2007, shows that it is actually the level of school where a student is accepted , and not where the student actually attends , that best correlates with financial success. An even better predictor of earnings was the average SAT scores of students at the most selective school to which the candidate applied. Interestingly, Ivy League graduates did not have a monopoly on strong earnings.

If you define success as pursuing your passion, then you want to find a school that is a good fit— and it does not necessarily have to be prestigious. For a hard core engineering student, Lehigh or Carnegie Mellon might trump Yale.

Gael Casner, College Find, Greenbrae, California (HECA, NACAC, WACAC): Too often teens are dazzled by a college name, wrongly assuming that the “prestige factor” is their automatic ticket to success. Prestige, however, does not always equal “best fit.” Instead of focusing on prestige, ask
yourself these questions:

  1. Where will I be able to do my best work? To determine this, understand your learning style. If you’re an organized, independent learner, lecture-style classes will work. If you need to verbalize as you learn and like sharing and hearing others’ opinions, smaller classes might bring out the best in you. Try to sit in on some college classes to help you evaluate which approach works best for you. In addition, consider where you would need to be ranked academically in a class in order to be challenged but still feel successful. Beware of choosing a college that is either too
    rigorous or too easy.

  2. Where will I be most likely to take advantage of opportunities offered in and out of the classroom? Your ability to tap into the enrichment part of your college experience will help set you apart when looking for a job or applying to grad school. What does the school offer beyond academics that interests you? Search the college’s website for internships, leadership programs, and research projects—and when you visit a campus, ask students how easy it is to access these resources, as well as how much time they’re able to spend per week on non-academic activities.

  3. Which student culture fits me best? Those who feel comfortable on campus and have made friends are more likely to try out new things and grow. To figure out if the campus culture is a good match, talk with students in the dining hall, the Hillel office, and/or the student center. Are they friendly? Pick up the college newspaper and see what issues are important to students. Can you relate? And if possible, stay overnight to see what happens when the sun goes down. Is this the “family” you want to spend four years with?

Students who put prestige at the top of their college wish list miss an important truth: Graduate schools and employers seek successful college grads from a variety of colleges. Your job, then, is to investigate which college environment is likely to be most conducive to your success.

Janet Rosier: Being in the bottom of your class at a prestigious university is not going to be as helpful as being in the top of your class at another institution where you have excelled academically, shown leadership, and participated in internships or research. Nowadays, college graduates seeking employment or applying to graduate school are expected to have an impressive résumé. Internships in your field are crucial, and colleges should be able to help you secure them; check out the career counseling center when you tour a school. If you’re planning on certain graduate programs, you’ll need to show that you’ve conducted research; find out whether the college offers research to undergrads and if there are qualifications. Also explore the clubs on campus that interest you and might present you with a leadership opportunity. Then choose a college that is a good fit, enabling you to challenge yourself and to excel.

Wendy Kahn: Here are three things to keep in mind:

  1. A school’s high ranking doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get a great education there.

  2. Beyond the list of brand-name schools are many lesser known colleges with outstanding programs—and strong reputations among potential employers and grad schools.

  3. Your success in life doesn’t depend on the prestige of the college you go to. Success is about your own ambition, talent, and hard work—what you do at college once you get there.

What is the secret to finding the right school for me? And how can I determine if the student body and faculty will be welcoming to me as a Jew, and in general?

Deborah B. Davis, MBA, Davis Education & Career Consultants LLC, Ridgefield, Connecticut (IECA, NACAC, NEACAC): Given the rising price tag of education, it is more important than ever to make practical, informed decisions about your choices of school, study, and career direction. To help set your path, discover your natural talents. Extensive statistical research has proven that we are most successful pursuing educational majors/occupations that match our personality. To identify your strengths, take the “Do What You Are: Personality Type” (Myers Briggs) or the “Career Interest Profiler” (John Holland) assessments, both of which should be free through your high school Naviance account. You can also access a free Personality Type assessment. The more information you have about yourself, the more empowered you will be.

Wendy Kahn: The key to a successful college admissions outcome is careful planning. Start the process in your junior year by taking an objective look at your high school record: transcript, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities. Next, identify the qualities you’re looking for in a school, such as academic programs, extracurricular activities, your personal learning style, size, location and distance from home, cost, campus spirit, student diversity, activities, Jewish and Greek life. Ask your family for help with this “soul-searching” part of the process.

Now, consult a “Big Book” of colleges, such as the Fiske, along with online college search tools, such as College Board’s College Search tool and the U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator. Compile a list of colleges, considering your strengths and challenges as well as the qualities important to you. Include schools across a “range of selectivity”—where you stand anywhere from a conceivable to an excellent chance of being accepted.

Finally, hone your short list by visiting each of the campuses to get a feel for their distinct personalities. If you can’t make it in person, take a college website’s virtual tour and/or an uncensored video tour offered on eCampusTours, YOUniversitytv or Unigo College Reviews.

To find out if a school has a strong Jewish community, visit the Hillel or another Jewish student organization and talk with student leaders and professional staff. Ask about what matters to you. Here are a few suggestions:

• How many Jewish undergrads are there?Some Jewish community professionals say that a l0% Jewish campus population is about the beginning point of viability for a Jewish student to find “community.” While Jewish students on a campus with relatively low numbers must devote effort to finding and building community, they also have a good shot at becoming Jewish community leaders.

• How many students are active at Hillel?

• What programs does Hillel have?

• Is there a Jewish Studies major/minor? Consult the course catalogue for academic offerings of interest. Check for interdisciplinary courses in departments such as Religion, History, Philosophy, Near East studies, Hebrew language, Archaeology, and Literature.

• Are there weekly Shabbat meals?

• Are there regular religious services? What denominations? When? How well attended are services?

• Is there a full or partial kosher meal plan?

• Are there Jewish fraternities and/or sororities?

To ascertain if the student body and faculty will welcome you as a Jew, make sure you’re comfortable with the broader campus culture. This is especially important at small schools with small Jewish populations, as small schools tend to have distinct personalities—and the smaller the school, the more distinct that personality. Visit when school is in session and the campus is fully alive. Do you feel comfortable? Does the school feel welcoming? Do students seem accepting of diverse perspectives?

Betsy F. Woolf, Esq., Woolf College Consulting, Mamaroneck, New York (HECA, IECA, NACAC, NYSACAC, Board Member, Hillels of Westchester):Raw numbers of Jewish students on campus don’t always tell the full story about how welcoming the student body and faculty will be. To find out, talk to people. If there is a Hillel or a Jewish Student Association on campus, call the director and ask about the Jewish life and atmosphere on campus, as well as the names and contacts of several active Jewish students. Generally, students involved in these organizations will be happy to talk with you. Note that even if these organizations aren’t present on campus, that doesn’t necessarily mean that a college is unwelcoming to Jewish students; there simply may not be many Jewish students and/or events. If Jewish organizations are active at the school you choose, do get involved—it will help you make connections and friends.

In your opinion, what schools offer the greatest quality of Jewish life?

Janet Rosier: What constitutes “quality of Jewish life” will vary from student to student: Shabbat services, kosher food, an engaged and vibrant Hillel, a large Jewish population, Jewish courses, Jewish fraternities and sororities, etc. You need to articulate what kind of Jewish experience you want at college and find the school where it can best be actualized.

Wendy Kahn: It’s impossible for me to pinpoint just a couple of schools, as backgrounds, needs, and preferences of Jewish students vary widely. I can say, though, that schools with dynamic Jewish communities are not limited to those with large numbers of Jewish students. If you’re the kind of person who wants to roll up your sleeves and lead, you might look for smaller schools that are actively reaching out to Jewish students by building new Jewish student centers, adding Jewish studies majors and minors, instituting kosher meal plans, and more. And even if kashrut is not important to you, when a school creates a major kosher dining option, it’s telegraphing its commitment to making Jewish students feel comfortable.
(Editor’s note: For more on this, see “Unexpected Welcomes.”)

What is your prescription for “de-stressing” the admissions process?

Janet Rosier: Understand how the admissions system works and be aware of what’s in and out of your control. By and large you are in control of your grades, your curriculum, and your test scores. You are not in control of who else from your school or your region is applying to the same college, who is a legacy, who is a recruited athlete, who is an underrepresented minority, or if more females or males are needed this year. Once you let go of what is out of your control and concentrate on what you can control, you can relax, knowing that you have done your job.


Union for Reform Judaism.