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Admissions 101: Getting In—What the Experts Say
an interview with Gael Casner, Michele Hernandez, Wendy Kahn, Carolyn P. Mulligan, and Janet Rosier

Reform student leaders with Rabbi Heath Watenmaker
at Rutgers Hillel. Rutgers is the first Hillel
in the country with a Reform rabbi uniquely dedicated
to the needs of Reform and liberal students on campus.

A knowledgeable college consultant can help high school students find good school matches, assist in getting them admitted, and offer critical advice they and their parents may not be able to find elsewhere. Here are some insider tips from consultants throughout the United States.

What can I do to improve my chances of getting accepted into my dream school?

Janet Rosier, Janet Rosier's Educational Resources, Inc., Woodbridge, Connecticut (Graduate Certificate in College Counseling, Unigo Expert Network member, author of “Next Stop College” blog, professional member of IECA and NACAC*): First, you need to be a good fit for your dream school: to have the grades, rigor of curriculum, and test scores that fit the college’s accepted student profile, meaning the SAT, GPA, and other statistics about the students the college admitted the previous year (you can find this along with admissions information on many college websites). Beyond that, go the extra mile and show the school how interested you are in attending. Many colleges and universities are looking for “demonstrated interest”; they are more likely to offer admission to someone who is more likely to say yes to their offer. To demonstrate interest, contact the college to request information, tour the school, accept or ask for an interview, and if the local admissions representative comes to your high school, introduce yourself and let him/her know this college is your first choice. After you apply, if you have additional academic news to share, use it as an opportunity to voice that their school remains your first choice.

If this is indeed your dream school—the one you would go to no matter where else you would be accepted and you do not need to compare Financial Aid offers—then you may want to give serious consideration to applying Early Decision—a binding, contractual agreement that obligates you to attend the school if accepted. At many colleges Early Decision can increase your chance of admission, and at a few colleges the acceptance rate is double that of Regular Decision. For those who need to compare financial aid offers or are not comfortable applying Early Decision, some colleges offer non-binding Early Action (where you apply early, hear back from the college early, but still have until May 1 to make your decision).

Wendy Kahn, Wendy Kahn College Consulting, LLC, Highland Park, Illinois (UCLA College Consulting Certificate, HECA, IECA associate member*): Choose your recommendation writers wisely. Many colleges require you to submit one or two letters of recommendation from teachers, which are designed to help the schools find out who you are inside the classroom: How strong are your writing and critical thinking skills? Do you make valuable contributions to classroom discussions? What’s your intellectual potential? Will you be able to handle college level work? Therefore, do not select teachers who know you best outside the classroom. Colleges will learn about your extracurricular activities, honors, and awards elsewhere in your application. To receive up-to-date guidance, colleges prefer recommendations from either 11th or 12th grade teachers. They also want to hear from teachers in five core academic subjects: English, math, science, social studies, foreign language.

Don’t automatically ask for recommendations from the teachers who gave you the best grades. In some cases it may be better to ask a teacher who saw you struggle and respects your determination to master the material. The teacher who gave you an easy “A” may not have much to say about you beyond that. Also, a creative teacher who encourages class discussion may have more to say about you than one who lectures in front of the class.

How can I be sure that the college I choose is the right one? Is there a way to ensure that the school will be a good fit, both academically and socially?

Dr. Michele Hernandez, Hernandez College Consulting, LLC, Weybridge, Vermont and Application Boot Camp, LLC, Boston; former Assistant Director of Admissions, Dartmouth College: The best way to ensure a good fit is to visit and revisit! Sit in on classes, speak with professors, and talk to students who have majored in your areas of interest.

Janet Rosier: Explore the college online. Does it offer a core curriculum, majors, minors, double majors in your areas of interest? Does it provide research opportunities and assistance in finding internships? Search for clubs and organizations such as Hillel. Focus on the criteria meaningful to you. Also, look at Unigo, where current students talk about their college, to see if what they say appeals to you.

When you visit the school, attend the campus information session and take the tour. Try to arrange an overnight stay with a student to get a better feel for the campus community.

What’s the best way to stand out on my college admissions essay?

Wendy Kahn: A college application is crammed with your grades, test scores, activities, teacher and counselor recommendations—information that tells colleges how others see you. The college essay is the only part of your application that tells colleges how you see yourself.

The best college essay gives a group of strangers a small “snapshot” of who you are and how you became that person. To stand out, your essay should tell a story only you could tell. Write about a transformative experience that changed your beliefs or gave you a new insight. As one admissions director has put it, “colleges look within students’ essays for evidence of growth and resolution.”

In most academic writing, the focus is on keeping the “I” word out of the equation. In contrast, in a good college essay the “I” word should be front and center. Be sure, though, to write about other significant people as well. We are defined as individuals largely in terms of our experiences with other people, and acknowledging this reality in your essay will keep you from appearing self-absorbed.

Here’s an example: Last year one of the students I counsel wrote a successful essay about her week-long Israeli military experience as part of the URJ’s Eisendrath International Exchange. She described in vivid detail how much she had dreaded the military portion of the program, and then showcased her own grit and transformation from frightened novice to confident group leader during the course of the week, as well as her unanticipated insights about Israeli patriotism. She was admitted to every school on her list, including her highest reach.

Gael Casner, College Find, Greenbrae, California (HECA, NACAC, WACAC*): Having read thousands of applications for UC Berkeley, a school that requires two essays from each student, as well as thousands of essays from my own clients, I know the positive impact a well-written essay can have on a college’s decision. The following tips can help you maximize your chances of writing an effective essay:

Start early. Good writing requires commitment and reflection. Put yourself in control of the task by setting aside time to begin writing during the summer before senior year.

Look at the big picture first. What do you want the college to know about you? Begin by jotting down all of the adjectives and phrases that best describe you. If you need help, visit and complete the online personality assessment connected to College Board (you’ll have free access if you’ve taken the PSAT; look for the 10-digit code on the front of your results page). Now, circle the five strongest descriptions from your list. Can you think of times in your life when you demonstrated these characteristics? Next, make a short list of experiences that changed the way you look at the world. Also, jot down instances when you’ve made an impact on your family, school, or community. Finally, are there any issues you really care about, ones that reveal your values?

Strategize: Looking at your big picture ideas, which are best? Be original. Stay away from clichés and avoid repeating what’s elsewhere in your application.

Be prepared to revise. It’s not enough to have good ideas in your essay. You also need to prove you are a good writer. It would be highly unusual to produce the quality that’s expected in just one draft. Strive to make the essay your very best piece of writing. Once you feel confident that you’ve done so:

  1. Read your essay out loud. It’s a fast way to catch simple mistakes.

  2. Ask a trusted friend or family member to read your essay and note what he/she learned about you. Does this match what you want the colleges to know?

Essays that stand out are interesting, well-written, and tell the reader something new. Colleges want to find reasons to accept you, so put the best you in front of them!

How can I impress my interviewer during an admissions interview?

Gael Casner: Before your first interview, write down five aspects about yourself that would be beneficial for the interviewer to know. Figure out how you can weave this information into the conversation. Practice answering questions with a friend or a family member. At the end, ask that person to share what he/she learned about you. Does it match your list?

Also, before your interviews, research each college. Read the write-up in The Fiske Guide to Colleges or The Best 376 Colleges. On the school’s website check out classes and professors, social events and clubs, and research and internship opportunities; next, read the college newspaper to understand current issues. Write three reasons why this college would be a good match. You’ll be ready when the interviewer asks why you are applying to the school.

Wendy Kahn: Prepare Questions: Before the interview, develop a few good questions to ask. Do basic research so you won’t ask about things that can easily be found on the college’s website. Pose questions to admissions officers concerning specific academic or extracurricular programs, or internship and research opportunities. You might ask an alumni interviewer what s/he liked best about the school and what s/he would change. An admissions director recently told me that one of the best questions he’s received is “What is the most pressing issue on your campus right now?”

Share “Strength Stories.” Offer specific illustrations of your interests or activities that show how you will benefit the college. For example, you could tell a “strength story” about a tikkun olam fundraising project you spearheaded or a Purim spiel you wrote and directed. Note that a number of colleges with lower Jewish populations are now working hard to attract Jewish students, so your interview is a great place to showcase your role in the Jewish community!

Talk! This is the most important advice for interviews, according to admissions officers. There is nothing harder on an interviewer than a student who answers every question with one word. It makes admissions people wonder if the student will ever participate in class discussions.

Attend to Etiquette: Arrive on time. Wear nice casual clothes; no jeans or dirty sneakers, flip flops, or anything provocative. Look the interviewer in the eye. Give a firm handshake. The only appropriate cell phone mode is OFF!

How can I tell if a campus is welcoming to Jewish students?

Janet Rosier: Explore the college website. If there is a Hillel or a Jewish student organization, contact the directors and ask how welcoming the campus is. If possible, use the college’s Facebook page to connect with current Jewish students and get their takes on the atmosphere. If a synagogue is in the area, ask the local rabbi for his/her opinion of the town, college, and students.

How should I go about choosing a major?

Wendy Kahn: If you’re undecided, relax! Many students go to college without knowing what they want to study, and the majority of college students—even those who thought they had decided—change their majors after exposure to new areas of study. For this and other reasons, the strength of a particular academic program should never be your only reason for choosing a school. And unless you’re absolutely certain about a major and a career path, don’t lock yourself into a specialty school where, if you change your mind, you’ll have to transfer.

That said, it’s still a good idea to start exploring possible majors by consulting a college major database. The Rutgers U. College Majors Database briefly summarizes every major the school offers and describes related occupations, typical employers, and jobs obtained by recent graduates. In addition, College Majors 101 provides in-depth information about dozens of college majors and possible careers, and includes videos from individual schools as well as links to student organizations and publications related to particular majors.

How can I have a say in choosing my roommate?

Janet Rosier: Schools handle roommate selection in a variety of ways, so ask each school about its policy. Some colleges do not give freshmen any say, assigning roommates randomly. Others offer students a chance to choose a roommate during spring orientation, which works out nicely if you connect with another student. Still others direct students to fill out an online survey that matches them up according to lifestyles; in such cases, to increase the likelihood of a better match, be honest in your self-assessment and in what you want in a roommate.

What if none of the schools to which I applied accept me?

Carolyn P. Mulligan, Insiders Network to College, Summit, New Jersey; Board of Counselor CATS for the University of Arizona (IECA, NACAC, NJACAC, HECA*): Hopefully, this will not happen, especially if you research and compile your targeted list carefully. However, even if it does, all is not lost.

One option is to check the National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) website through either your high school guidance counselor or an independent educational consultant. By the middle of May, after most colleges and universities have received deposits from incoming freshmen, schools that still have class space will join a list on the NACAC website, and you can apply to them for the Fall semester. Often, really great schools are on the list—and one could turn out to be the right school for you!

A second option is to go to a local community college, get good grades, and transfer. I know one young lady who went this route and today is a tremendous success. Dina Taylor West was rejected from every school she applied to. She was devastated. Nonetheless, she applied and was accepted to Middlesex Community College, where she acquired an Associate’s degree; went on to receive her Bachelor’s at the College of St. Elizabeth’s in Convent Station, New Jersey; and then attained a Master’s in Social Work from New York University. She has now authored two books about her experience, among them Bloom and Grow with Your Learning Disabilities. Dina is living proof that even if your educational path takes a few unexpected twists and turns, you can still achieve your dreams.

* Key to Cited College Consultant Organizations
HECA: Higher Education Consultants Association
IECA: Independent Educational Consultants Association
NACAC: National Association for College Admission Counseling
NJACAC: New Jersey Association for College Admission Counseling
WACAC: Wisconsin Association for College Admission Counseling

Jewish Studies: The HUC/Private University Option

Students seeking a Judaic studies program at a private university may wish to consider the University of Southern California, where the Jerome H. Louchheim School for Judaic Studies offers classes in cooperation with the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion—the only such arrangement in North America.

Covering antiquity to modernity, biblical Israel to the contemporary United States, literature to linguistics, USC ’s Jewish studies courses include: “Jewish Magic in the Ancient World,” “Blacks and Jews: Conflicts and Alliances,” and “Israel, Zionism and the Modern World.” The Hebrew program offers four semesters of language instruction.

Louchheim School graduates go on to professional careers as doctors, lawyers, business entrepreneurs, rabbis, Jewish non-profit management professionals, educators, and politicians.

For more information, visit or, email, or call 213.765.2113.


Union for Reform Judaism.