Standing Out as a College Applicant | Interview with Sara Harberson

We met with author Sara Harberson to discuss the secret world of college admissions, the information families need to make crucial college choice decisions, and much more. Enjoy!

Standing Out as a College Applicant | Interview with Sara Harberson
"I was the youngest Dean of Admissions in the country, and I was the only female Dean of Admissions that Franklin and Marshall had at that point."” – Sara Harberson

Former Dean of Admissions, Sara Harberson discusses her book Soundbite: The Admissions Secret that Gets You Into College and Beyond, which guides students through the college admissions process. Her insider’s perspective of the very secretive world of admissions pushed her to advocate for students who have been historically forgotten. For Harberson, the idea behind Soundbite is not to get students into the most prestigious university but to instead allow students to get the most out of every opportunity. Sara Haberson now works as America’s college counselor to give families access to the information that they need for making crucial future decisions. Follow along as author and expert in the college admissions process, Sara Harberson, talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

You can find information on the most influential schools here.

If you’d like to take a deeper dive into the college admissions process, take a look at the following:

Want to hear more from Sara Harberson? Check out Karina Macosko’s interview with Sara Harberson here.

View our other interviews from influential college admissions experts here.

Interview with College Admissions Expert, Sara Harberson

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

0:00:17.8Holistic admissions and Asian-American admissions

Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko, at Wake Forest University and Academic Influence. And today we have Sara Harberson, who has written an exciting new book called Soundbite. And I am just thrilled that this book is such a wonderful tool, written by an expert who has been Dean of Admissions at a great school.

Our own Dean of Admissions at Wake Forest University knows you because he was at the same school that you were at, and he says to say hello. So we’re just thrilled to have you to speak to us today. And you know so much about the admissions process, I feel like you could really help students walk through it. So I was glad you’ve already done one interview about that process, and now I kinda wanna focus in on the bigger question about admissions.

So you’ve obviously been following things like the lawsuit between Harvard and Asian-American students and things like that. So tell us what you think about, for example, that case and the future of admissions.

Sara Harberson: Yeah. So I’ve been writing about Asian-Americans in the admissions process for years, one of my op-eds was in the LA Times several years ago, and talked about the underlying bias and discrimination that happens in a lot of elite admissions offices, and it really starts at the top and gets filtered down to even the admissions officers. Different standards for different folks, that’s what happens in college admissions, especially for a highly selective college that uses what we call holistic admissions, which means they’re gonna be looking at the whole student.

So all the pieces of the application, the transcript, test scores you’ve provided, recommendation letters, extracurriculars, essays, but the other piece about holistic admissions is they’re looking at the student’s culture and background and family situation, that all comes into play. And so I’ve been really outspoken about the bias that’s still going on today, against Asian-Americans, students with learning differences, Jewish students. There’s a whole list of students who’ve really had to work sometimes twice, three times, four times as hard just to stand out in an applicant pool or have a better shot of admissions.

I’m all for holistic admissions, that’s how I was trained. I spent 10 years in the admissions office at the University of Pennsylvania before becoming a Dean of Admissions myself. And I lived for holistic admissions, but I never want holistic admissions to keep certain students out of a college, and I think that’s what still goes on today, and I like to speak out about it as much as I can.

Jed: Well, this is a perfect opportunity for you to do so. People who are watching this program will certainly appreciate hearing from somebody who has written about it, thought about it, studied the actual statistics. So feel free to elaborate on where you see is the real problem and is there hope in the future that some of those problems will be resolved.

Sara: There’s always hope, and I always have hope. But when you are in a big admissions office like the one at Penn, and you’re reading easily tens of thousands of applications in a year, when you’re there for 10 years and you’re making decisions, you’re seeing hundreds of thousands of applications across your desk. You see that a college, especially a highly selective college, they want what they don’t have.

And so for example, if we use Asian-Americans, even though they are an under-represented group in our country, they are in many ways over-represented in an applicant pool, meaning that there is a pretty good, sizeable number of students who self-identify as Asian-American that are applying to highly selective colleges. And they have not always had a voice in the admissions office, if you looked at the stack of an admissions office at an elite college for decades, it was mostly white admissions officers, every single Dean of admission was a male, a white male for decades.

But over the last 10 years or so, 20 years, that’s beginning to change, and I think that is a big part of the hope that I see in this process.

Now, what you’ve got to do as a Dean of Admissions is you have to look at your staff and make sure it represents the type of student body that you want on that college campus. So it starts at the top, and it’s really nice to see that the old guard is changing in terms of the Deans of admission.

I remember when I became the Dean of admission at Franklin and Marshall College, I was the youngest Dean of Admissions in the country, and I was the only female Dean of Admissions that Franklin and Marshall had at that point. And if I looked around at my colleagues, I really didn’t have anyone to turn to, at that point when I got the job, I was only a mom of one child, now I’m a mom of three, but it was very difficult being a woman in that position. But things are changing, there’re more women, there are more Deans of admission of color, and a younger generation is beginning to take hold in admissions offices.

I think that the fact is that there needs to be training within an admissions office to make sure that discrimination does not happen in any way, because admissions officers really hold so much power in their hands. And the truth is if they meet a student, they probably forget the student, it comes down to that application that they see in front of them, and they’re only spending sometimes four or five minutes on an application.

So they hold a lot of power. You just need to make sure that you’re hiring the right people. You’re training them properly, and you’re making sure that bias is eliminated as much as possible. Because this still is a human process, but leadership comes from the top and trickles down to the staff.

And so it is my hope as these Deans begin to change and a new younger generation begin to take hold of these admissions offices and really see the admissions process differently, that we’re gonna see major changes in how students are selected moving forward.

Jed: That is a very hopeful picture that you paint. Now, you’ve probably looked at the different schools at the elite level. It seems that Caltech is one school where the fraction of Asian-Americans or students who identify as Asian-Americans is higher than some of the other elite schools. Can you comment on that? And how the future might look... Will the future at elite schools look more like Caltech or will Caltech look like more like the other schools. What do you see happening?

Sara: You do see that at certain colleges, I think the important thing is that we need families to have as much information at their fingertips as possible. So sometimes families will look at the percentage of, let’s say students of color that are represented in a freshman class at a college.

Students of color, that percentage, it usually includes African-Americans, Latinx, Asian-Americans, and a whole host of other students in that group. So it’s very difficult to actually pull out the Asian-Americans from that group, so it actually sometimes looks like a college is doing really well in terms of diversity and Asian-Americans.

But the thing that families don’t know is what was the acceptance rate for Asian-American students? What was the acceptance rate for men versus women? What was the acceptance rate for legacy versus non-legacy or recruited athlete versus non-recruited athlete? That’s information that families don’t know, they can find out the overall acceptance rate, and that may be Asian-Americans make up a certain percentage of the class.

We need to start with the data from the beginning, not what ends up happening at the end. And if we were to look at that, you would probably see the bias and a discrimination right there, you would see lower acceptance rates for certain groups.

". the more we talk about it, the more we empower students to be proud of who they are, to self-identify, to write about their culture and background."” – Sara Harberson

What is the future? I think because we’re talking about it, I mean, I talk about bias and discrimination, I talk about coming from a regular background, and how those students are able to stand out in an applicant pool, the more we talk about it, the more we empower students to be proud of who they are, to self-identify, to write about their culture and background.

It really puts them in a powerful position, because then you’re basically telling the admissions officer, you self-identify as Asian-American. If you write about your Asian-American background, you’re basically telling that admissions officer, "Hey, I dare you to discriminate because my culture, my ethnicity, my background is all over this application."

So I love when students talk about their backgrounds, I love when they’re aware of who they are and they use it as a tool to make changes about themselves and changes about the admissions process.

Jed: That’s an interesting thought. It reminds me of the old movie, Clear and Present Danger with Harrison Ford, where he’s giving advice to some president or something. And there’s this opportunity for the president to say that they didn’t know that person. He says, "No, tell them, you know that person and he was a good friend." Even if there might be some conflict over identifying as that person’s friend. Same with your culture, maybe some people will be encouraged to say, "Oh, don’t tell them that you’re Asian-American," but you’re giving a "No go the other way." Just embrace it.

Sara: Go the other side.

Jed: That’s good advice. I like that.

Sara: The thing is, before the lawsuits happened, before there was a case against Harvard and a case against Yale, there were a lot of Asian and Asian-American students who were not self-identifying on their application because they had heard of the bias.

The problem with that is, if they were truly discriminated against in the admissions process, they had no leg to stand on, because they didn’t self-identify. So my entire career, I’ve been saying, "Make sure you self-identify who you are, make sure the admissions officer has an accurate representation of who you are." Number one, it protects you, number two, they are misrepresenting you in the admissions process, that’s the worst part. When an admissions officer doesn’t take the time to get to know a student or doesn’t really invest the time in an application, they will have an inaccurate sense of who you are.

"…if you put what makes you super, super special all over that application, then you know that admissions officer is going to see what you see in yourself."” – Sara Harberson

And so it’s really important for students to make it clear, self-identify, put themselves out there, so that there’s never a question of the admissions officer didn’t get who I am, that’s my whole thing about soundbite, if you put what makes you super, super special all over that application, then you know that admissions officer is going to see what you see in yourself.

0:11:57.5Soundbite

Jed: And in your earlier interview, you say you tell your students that you’re advising not to pound that soundbite but to layer the soundbite with more and more interesting examples that all point back to that soundbite. And that sounded really good advice. Now, I don’t know if you watch ever Saturday Night Live, but when the Varsity Blues scandal broke, they did a little sketch on it, and I don’t know, did you see that sketch, ’cause I was gonna ask you how their portrayal of Asian-American students struck you.

Sara: Yeah, I think in many ways, comedy, it pulls some reality out of our lives and puts it on stage and turns about 5 million degrees. But in an admissions office, you have to remember, it’s very private, and I know Jeff Selingo wrote a book about observing admissions offices several different ones, but admissions officers and the staff, they act very differently when there’s a visitor in the room.

Jed: Absolutely.

Sara: It’s just not the same.

Jed: It’s gotta be different, but you were for 10 years at one of the elite colleges, so you have an insiders information, did you have to swear that you’d never tell what goes on? [chuckle]

Sara: No. We didn’t sign any confidentiality agreement, but you know a lot does go on. Remember with holistic admissions, you don’t have to give a family a reason why the student hasn’t been admitted, you say it’s a competitive process.

Jed: That’s right.

Sara: So it really creates an environment where you can pick one little thing out of an application and say that’s enough of a reason not to admit a student. And sometimes the conversations are really thoughtful in the admissions office, and sometimes they’re really crap, and they’re really raw, because these conversations aren’t gonna be recorded, there’s no video camera in there, it’s all very, very hush-hush. And colleges really don’t have to provide a whole lot of information, I’m doing a post today on my social media about the documentary that just came out, the Netflix one, Operation Varsity Blues and then...

Jed: Yes.

Sara: But in the post that I’m gonna be doing today on social media, it mentions the fact that a lot of colleges are no longer even providing admissions data on their website.

Stanford of all schools, announced I think back a few months before the scandal broke back in 2018, that they would not be releasing any admissions data. And they use the excuse that it’s gonna cause more stress among students, but the truth is, students need some data to be able to figure out if they’re competitive for a college, if they have a shot. If they should add that college to the college list.

It’s a really important consideration, and if they don’t have average test scores, if they don’t know what the acceptance rate is between the early round and the regular round, how do they know how to put together a college list, especially if they’re not getting good advice from their school or from their family?

0:15:22.1Why the switch?

Jed: Yeah, that is so true. Well, like I said, you’ve been on the inside, you’ve seen what happens. Is that one of the reasons why you’re not in there anymore, you’re now more of an author than a Dean of Admissions or?

"As a Dean of Admissions, I answer to the president of the college, I answer to the Board of Trustees, I didn't answer to the people who really matter, and those are the students who are applying."” – Sara Harberson

Sara: The reason why I’m America’s college counselor is because I do not want only certain students to have the knowledge that I have. I wanna share it with as many students and parents as I can. I say in the book that I am the college counselor for all, not for a certain group, like well-connected or the wealthy. So everything that I do as America’s college counselor, every single day, I’m putting out information that can be helpful to families.

I also think that when you own your own business, when you are an author, when you write a weekly blog, literally like almost every single week of the year, you’re able to put information out that can be so helpful to so many families. As a Dean of Admissions, I answer to the president of the college, I answer to the Board of Trustees, I didn’t answer to the people who really matter, and those are the students who are applying.

0:16:43.0Predictions?

Jed: Well, I think you’ve made a great career move, and we are so thankful for this interview, because it also spreads the knowledge for people. Do you have any guess as to whether Harvard or Yale will have to sort of take responsibility for how they’ve discriminated against certain ethnic groups? Will this go to the Supreme Court? Will it be decided against those two premier colleges, or will they win like they’ve won already in the past?

Sara: I think there will be more lawsuits that are going to come out, I think the admission scandal, it keeps coming back up. The documentary keeps coming back up and more and more people are learning about what goes on behind closed doors. I think there will be more lawsuits.

I think the biggest challenge is that the students or families that are suing these colleges or groups that come together with students and families, they’re trying to get access to information that is sometimes expunged or a lot of the sensitive information is immediately deleted from a lot of these admissions offices, so that the only thing left in the application is more of the objective information.

So it’s very difficult to get your hands on notes at this point, and again, a lot of things happen just by conversation, and that’s not captured. There are no video cameras, there are no recordings, unless a college is getting an FBI wire tap, like Rick Singer did.

That’s I think the only way we will actually learn or the public will learn what really goes on in these admissions offices. I know what goes on because I lived it 10 years at Penn and several other as a Dean of Admissions at Franklin and Marshall.

So I think what’s happening with these documentaries, and there’ve been a number of them, and the more we talk about it, I think more families will become knowledgeable about it. But ultimately I see more lawsuits coming down the pipe.

Jed: Do you think it would ever happen that a person who is an admissions officer would be wired and go into these meetings and record it, and that could be used in a court of law where racist, racial bias is being expressed verbally in one of these meetings, would that ever happen?

Sara: I don’t know, I don’t know. It’s really subtle though, it’s very subtle. There are little code words that admissions officers use that... Whether it’s in their notes or how they talk. You don’t even have to say, this Asian-American student needs to have a certain SAT score. It’s not that blatant, it’s very subtle.

You have to remember though, for decades, students coming from certain backgrounds, students coming from especially elite private high schools, they had such an edge in the admissions process, their college counselors or the headmaster of a private school or a boarding school would be best friends with the Deans of admission.

So there was this protective bubble around certain students that Asian-American students simply just didn’t have, partly because for a long time, they weren’t showing up at these colleges, they weren’t showing up at these boarding schools either, they were showing up mostly at public high schools.

"I feel like part of my job here as America's college counselor is to speak up for all the students who've been pushed aside"” – Sara Harberson

And college counselors at public high schools, sometimes they don’t even know that they can contact an admissions officer, number one, sometimes they don’t feel like they even know the student very well. It’s all about being a voice for the students who’ve been silenced, and that’s the issue, because Asian-Americans for so long, never complained.

They knew something was up, but they didn’t think that they could use their voice, they didn’t think it would matter. And I feel like part of my job here as America’s college counselor is to speak up for all the students who’ve been pushed aside, it’s not just Asian-Americans, it’s just those wonderfully, extraordinary regular students who don’t go to fancy high schools, who don’t have well-connected parents, who aren’t wealthy, they’re just regular students doing extraordinary things.

We are now seeing things move in their direction, but it is really, really slow, it’s taking years to get to the point where we’re starting to see more socioeconomic diversity in a freshman class, more racial diversity. And frankly, all types of diversity, it’s not just race that’s interesting to admissions officers, it’s really academic diversity, geographic diversity, extra-curricular diversity, all of these things can really make a difference in the admissions process.

0:21:38.5Looking at it a different way

Jed: Well, that’s a hopeful note, that I think of China, which is an incredibly great country, a superpower now with tons of smart people. And the way they get students into the right colleges is just a massive test.

It’s very straightforward, you do well on the test, you go to the best college, you do not as well, you go to the slightly less prestigious colleges, and maybe what we have in the United States, although there’s a lot of loopholes and a lot of opportunities for bias and things that are totally not fair, maybe in the end, it will keep our country somewhat more creative.

What do you think about that? That’s just a theory that popped into my head. What do you think?

"... I like thinking about who the student is when nobody's looking."” – Sara Harberson

Sara: I love that idea. I love the idea of looking at the whole student and what they have to offer, I like thinking about who the student is when nobody’s looking. I mean, that’s not measured in a test, it’s not measured in grade for a class, but sometimes it comes through in the letters of recommendation, sometimes it comes through in the essays of the Student Rights. And gosh, if an interview really made a difference in this world today and it really doesn’t in college admissions anymore.

Jed: No it doesn’t.

Sara: That interview could be a wonderful way to show those personal qualities come through. ’Cause in the end, a college is supposed to be building a community, a support of community, representing a lot of different types of students, and I think that interview could go a long way. But unfortunately, college interviews, whether... Sometimes a college will offer it through the admissions office by an admissions officer, but most of the colleges still offering interviews are done by alumni volunteers. Those mean very little in the admissions process.

Jed: Oh yeah.

Sara: These days. Partly because not everybody can have an interview, partly because the admissions or the alumni volunteer, it’s just a volunteer, they’re not a member of the admission staff.

But a lot of those little things, those little tiny things in an application, can make a difference if the admissions officer is trained to look out for them. A lot of times I hear a family say, "Well, admissions officers said in an information session, they’re looking for reasons to admit a student." That’s not true. That is so not true, they’re for reasons to deny a student, the smallest little reason.

So instead, we need to turn the tables and really train our admission staff, the admissions officers, in some cases being 22, 23, 24 years old, what it means to be a citizen and a community member, not just a student who gets high grades or high test scores, because some of those students may not be the best community members in the end.

0:24:35.2Advice for those starting the process

Jed: Yeah, Well, final question here, you have three children, what do you want to tell them about going off to college, do you want them to go to a college like you went to? Do you want them to go to a college like University of Pennsylvania where you worked for 10 years or one of those elite colleges? What would you want for them? And if one of the three really does want to go to an Ivy League school, will you tell them to get really good at sports, because according to Jeff Selingo, is the best way to get into one of those colleges. So what will you tell them?

"...you can get a great education almost anywhere, and it's not about what college you go to, it's what you do with the opportunity."” – Sara Harberson

Sara: I will tell them that you can get a great education almost anywhere, and it’s not about what college you go to, it’s what you do with the opportunity. That’s what I say to them all the time. And I think here’s the thing, not everybody is destined to go to college, but if they want to go to college, it’s what you make of it. It’s not where you go.

I think a lot of students focus on the name and the reputation, but in the end, it comes down to what is the best fit for you at that point? I think about myself at 18, I went to a huge public high school, very low resourced high school, not many students went to college where I was from. I ended up going to a small college, which was perfect for me, I could be a big fish in a small pond.

But after four years, I was ready for the big city, Philadelphia was the big city that I went to after I graduated college, and I started working at Penn. And in the end, Penn was a great place for graduate school for me, so it just shows you that it depends on where you are right now.

And that’s what Soundbite’s all about, is not thinking about yourself in the past, like what you accomplished in the past, like, "Oh yeah, I was a Dean of Admissions." Well, that was going back almost 10 years ago at this point. And it’s not about what you wanna do in the future, you gotta live your life right now and take advantage of every opportunity, and you can do that anywhere.

Jed: That is really good words. Just one final thing, what if they say, "But mom, look at all the US presidents over the last 30 years, who all went to Ivy League schools. I wanna do something great with my life," and it seems like more and more, that’s the ticket, you have to have that. What evidence can you show them that what you’re saying to me right now that sounds so good, isn’t just a platitude it’s true. What can you tell them?

Sara: I think this world and our country and society has worked a certain way, not only for decades, but for centuries, but things are changing, and we see that even with our vice president right now of the United States.Things aren’t gonna be about pedigree anymore, and going to a certain type of institution, it’s always going to come down to what you make of that opportunity.

And so for my oldest who is a female, I want her to see that she can do absolutely anything. My middle guy is my creative guy, I want him to realize that creativity is what keeps you alive, and I hope he never stops being creative. And then my youngest, school is a struggle for her right now, and I want her to think that if she wants to go to college, she can, but not everybody is meant to go to college.

I think no matter what you do, that idea of Soundbite is just to stay true to who you are, and do something not only that’s going to help you personally, but help everyone around you. And that’s really the message that I want admissions officers to be paying attention to, those selfish very focused individuals, what are they gonna do to contribute to the whole community? I want my kids not to just be worried about themselves, I want them to think about the impact they can make on this world, and I think that they can do that going to any college in this country.

0:28:46.3Sign off

Jed: Perfect. Well, thank you so much, Sara, for this awesome interview packed with all kinds of helpful information and inspiring things. Thank you for taking the time.

Sara: Thank you, it was a pleasure.