We met with author Sara Harberson to discuss her new book, to discover ways for students to convey their true selves to college admissions officers, and much more. Enjoy!
"…it doesn't just come down to one thing, it is about living your soundbite, being really true to who you are and making sure that comes through in every part of your application..."” – Sara Harberson
America’s College Counselor, Sara Harberson, discusses what it means to live true to yourself and how you can convey this to a college admissions officer. She has worked within the admissions process as a dean of admissions and now guides students through the process as a private college counselor. Sara Harberson’s book Soundbite: The Admissions Secret that Gets You Into College and Beyond teaches students to differentiate themselves and stand out from the thousands of other applicants that may be applying to a school.
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Want to hear more from Sara Harberson? Check out Dr. Jed Macosko’s interview with Sara Harberson here.
View our other interviews from influential college admissions experts here.
(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Karina Macosko: Hi, my name is Karina Macosko from Academic Influence, and I’m here with Sara Harberson, and we just wanna know how did you get into your field and what kind of inspired you to write at this great book of yours.
Sara Harberson: Thank you, Karina. Yes, I went to a very large public high school back in the day, I had a guidance counselor, I didn’t even know what a college counselor was. And I didn’t have a lot of guidance in applying to college, I kind of tried to figure things out on my own. Sometimes they were right, sometimes they were wrong. But I loved the experience of visiting colleges, applying to colleges, going back to visit once again after being admitted, that I fell in love with the college admissions process as a high school senior, so the moment I arrived on that college campus as a freshman, I started giving tours through the Admissions office, and from there, it turned into a long professional career. I haven’t done anything else but work in college admissions except for a year of law school.
Karina: Wow, so what did you major in in college?
Sara: So in the... I changed my major several times. And that’s very common. There are plenty of high school students that will change their minds about their majors three, four, five times in their last year of high school, and the same thing can happen when they get to college, but in the end, I was a communication and rhetoric major with a minor in theater.
Karina: Wow, that is incredible. And a lot of the people who watch these interviews are just starting to apply for college or in college, so could you kinda just give us a brief overview of your book.
"you really need to work on yourself and figure out what makes you really, really special..."” – Sara Harberson
Sara: Sure, so I’ve been on the college side of the admissions process, I’ve worked in a high school, I’ve also been a private college counselor for a long time, and working with an online... A Facebook group called Application Nation, working with families who are going through the process. So you know, the best advice when you’re applying to college is to find out who you are, that’s really what the soundbite approach is all about, and make sure you follow that to a tee, make sure that guides you with every decision you make, until of course, you change directions, or you change your mind about your academic interests or your extra-curricular interests, the wonderful thing about the soundbite concept is that it evolves with you, just as we mature, we become more self-aware, our soundbite is going to evolve and become even more mature and well-developed. So when students approach me about how to get into a dream college, I say first, you really need to work on yourself and figure out what makes you really, really special, and if you follow that to a tee, you’re gonna be in good shape and you’re gonna have wonderful results at the end of the process.
Karina: Wow, that is so interesting. And we’ve talked to several people who are writing about college on here, some of them being Jeff Selingo or Ron Lieber, but I kinda wanna get your opinion, what do you think is the most important thing to get into a college?
Obviously, there’s no cookie-cutter model for getting into college, but what do you think is the deciding factor for most people to get in?
Sara: Yeah, I spent so many years reading applications as an admission officer, being a member of the admissions committee, making final admissions decisions as an associate Dean of Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania and a Dean of Admissions at Franklin and Marshall College that... What I’ve realized over the years, it doesn’t just come down to one thing, it is about living your soundbite, being really true to who you are and making sure that comes through in every part of your application, because at this point, it’s not just a transcript that’s gonna get you into college or a high test score, or one good essay. It really has to come together in a beautiful way. I often teach my Application Nation students that it’s not about hammering home one exact thing about yourself, because admissions officers get really bored very quickly when they go through each part of the application, they want to learn something new about you, so there should be this beautiful layering effect that happens in your application, one section builds on the next, and it should all come back to that identity, that one set and soundbite, and if you do that, then the admissions officer is gonna read an application that they’ve never seen before, and that’s really what you wanna give them.
You don’t wanna be like everyone else, in fact, you wanna go in the other direction, you wanna just be yourself, and when you have a soundbite that nobody else has in the world, that really does guide every section of the application, if you are applying to highly selective colleges, and there are a lot of students and families that follow me because they are, I say that you need strong grades, you need the strongest curriculum that’s available at your high school, you need strong test scores if you’re gonna be submitting them, that just keeps you competitive, it’s all the other subjective pieces of the application that often are the reason a student gets admitted or gets denied.
Karina: Wow, that is such fantastic advice, and with staying true to yourself throughout high school, do you think that you should say to one specific field, all your activities be based around something, or do you think it’s better to branch out and try different sports, try different clubs.
"your interest will change, your soundbite adapts with you. You just have to be willing to keep rewriting it if you change directions..."” – Sara Harberson
Sara: I think you have to try different things at first, not every student knows exactly what they wanna spend their free time doing immediately in high school, not every student knows what academic major they wanna pursue in college, so I really do believe students should be exploring things, especially in ninth grade, sometimes ninth and 10th grade, and oftentimes, students can even change their minds senior year, but I think it’s important to check out a number of things before you settle in on one, and again, your interest will change, your soundbite adapts with you. You just have to be willing to keep rewriting it if you change directions, so you don’t have to have all of your activities match up to one specific thing, you can have some surprises in there because oftentimes it will show another skill that you have to the admissions officer reading your application, so there are gonna be some students that are well-rounded, they do a little bit of everything, and there are gonna be some students that are well-lopsided, both types of students can succeed in the admissions process.
Karina: Wow, so you don’t have to be a well-rounded student, you could actually be somebody who really specializes in one thing and still look appealing to admissions officers?
Sara: And the interesting thing is you can be well-rounded, but you can still specialize, I’m really big on specialization, because I think a lot of students, when they think about applying to college and they think about a specific major, they think in general terms, especially right now, business is so popular as a major to list on an application, and frankly, it’s one of the most popular programs of study for undergraduate education right now, when I talk to students who are interested in business and I say, "Well, what prospect of business do you want?" They might give me kind of a sub-field under business, but they’re not able to go into much depth, and so it’s really important that no matter what academic subject matter you are interested in or what extra-curricular activity you like, try to get as specific as you possibly can, or else the person on the receiving end is saying, "Well, business so many students say this. So many students say finance, so many students say, they’re involved with a sport, get as specific as you can, become a little mini-expert on that very specific field of interest that you’re interested in, or even an activity that you wanna pursue."
Karina:Wow. And so other than just being specialized, how do you differentiate yourself from all of the other applicants who have the good test scores, the good grades, and what about for somebody who has no idea what they wanna specialize in, how do they kind of differentiate themselves?
Sara: So for major choice, you don’t have to figure that out, sometimes you don’t even have to figure it out for the admissions process, but it’s so important as you look around, you look around with your friends, your classmates at your high school, the people in your community, even your family, you see people doing things and they’re doing things not always for the right reasons. They’re doing it because their friends are doing it, or their parents want them to do it, or there are family expectations or the pressure of society tells the student to do certain things, I tell students that it’s great to kind of hang out with friends and do some things that your friends are doing, and obviously, you wanna make your family happy, but ultimately you have to live your life and make yourself happy.
So there’s an example in the book that I give, I used to work at a high school, and it was a highly competitive high school, it was a private high school. All girls, 100% of the students went on to four-year colleges. And it was cool to be smart. In other high schools, it might be cool if you’re an athlete, or cool if you’re into the arts, but at the high school where I worked, it was cool to be smart, and every single student seemed to join one of the clubs called Model UN, and everybody thought it was so cool. You get to go to Harvard for a Model UN conference, but the truth is, there were dozens, maybe even 100 students from our high school that were involved with Model UN, and there were thousands of students going to the Harvard Model UN conference.
You’re one of many students doing it, and whenever I would pull aside a student or I’d be talking to them about their college list and they would be telling me about Model UN. And I would say, "Why do you do it?" "Oh, my friends are doing it." So that’s something that I think is really normal, I think there are still adults doing things because other people do them. I think one of the most important things about the college admissions process, but about every stage of your life, is to not do what everybody else is doing, that if you carve out your own niche, whatever it is, America’s college counselor right here, there’s nobody else that has that title in the world, if you do your own thing, you can really stand out, you can stand out with your application, you can stand out when you apply to graduate school, when you apply for a job, when you’re trying to get a loan for a business, when you’re trying to get your book published. You’ve got to stand out, you’ve gotta have the confidence to stand out, so my whole goal is getting high school students to recognize how special they are, sometimes they don’t even realize they’re talking to me and they mention some little tid bit and I go, "What was that? What was that?"
"Oh, it’s nothing." No, it’s something really, really special. So your special thing could be your culture, it could be your background, it could be your upbringing, your family, it could be an academic interest, it could be an extracurricular activity, it could be a personal hobby, it can be just a personal skill, so there’s soundbite really gives students every type of student the chance to really stand out.
Karina: Wow, well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. It was really so interesting hearing all you had to say and really comparing it to what we’ve heard from other people who write about college, and I think it is so important what you were saying about standing out and finding what makes you unique, so thank you so much.
0:12:15.6 Sara: Thank you, Karina. It was really a pleasure to meet with you and talk with you.
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