College admissions consultants know the best practices to give students an edge in the college admissions race. They understand the immense pressure that parents and children are under to demonstrate perfection. Read on for helpful insights from an experienced and successful college admissions counselor.
I am a College Admissions Consultant. This means that I’m an educator, a counselor, and a miracle maker. I know the preferences that each type of university expects in applicants, and I know what kind of profile a student needs to have a serious chance of getting accepted. While transforming students into leaders, innovators, and change-makers is one of the greatest joys of this profession, it also comes with its guilts.
Consultants know the best practices to give students an edge in the college admissions race. Consultants see through the smoke and mirrors that universities display in order to get people to apply and to boost their own public relations gains. Consultants also understand the immense pressure that parents and children are under to demonstrate perfection.
Certainly a skilled admissions counselor can be worth his or her cost, assuming you understand the time you could spend going down deadend paths, and assuming you would prefer lessening your anxiety. But after years in the business, I wanted to share some things I beleive everyone needs to understand.
One of the biggest myths that society feeds to high school students is the notion that the name of their college will dictate future success. While it is true that graduating from a notable college can open a lot of doors, the vast majority of my colleagues have graduated from universities outside of U.S. News & World Report’s Top 100.
Having graduated from the University of California, Berkeley for undergraduate and doctoral degrees, I understand the awesome privilege that the name “Berkeley” carries with it. However, each person’s journey, career goals, and life goals are different. Every student enters college with unique life and career goals. Many high school students worry that failure to get into a top 50 university will prevent them from going to medical school or graduate school.
A colleague and former classmate of mine was admitted into a noteworthy midwestern medical school. I asked him what universities his medical school classmates had graduated from. He responded that at least half had graduated from colleges he’d never even heard of! Yet, here they were - his med school classmates.
Let’s first define success. People commonly define success in terms of financial comfort. But professional success can be defined in a number of ways that are harder to quantify. For instance, success may be defined by such variables as meaningful work, influence, prestige, and stability. Not all jobs or careers offer all five forms of success, nor do they have to. Take these three separate cases, for instance:
Jane, John, and Jack are only three of many possible scenarios based on real people who have different life goals and distinct paths to achieving these goals.
Our society idolizes self-starters like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, but the shiny magazines often gloss over the privilege and financial support structures that allowed each of these titans to take a risk like dropping out of Harvard to pursue their vision. Gates and Zuckerberg had successful parents who could comfortably support them if all else failed. A safety net of privilege dramatically changes a person’s view of education. It also significantly improves a person’s potential to succeed. Those with the resources also have access to tutoring, college preparatory programs, and college admissions consultants like me.
Do college admissions consultants help privileged students get into college? Yes. Does this make it a little harder for everyone else to get in? Yes. Do we contribute to the already excessive pressure on students to make it into a top 30 university? Absolutely.
This is why I make sure to do what I can to give my students perspective about what ultimately dictates success in their academic and professional lives. Here’s a hint: it doesn’t have to do with the fame of their future university, but has a lot to do with how they develop themselves once they get to wherever they decide to go
As an underprivileged immigrant who grew up living in a house in which family members were packed like sardines, I am acutely aware of how unfair it is for the “have nots” to compete with the “haves” in the journey to college and beyond. 95% of my paying clients are from upper-middle-class America, upper-class Asia, or from among the richest of the rich in the world.
Beyond the occasional spoiled brat, it has been a joy to guide these students toward their future greatness. My motto is to “Make More Good Guys,” because it excites me to think what these students, who have so many resources and opportunities at their disposal, can one day do for the good of society as adults. The fact is, there are very talented bad guys in the world. But what about underprivileged students? I know for a fact, because I volunteer to guide and teach them, that they can be just as talented. If given the resources, they would be no different than the superstars whose parents can afford to pay me.
I have a very good idea of what different types of colleges or universities want in their applicants. It’s a complicated and often highly subjective standard, but data from my clients, and those of my colleagues in the college prep industry, show recurring patterns that are highly suggestive of admission preferences. Being a consultant in the college prep industry, I know how expensive it is to provide the level of tutoring, test prep, and coaching - athletic, musical, artistic, or academic - needed for a student to meet these preferences. So, I know how unfair it is for students whose parents can’t afford these services. This is why I do pro bono consulting for underprivileged communities. I would encourage other consultants to give to their local communities by doing the same.
In his 2014 article in The New Republic, Yale professor William Deresiewicz wrote about undergraduate students who were full of talent yet empty on self-confidence. The students he encountered at Yale and other top universities were great at getting A’s in every subject yet were utterly insecure about themselves, while also lacking direction in life. Having seen what it takes to get into the Ivy League schools, and having helped many students do so, I can see why students become the intellectual zombies that Deresiewicz describes.
These super students lack confidence because they have received so much help from tutors and coaches in attaining the kind of profile that a place like Yale expects. They have received so much help that - though they were the ones who put in the work to study, get A’s, and score high on standardized tests - there is a gnawing feeling that they actually aren’t anything special without the financial support that cradled them into college. Ironic, no? On the contrary, students who have struggled to succeed with the meager resources available to them have this missing confidence, but in spite of that, they also have the grit to compete against top talent. The difference is mettle. They have been through the fire that privilege protected the others from. One expects the journey to be difficult and rife with setbacks, while the other doesn’t think success is possible without someone holding their hand throughout the process.
Almost every year, you read headlines about a student who is suing a top university for discrimination because he or she feels they should have been accepted. The list includes the University of Texas-Austin, Harvard, and Princeton, and many others. Almost always, the complaint has to do with discrimination based on racial quotas during the admissions process. Universities defend themselves against their decisions by citing that they do a “holistic” review of the “whole person” when deciding who gets the “Congratulations!” and who gets the “This year, there were many qualified applicants ...”
While university spokespeople often claim that they do not have racial quotas during the admissions process, their own websites boast percentages about racial diversity. If the percentage of each racial group stays pretty much the same year-in and year-out, then someone or some algorithm is imposing a non-random structure on what races get admitted at what rate. Imagine if you rolled a six-sided dice once a year for 20 years. Of the six possible outcomes of this dice, if you only get three’s and five’s every year for 20 years you should suspect that there is something wrong with your dice. So either the marketing department at these universities isn’t talking to the admissions department or someone is lying.
So what if competitive universities do have racial quotas? This is both good and bad. On the one hand, discriminating against someone because of their race is wrong, especially if the college admissions structure is meant to reflect a meritocracy. On the other hand, universities must balance how their students experience the world through college. If all your classmates look just like you, prefer the same foods as you do, and share the exact same cultural customs as you do, then you will graduate from college with a very skewed view of the world. This article will not discuss potential solutions to racial quotas in college admissions, but seeks to present the dilemma that competitive universities face. However, the next section in this article presents a solution to the student who is applying to college through an admissions system that is deeply flawed.
The secret to giving my students freedom from the fear of not getting into a top school is to help them understand that many people who graduate from no-name or non-famous schools also do great in life. The secret to success after college is not in how famous your university is, but what you did to develop yourself and your skill sets once you get into any school. However, try your best to get into the most competitive school you can because it does come with extra benefits that can give you a head start.
Here’s another secret: don’t just rely on your GPA to get your first job after college or to get into grad school. As the saying goes, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” This is absolutely true. But how do you build a network of who-you-knows? Hint: it doesn’t come from having a high GPA. You have to develop relationships with people in positions of authority, those who can write letters of recommendation, or make phone calls on your behalf.
You have to earn the right to be praised as a person who is reliable, innovative, or passionate. The only way to do this is to work with people, or work for people in the form of internships, part-time jobs, and volunteering. Build a strong network of credible people who can vouch for your potential and maybe even compensate for any disadvantage you think the relative obscurity of your university may have caused you. If you become the kind of person who makes your school look good, no matter what school that is, then you will be successful. Expecting your school’s reputation to do everything for you is a symptom of entitlement and a sure formula for disappointment.
“I struggled through high school and college,” my friend, Joe, said. “I’m not a fan of education. I don’t think it’s important for my kids. In the past two years, I’ve bought three more Ferraris and started two more companies.”
Joe is a successful entrepreneur. In hindsight, he realized that his below-average academic record didn’t matter once he reached adulthood and started to make money for himself and his family. He is partially right about this. The irony is that the wealthiest of my clients were billionaires whose parents didn’t even go to college! For some entrepreneurs, the secret to their financial success had nothing to do with a college degree. However, why did they send their kids to someone like me for the sake of getting those kids into college?
The answer to this question is how I motivate children from filthy rich families to become “straight A” students.
“Well, Joe,” I responded to my friend, “For some people, education isn’t about making money. Education is about self-respect.” After a pause, Joe replied: “You’re right. Money can buy a lot of things - even more respect than education can. But money cannot buy self-respect.”
For those who do not come from wealthy families or even financially stable families, education is about both self-respect and making a living. In case there is any misunderstanding, the two are not mutually exclusive. Being uneducated prevents you from accessing basic civilian rights, such as trusting the police or understanding how the law protects you from being extorted by tricksters. Being uneducated holds you back from doing a little bit of research on your own to clarify what is fair or unfair in your personal life and work life. In a world where we are bombarded by ideas of why we should behave this way, vote for this person, or buy this product, you will inevitably be bullied. Without an education, you may lack the confidence to protect yourself or your loved ones from people - or the ideas that drive people.
One of the biggest myths that society buys into is that if you want to be a guru of knowledge - in other words, a professor - at a top university, you need to attend college at one of those top universities. This is utterly false. Professors come from undergraduate programs of every shape, size, and reputation. Note, however, that I said college, not graduate school for a Ph.D.
Perusing the faculty website for the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering (ECE) at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), I tallied the undergraduate and doctoral degrees obtained by people on the faculty page. UPenn is ranked at #6 by U.S. News & World Report in the gold standard category of national universities. I have my students do this same exercise, which opens their eyes to the confusing messaging that they have been receiving about college. Of the 46 faculty members at UPenn’s Department of ECE for whom I could find information on their undergraduate degrees, 33 of them - 72% - did not attend college at a university ranked in the Top 30 of the U.S. News & World Report ranking for national universities in 2020.
What does this say?
It says that if a high school student’s dream is to be a professor at a top 30 university in the USA, they need NOT attend a top 30 university for college. Evidence suggests that those who do are actually less likely to become faculty members at the University of Pennsylvania. Ironic, no?
Of course, this is just one example. Naturally, professorships are a very narrow career path that is appealing to a small percentage of people. The point is that while professorships at the top 30 universities are heavily influenced by the university at which you earned your Ph.D., they are far less impacted by where you earned your bachelor’s degree.
Attending Harvard or MIT for your undergraduate studies may not ultimately increase your chances of becoming a professor at Harvard or MIT. However, going to a good school and doing excellent work may do just that!
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