As parents, we all want our children to succeed. While our intentions are always good, during the college admissions process, our advice could potentially prevent our children from gaining acceptance into their dream college. Luckily, Alison Cooper Chisolm and Anna Ivey teamed up to write How to Prepare a Standout College Application: Expert Advice That Takes You from LMO* (*Like Many Others) to Admit.
All across America, the parents of rising high school seniors are gearing up to help their children tackle this fall’s college applications. Yes, there’s a lot of excitement about taking this major step, but it’s mixed with a liberal dose of dread: Acceptance to top schools gets more brutally competitive every year. The number and variety of standardized tests seem to sprout like mushrooms. Were your kids really supposed to be building huts in Guatemala over the summer instead of lifeguarding? And why are there so many application essays to write now?
It’s enough to make any sane person throw her hands up in the air. If you’re like most parents, you probably can’t help but feel a little wistful about how much easier life was back when you yourself were applying to college. Despite the many ways in which college admissions has changed, though, there’s still a lot you can do to help your child navigate this important process—but only if you know which information is and isn’t up to date.
“Parents can and do play an important role in helping their children stay focused and motivated in the run-up to application season, especially during crunch time,” says Alison Cooper Chisolm, coauthor with Anna Ivey “But in fact, they sometimes steer their kids in the wrong direction because they rely on outdated wisdom about what it takes to get in.”
“No question, in some ways the college application process was easier back when today’s parents were in high school,” adds Ivey. “It’s important to realize what has changed; otherwise it’s too easy to default into what worked best for you back then. What got you in then might not get them in now.”
Modern technology can be a blessing and a curse in that regard, says Chisolm.
“Discussions boards and social media feed a lot of misinformation,” she reports. “As with any social media today, it can be hard to separate truth from fiction. There’s lots of good, reliable information out there about the admissions process, but it can be hard to tease it out from the conventional wisdom that might be completely wrong.”
The authors, both admissions coaches and former admissions officers, talk to hundreds of parents every year about their most pressing admissions questions, and they find themselves debunking the same myths over and over again. Realizing that parents needed reliable, real-time admissions advice as much as the applicants themselves, they wrote their new book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application, with both students and parents in mind. Their ruthlessly practical guide to every component of the application includes special tips for parents and debunks the holdover, outdated admissions advice that is still in circulation.
If you’re ready to step out of the time machine, read on to learn what Chisolm and Ivey consider the top six myths about college admissions:
#1. The Myth: More is better. In the past, college applicants were instructed to show how “well-rounded” they were by filling in every single line on the Activities list. Nothing—not even playing the dulcimer once at a cultural festival—was too insignificant to report. The more interests, achievements, and activities an applicant could share, the thinking went, the more impressive he would be (e.g., “Can you believe that this student found time to lead four school clubs, play three different sports, march in the band, tutor children, write poetry, participate in Boy Scouts, and get good grades?”).
The New Reality: Deep passion and big impact matter a lot more. “There is no reward at all just for signing up, showing up, or meeting the minimum requirements,” confirms Ivey. “Admissions officers would rather see real commitment to a smaller number of activities, because they can realistically assume that applicants will bring those interests, skills, and talents with them to campus. Not so with the one-time-only dulcimer performance!”
#2. The Myth: It’s best to leave a (long) paper trail. Sending colleges newspaper clippings, your history paper (“Truly outstanding!” read the teacher’s comment), science project descriptions, and as much unsolicited documentation as possible used to be a big trend. Parents and students who believe this myth operate on the assumption that anything to make their file thicker will help. They envision admissions officers raptly poring over each and every sheet of paper, slowly falling in love as they learn more and more about the applicant.
The New Reality: Concise is nice. “Less is more, clippings are out, and YouTube videos are sometimes in (but proceed with caution),” reports Chisolm. “A great application is neither a scrapbook nor a PR media kit. Don’t get me wrong—it’s not that admissions officers don’t want to get a clear, accurate picture of each student. They do! That’s partially why there are so many quirky long- and short-answer questions on applications. But the reality is, with thousands of applications to evaluate, there simply isn’t time to read ten newspaper articles about how you won the science fair. And chances are, your application will reflect the fact that you’re a chemistry fiend, anyway.”
#3. The Myth: Geography determines which standardized test you should take. In days gone by there was some truth to the belief that East Coast colleges prefer the SAT to the ACT, while Midwestern and Southern colleges prefer the ACT to the SAT.
The New Reality: Testing knows no borders (and sometimes isn’t required at all). “These days, top colleges accept either test, so focus on the one that plays to your strengths,” recommends Ivey. “If you’re a repeat test taker, familiarize yourself with each of your colleges’ mix-and-match opportunities like Score Choice and Super Scoring. Also, be aware that at some schools, reporting any test scores at all is optional—and that trend is growing.”
#4. The Myth: Early Decision helps only the cream of the crop. Early Decision was once thought of as a good strategy only for the super-duper top of the applicant pool. It won’t make a difference for anyone else, applicants believed, so why worry about completing an application months before the regular decision deadline?
The New Reality: Applying early can give many applications a boost. “Early Decision (especially when it’s binding for admitted students) can make the difference, and it’s worth considering as long as you’re at least competitive for that college,” Chisolm says. “Colleges want to ‘lock in’ qualified students who are interested in attending, because they know they’ll ‘lose’ many similar Regular Decision applicants to other schools. But if you’re not in the running to begin with, applying early won’t make a difference.”
#5. The Myth: High-profile endorsements help. In general, people believe that name-dropping can’t hurt. It’s a common belief that recommendations from college alumni, university VIPs, the president, or the pope will only help your application.
The New Reality: Recommendations from famous people add next to no value. “However, admissions officers might get a good chuckle from these ‘high-profile’ letters,” Ivey shares. “The fact is that top schools have thousands of living alumni out there, so coughing one up is no distinction. What can help is called a ‘flag on the file’—when someone with a truly important connection to the school makes a behind-the-scenes call on your behalf. That’s just a small plus, though, not a huge one. As admissions officers, Alison and I each denied lots of people with important recommenders and flags on the file and had carte blanche to do so. It really does happen.”
#6. The Myth: Community service needs to be “exotic.” Unfortunately many parents lie awake at night worrying that they’ll need to wipe out their retirement savings in order to send their kids on glitzy but charitable-looking trips to exotic places every summer. Otherwise, they believe, their child’s community service won’t stand out from that of thousands of other applicants.
The New Reality: Service is service, wherever it happens. “The first ten people who tried the ‘exotic locale’ strategy may have made an impression just for the sheer novelty, but it doesn’t distinguish anyone today and hasn’t impressed admissions officers in a long, long time,” promises Ivey. “There are plenty of opportunities to do something meaningful closer to home and without spending a king’s ransom. And admissions officers realize that volunteering every week at a nursing home for the past four years demonstrates much more commitment and compassion than a parent-funded weeklong mission trip to South America, for example.”
BONUS Myth (which hasn’t been true since the Eisenhower era): Applications should read as though they were written by adults. In the more distant past, a great college application essay emulated the style of sober-minded grown-ups or middle-aged managers. All evidence of adolescent quirkiness, it was believed, must be squelched.
The New Reality: Essays should sound like a teenager both in voice and in content. “Rewriting your child’s essay to talk about the ‘sweat equity’ that went into founding the Model UN Club won’t fool anyone, and the end result will be far less interesting to admissions officers than what your child would have written when left to her own devices,” Chisolm comments. “Admissions officers know that teenagers, not adults, are applying. They don’t expect perfection or even consummate maturity. What they do expect is to get an accurate picture of who the applicant is and what she likes, believes, hopes, and does from reading her application.”
“I miss the ’80s as much as the next Gen Xer, but it’s time to leave the retro admissions advice behind,” says Ivey. “In general, doing so will give your child more freedom to be authentic, and it will—hopefully—help you to worry a little bit less.”
Alison Cooper Chisolm and Anna Ivey are the coauthors of How to Prepare a Standout College Application: Expert Advice That Takes You from LMO* (*Like Many Others) to Admit. They work together at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Ivey College Consulting, an admissions coaching firm that helps applicants around the world get into top U.S. colleges.
Their blog can be read at www.AnnaIvey.com. They can be followed on Facebook at /IveyCollege and on Twitter at @IveyCollege.
Alison Cooper Chisolm draws on her admissions experience at three of the nation’s most selective universities: Southern Methodist University, the University of Chicago, and (most recently) Dartmouth College. She knows what makes a student go from “LMO” to “Admit,” because she has read their files, interviewed them, and made admissions decisions on their applications. She has seen and evaluated every kind of applicant from home schooler to international student to top-of-the-class prep schooler. Alison received her undergraduate degree at Yale and her law degree at the University of Virginia.
Anna Ivey is a former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago Law School, where she made final admissions decisions on thousands of applicants. Inspired to help applicants navigate the admissions process more effectively, she founded Ivey Consulting and assembled a first-rate team of experts to coach college, law school, and business school applicants one-on-one. She has been featured as an admissions and career expert in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune, Smart Money, CNN, and Fox News. Anna received her undergraduate degree from Columbia and her law degree from the University of Chicago. This is her second admissions book.
About the Book:
How to Prepare a Standout College Application: Expert Advice That Takes You from LMO* (*Like Many Others) to Admit (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, August 2013, ISBN: 978-1-1184144-0-8, $16.95,) is available at bookstores nationwide, major online booksellers, or directly from the publisher. For more information, please visit the publisher’s book page.