By Kim Douglas
Long before she became a college admissions consultant, Aviva Legatt walked a challenging and stressful path to higher education. Though her efforts earned her a place at the college of her choice, her single-minded “obsession” with “jumping through hoops to get in” also led to a case of pneumonia. She graduated with a music industry degree four years later. But internship experience prompted a pivot to higher education. She became a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, ultimately joining the admissions board at the Wharton School, where she continues to teach.
Eight years ago, Legatt founded Ivy Insight Consulting to help parents and students negotiate and maximize the application process. She’s even written a book on the topic: Get Real and Get In: How to Get Into the College of Your Dreams by Being Your Authentic Self (Griffin, 288 pages).
My goal is to help young people figure out who they are and what they want on their journey to college—not just to get into their first-choice college, but to get to where they want to go in life. Intuition is the foundation of that process. The process I developed is about gaining experience and expertise in a subject before applying to college. Those experiences help students figure out what they like. Diving more deeply into gaining experience becomes expertise. Ideally, that expertise becomes a passion the student uses to be of service to others. I call these “X factors.”
College-bound high school students often wind up making a lot of additions to their schedules—following arbitrary checklists and just doing things to fill up their resumes. It’s a risky way to go about getting into college, and they might lose themselves in the process. There are no guarantees—so you may as well do this process in a way that makes sense for you.
It depends on the maturity of the student, but usually sophomore or junior year is a good time to start. Once they’re in the thick of applications, it’s very challenging to get them to come out of it.
“College-bound high school students often wind up making a lot of additions to their schedules—following arbitrary checklists and just doing things to fill up their resumes. It’s a risky way to go about getting into college, and they might lose themselves in the process.”
It’s best to choose something for right now. Applying to college is an opportunity for students to think about what they want—outside of what culture, the media or even your family says you want. I knew what I wanted—and that worked to get my undergraduate degree.
If it’s a love for history or computer science, go with that. It’s also OK to be financially driven. Don’t let people talk you out of your experience. Students have to experiment, gain experience in a subject. If they like the subject, [they can] turn it into expertise. This helps them see who they really are and see how their values and goals align with a college’s priorities. We guide students in that and help set up connections for them in the experimental process. Part of that includes researching the colleges, but it’s not just about rankings or geographical location—though those are important factors. It’s more like getting to know someone. You talk to people in the departments that interest you.
The networking is a whole piece in itself—exploring the college, meeting people and having things to talk about. Get Real and Get In has a whole chapter to help students with this—templates for what to say, how to make a small ask. In my practice, I help them make the contacts and coach them. Do the conversations come easily? Does what they say resonate with you? It’s a nontraditional way to figure out how someone might be a fit for a college—and how the college might fit them. It takes vulnerability.