When Christine VanDeVelde’s daughter was making her way through the college admissions process, her mother combed bookstores and the Web for a comprehensive guide on what can be quite a harrowing and stressful
experience. She came up empty-handed every time. What to do when you’re not sure what to expect from that letter in the mail—or from the process of simply applying? Talk to experts, do your research, and write your own book.
Now, students and parents alike have the college admissions world at their fingertips with College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step, a hefty but thorough read that takes the guesswork out of the college admissions process, from wait lists and early admission to picking out the perfect interview outfit. VanDeVelde, a San Francisco author and journalist, enlisted the help of Berwyn’s Robin Mamlet, a former dean of admissions at Stanford University, Sarah Lawrence College and Swarthmore College who’s now an executive search consultant. Their first order of business: Clear up the rumors, especially the quality-vs.-quantity debate.
“Applying to 20 colleges does not increase your chances of getting accepted times 20,” says Mamlet. “You need to know enough about yourself and what kind of place will be right for you so that you can present yourself honestly in your application.”
This and other misconceptions are corrected in the book’s 432 pages, which contain expert advice from more than 50 deans of admissions throughout the country. Their advice couldn’t come at a more opportune time, as an increasing number of students are traveling farther from home to attend college, making the applicant pool all the more competitive. “This wasn’t what I went through 30 years ago,” says VanDeVelde. “When I was applying for schools, students went 50-100 miles away from home. Now, you have more kids applying to more schools, so students only applying to schools with high
selectivity rates are making a mistake.”
With stiffer competition comes increased pressure to craft the perfect résumé, another pitfall students can avoid altogether. “People think that whoever is busiest or is doing the most things has an edge,” Mamlet says. “It’s not about who is the most over-scheduled. It’s about contributing and learning a couple of things in meaningful ways, and connecting to something bigger than they are.”
Authenticity is key. Just because an application is one of many doesn’t mean the pros can’t spot a padded packet, and this is
especially true of college essays. An August 2011 article in the New York Times recounted the foreign—and expensive—trips taken by high school seniors to provide personal essay material, a measure both experts agree isn’t necessary and can lead to shallow personal statements.
“When we’re looking at essays, we’re looking for two things,” says Mamlet. “Does the student write well enough to master the level of curriculum expected at that school? And second, who is this person? What do they care about? What kind of person are they going to be? When a student looks at the essay as the one way to make them stand out, they’ve lost, and it can lead to being gimmicky. Honesty and authenticity will carry the application as a whole.”
If there is something that will stand out above all else, it’s letters, not numbers. The grades students get and the classes in which they were earned have a tendency to take higher precedence over SAT and ACT scores, though they still count, too. “You have the kids who take the SAT three or four times to get the perfect score, when what they should be doing is working hard in the classroom,” VanDeVelde says.
The good news is that, statistically speaking, more than three-quarters of students are accepted by their first choice college. “There are more than 2,600 public and private four-year colleges and universities in the country, and more than 80 percent of those colleges accept more than half of the students who apply.”
There’s a lot of work to do to achieve the end result, but it’s nothing worth a meltdown, especially for parents. Students should be at the steering wheel the whole time, with limited
input from backseat drivers. The best advice both experts can give is the easiest to swallow: Just be yourself.
“Students think they have to be the captain of the football team or doing so many extracurricular activities,” says VanDeVelde. “They think colleges want the perfect candidate. The perfect candidate is imperfect—but authentic.”