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Don't fixate on getting into the 'perfect' college

Posted by Leslie Anderson  August 16, 2013 03:00 PM

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Andrew Flagel is senior vice president for students and enrollment at Brandeis University in Waltham and has worked in college admissions for more than 20 years. On the eve of another busy season, he gave his perspective of the application process.

Q: What kinds of concerns are you hearing from applicants and parents these days that are different than five years ago?

A: The stress levels just continue to rise unnecessarily. Along with the advent of electronic applications and the common application is the idea that colleges have gotten a lot harder to get into. The reality is that, especially in the Northeast, the number of high school students is not going up. The reality is that there is ample space.

We become fixated on a particular school that we have to get into, and as much as I enjoy being part of that fixation, it is really unhealthy. The notion that there is just one perfect fit is untrue. There are hundreds of great colleges and universities out there.

Today, kids apply to far more places so it is harder for schools to predict who will enroll if accepted, and harder for students to know where they will get accepted. With this cycle and frenzy comes a lot of unreal expectations about what is important to the process. What is important is finding a range of schools where a student can be successful.

Students should be aware that schools seem to get hot in different high schools every year, and as that happens, they can anticipate that it will be more competitive for admission. Simply put, if most of your class is applying to any school, it is going to make the process at that school unusually competitive. Conversely, finding great schools where peers from your high school don’t typically apply may give you a small advantage, if the school is looking to diversify its entering class. That being said, I would not tell a student not to apply to a school that is hot or popular.

Q: What advice do you have for juniors and seniors about which test to take: SAT or ACT? What does Brandeis require?

A: Small differences in test scores — 10, 20, 30 points — are meaningless, and decision processes that are driven by those small differences are flawed. But tests do have a role. If you have a student whose grades are on the line, they can be helpful in making a determination. And if a student has exceptional grades and particularly low test scores it could highlight some challenges. But the norm is that students with exceptional grades usually do reasonably well on these tests.

Brandeis has stepped out as a leader in giving students a test-flexible admissions option. Students have an option to take a number of different tests: the International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement subject tests, or a graded paper from school along with an additional recommendation. This process is not easier, it really means we are looking more closely at a student’s academic record.

Q: What is the biggest mistake you see students and parents make during the application process?

A: Fixating on one institution, especially if it is an elite institution. No matter a student’s high school grades, extracurricular activities, talents, it is an unreasonable expectation to count on admission to an elite school, and it puts an unnecessary burden on the whole family.

Then there are the silly things. For instance, it’s probably not the best idea to come to an interview at Brandeis wearing a Stanford sweat shirt. And double-check your application before you hit send. Be careful when you copy and paste an essay into an application. We’ve gotten essays that begin, “I want to attend Cornell because . . . ”

And there is nothing wrong with dressing up for your interview, it shows some commitment.

Q: How can families find out ahead of time about financial aid and merit scholarships that different different different schools offer?

A: There is virtually no way to be sure until a student is accepted. There is a common understanding among most schools that we should let the students apply and then offer appropriate packages. Colleges can do some early reads, but with the numbers of applicants, it is just impossible to do that en masse.

Q: Kids these days are more worried about jobs after graduation than they used to be. What questions should they ask to find out about internship programs/career counseling/job placement? How are liberal arts schools like Brandeis responding to the changed landscape?

A: The idea that a liberal arts education is somehow soft is misleading. There is a disconnect between this current worry that somehow being an English major is a disadvantage. In reality, what employers are looking for is great employees. Employees with communication skills, who are critical thinkers, problem solvers, able to work with others, and good leaders. And that’s exactly at the heart of a liberal arts education.

At most liberal arts institutions there is a deep-rooted belief that we are engaging students in the same processes they need to be successful, and our [job] placement rates have borne that out, they have remained even.

Q: What is the most memorable essay you ever received, and was that person accepted? Should you try to make your essay stand out or be funny?

A: We all know that standing out in high school can be a double-edged sword, it is at least as likely to be a negative as a positive. This may be even more true in applications. Standing out by being cute or funny is unlikely to be a deciding positive admission factor, and runs the risk of doing more harm than good.

My most memorable essay started out mildly, about a student being tardy for school and progressed, with vivid detail to describe her descent into delinquency, vandalism, it was just riveting, incredibly well written, and made-up. The last line was, “Just kidding.”

I was a dual reader, and I thought it was terrific. I marked the application for admittance.

The other reader marked it a straight deny.

I asked her why, and she said, “Are you kidding me? Did you read that essay?”

I asked her if she had gotten to the end. She said no.

She went back and reread the essay and was even more adamant. She had no appreciation of the writing, no sense of humor. The student was denied.

This is not the time to try a gimmick. And believe me, even if you think what you are doing is completely original, it is not. We have seen it before.

For more tips from Andrew Flagel, go here.

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.

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College Bound offers news and advice on preparing, applying, and ultimately heading off to college. Send your ideas and questions to Leslie.Anderson@globe.com. More »
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