Applying to college has never been easy, but over the past 20 years, it has become more competitive than ever. That means if you’re helping your kids apply to college, you’re playing a whole different ball game than when you were up at bat. That’s why we were thrilled to read Get Real and Get In: How to Get Into the College of Your Dreams by Being Your Authentic Self by Dr. Aviva Legatt, who has been an admission officer in the Ivy League (including at the Wharton School), as well as a professor and counselor. Her premise? That young people need to show their true selves to stand out. We asked Dr. Legatt about what she means by “authentic self”, the best way to share that with the college admissions decision-makers, and more.
How would you describe your book?
My book is an antidote for college-bound students and their parents to navigate the big questions around college and to cut through the noise of college admissions box-checking and hoop-jumping. As much as it seems that highly selective colleges hold all the power in the admissions cycle, applicants must remember their power. What kind of college experience and life do they want? How can they define and stay true to that vision, despite well-meaning adults who are quick to offer ideas about what they should want?
What do you mean by “your authentic self”?
Your authentic self is the person who you are when you following your heartfelt intentions and interests; in contrast with those dictated to you by or informed exclusively by your community, the media, and/or your family. When you are your authentic self, you are doing things that are helping you to learn and to grow on your journey. You are thinking creatively, using your intuition, demonstrating resiliency, and trying new things.
When it comes to applying to college, you have to be aware that, due to the limitations of the application itself, you cannot capture the complexity of your whole self. Being your authentic self when applying to college means that you know yourself and you know colleges. In my book, I have a framework for learning more about colleges and college culture before you apply. This allows you, the applicant, to show up authentically in your college application–you will understand what they want to learn about you so you can focus on conveying those parts of yourself in your application.
How should an applicant go about showing their authentic self?
First, choose the best-fit major. Some students are very compelled to go into something super pragmatic (e.g. business or engineering), but they don’t have any evidence of having demonstrated their interest and capability to succeed in that major. If you are a student and want to enter those fields, you might be surprised to know that there are many entry points into those fields besides those direct majors. When you apply, choose a major that is a natural extension of your experiences rather than something aspirational that you have no preparation for.
Second, research colleges through networking. Moms, you know this intuitively. If you want to get a job, you’re better positioned for the opportunity if you already know someone at the company versus if you know no one. The same principle for college admissions applies. Have your child reach out earnestly reach out to people at the college whom the student would likely connect with if actually attending (e.g. religious organization, extracurricular activity, a faculty member from a specific department). Your child can make a small ask e.g. 10 minutes of their time to answer a couple of questions that they can send over email. This outreach serves several purposes: 1) Great practice for “real world” networking skills; 2) Gives student information to use on their college supplement essays; 3) May result in a long term relationship or connection (which could include a letter of recommendation for the student). There are no guarantees when it comes to networking, but even the practice itself can build confidence and help the student to refine their goals.
Finally, as far as extracurriculars, ahead of the application process, students want to build what I call your college admissions X-factor. That stands for experience, expertise and exponential impact. Experience is the initial exposure to something, a curiosity that you pursue to see whether or not you like it. The second level is expertise; that’s when you take steps to deepen that curiosity, for example by joining a club, writing a research paper, or founding a blog. The third and highest level is exponential impact; which is when you take that knowledge and experience you have developed and you find a way to generate a positive return for as large a community of people as possible. For example, you grow your school club or organization to collaborate with other schools; you write a book; you intern with a professor; you found an organization. Exponential impact demonstrates a deep commitment to something–this is what makes you the most compelling candidate possible to colleges. Even if you don’t achieve exponential impact by the end of high school, students should aim for that level of impact to figure out who they are and what they want.
How has applying to college changed since we (moms) applied to college 20+ years ago?
There’s way more noise than there used to be thanks to the advent of technology. As I wrote about in Forbes, many colleges are using big data to predict who will actually attend if accepted. With social media, students have pressure to be online and connected to their college process so much of the time. Students can apply to many different colleges more easily because of the online application.
In a contrast to 20 years ago, you may need to diversify and increase the numbers of colleges you’re applying to–I recommend that students apply to 15 colleges if looking nationally (with 1/3 “reach,” 1/3 “target” and 1/3 “safety”). Remember that college applications are NOT a lottery ticket–so it’s not “the more you play the better your odds of winning.” Each college will require its own strategy—if you apply to too many colleges your applications are going to diminish in quality. Students need as personalized a strategy as possible for each college.
How has the pandemic affected the application process?
The pandemic underscores how important it is for students to have well-written essays and stellar letters of recommendation; in the absence of test scores, admissions officers must rely on qualitative information. That’s why it’s really important for students to research colleges well, build relationships with college representatives, and select best-fit majors and colleges ahead of applying. It’s also important for students to talk with their recommenders about their college plans so that the recommenders can support the student’s strategy (rather than confuse the admissions office, which happens all the time!).
Also, recognize that we’re living in a very polarized time and be careful if bringing up political and social issues on the application. You don’t want to turn off the reader. If you are passionate about social and political issues, you must speak about them from the vantage point of first-person experience.
In your opinion, how important is SAT/ACT prep?
Testing is biased and admission is not meritocratic. Evaluation and selection of students for admission is highly subjective and largely driven by institutional priorities (a whole discussion in my book). While the biggest change in the last couple of years is “test-optional” admissions, as I wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer, I still recommend that most students take one of their standardized tests (as long as that doesn’t present undue hardship). The policy “test-optional” is misleading because the (limited) data available shows that test-optional institutions are preferencing students who have test scores with admissions awards as well as scholarships. “Test-blind” is more straightforward: the institutions don’t consider the scores in their selection process. That said, depending on the student’s score threshold, their individual learning styles, and personal circumstances, it may not make sense to focus on the tests much at all.
Kids today are generally pretty programmed and feel like they need to specialize at such a young age. What do you say to parents/kids who are dealing with this?
The college journey is an individualized adventure, not a pre-programmed path. What I’ve learned from being a parent of two young children is that kids mature on their own timeline, at their own pace. You can’t continue to push a kid to be ready for something that they’re not. It will backfire on you and on them; whether it’s mental health issues they end up developing later; or a strained relationship with you, the parent.
To avoid this, you need to watch and listen to your kids and evaluate your dynamic with them. Some kids will be receptive to your advice, others will not. If you find yourself pushing your kid(s) to do something and they are resisting, take a step back and evaluate why that might be happening. Then, change your behavior or seek outside support to navigate these challenges.
Demonstrate your love to your children; don’t let the pressures in your community dictate how you choose to parent. Finally, encourage your kids to lean into their strengths; respect them as individuals with their own opinions and feelings; and give them resources to shore up their weaknesses where needed. These were common themes I saw in parents of thought leaders and luminaries interviewed in my book as well.