Admit One

Parents should not get involved with essays, and other expert advice on getting into college

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Dr. Joie Jager-Hyman wants you stop worrying about college admissions. Or at least stop worrying so much. In her new book, B+ Grades, A+ College Application, Jager-Hyman demystifies the admissions process and explains, clearly and calmly, what admissions directors look for and how to show them your best, authentic, self. Jager-Hyman should know. She’s a former assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College who now runs her own college-admissions consulting firm, College Prep 360, and she appears frequently in the media discussing college admissions and the attendant frenzy. (She’s also a product of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires.) Don’t be misled by the title: with its insights and step-by-step guidance, Jager-Hyman’s book definitely would work for A students (and their parents), too.

CJ: If someone wants an active Jewish life on campus, how should they go about finding it?

JJH: Hillel keeps a good list of Jewish communities at various colleges, and that’s a good place to start just to see how many Jews there are on campus. If a school has a full-time or a part-time rabbi with whom you can get in touch, that’s also really great, and the Hillel or other Jewish center should be a stop on your tour when you visit the campus.

CJ: What should you ask?

JJH: Ask how many people are at a typical Friday night service and if they have weekly Saturday morning services. Ask what the community’s like. Usually there’s also student leadership at Hillel, and you should try to get in touch with the president. Not every campus has a full-time rabbi.

CJ: Is it important to visit in person?

JJH: Basically you need to visit any college. If you look at the behavioral economics literature about how you make good decisions, there are two components: the logical component, and that’s going to include things like can you get in there, the location, the size, and all the things that are on the typical college checklist. And then there’s the emotional component – how do you feel there? People often say, “I just walked into campus and I knew,” and sometimes that kind of talk gets dismissed as less important than some of the more objective criteria, but it’s really not.

CJ: What’s the biggest mistake that kids make?

JJH: I think there’s a place for prestige in the process, and for thinking about a school’s status or brand. But I think overemphasizing prestige can be a mistake, at least when it’s to the detriment of being happy. Kids who overreach can end up unhappy. They apply to a lot of “reach” schools and then receive a lot of rejections, and that can be tough. I try to have kids create a well-rounded list and to think about the emotional importance of not receiving only bad news.

CJ: What do you actually do when you work with a high school student?

JJH: I first explain how the process works – how an application gets read and how to help admissions officers answer the question, “What makes this student different, and how is he or she going to contribute?” I try to look at what the student’s already doing, and say, “You enjoy doing this, here are five ideas of how to take it to the next level.” Eventually, of course, I advise them on things like standardized testing and the college list. I don’t ever write essays – I help them with topics and thinking about how to summarize what they’ve done and put their best selves into the application.

CJ: How would you advise parents about college essays?

JJH: Parents are almost always the worst judges of what the essay should be about. I tell parents that the essay needs to be at the highest standard, and they should absolutely make sure their kid is receiving some kind of support for that – whether it’s an English teacher, someone else at school, or if they can afford to have somebody come in and help. But developmentally, a teenager is trying to create their own identity, and it can be hard when a parent wants to come in and micromanage.

CJ: Do you have any tips for parents on how to help their kids while avoiding conflict?

JJH: Number one is don’t make the process all about you. It’s hard to do that – your kid is leaving. That’s something people don’t always realize is lurking, but it is. There are certain practical things you can do. If you want financial aid, you can make sure to get those forms in on time. And organization. There are a lot of little pieces that go into the process and different things to organize. Planning college visits is something that’s also helpful.

CJ: Your central message seems to be, “Don’t think that because you don’t have a straight A average that you can’t find a good school.”

JJH: Absolutely. I think the rhetoric around this is all about the frenzy and how hard it is, and it makes people feel like they don’t have options. And that is what makes people feel panicked. I want everybody to know that they have great options. The truth is that with more good students, which is what makes the applicant pool more selective, you also have a side effect of having more good schools. It really is the rising tide lifting all the boats.