Advice on Getting Into College



Every time a parent comes to my office with a pen and paper and asks expectantly, “Exactly what does my daughter have to do to get into Harvard, Yale and Princeton?” my heart sinks. There is no sure-fire formula, no magic bullet, no easy way to give this parent what he or she wants.

My real challenge, though, isn’t letting the parent down gently but helping that person reframe the question. A parent should be asking me to help him or her find the right college to challenge and enrich the life of his or her daughter. (The Ellis School, where I work, is all-girls.)

When a student finds a true fit, she will be accepted and will thrive.

The next question is the important one: How does a student find the right fit? The search for the right academic program, the right geographical location, the right physical environment and the right social ambience must come first, and that is a subject for another article.

But once the student has some inkling of what he or she wants, then this student has to find the right academic level for him or her.

None of the above is important if the student is overwhelmed or under-stimulated, just as the right academic fit will not be sufficient if the student is unhappy in other ways. And given the abundance of information we have in print and online, it is possible to find an appropriate academic level.

The courses that the student decides to take in high school are important, because all colleges like students who “challenge” themselves. Students don’t have to take suicidal loads, but they should seize their school’s opportunities within reason. Grades and standardized-test scores do matter—a lot—no matter what any college-admissions office says. The average grades and standardized-test scores of the last admitted class of most colleges is a statistic available on college Web sites, in college guide books and in guidance-office software. (And parents and students need to beware of old data; it changes too fast! It is very important to know that and to use that figure wisely.)

The student should be comfortable within those boundaries, and, because girls are at a disadvantage in the application pools to liberal-arts colleges, they should be at the upper end. If there is some compensating factor, if the student is a recruited athlete or an underrepresented minority or a legacy, he or she may be able to look at the lower edge of the statistics. And no one should be fooled by kind admissions officers who say that SATs are unimportant in colleges’ decision-making. It’s a delusion, however understandable, to think that a college will see your child as you do and make her the exception to the rule.

If your daughter has the numbers that put her in a college’s “admissible pool,” then the intangibles kick in. Some pundits suggest finding a hook by starting squash lessons at age 6 or French-horn lessons at 7, but for most students, the intangible is their personalities and their abilities to express that. One college-admissions director at a highly selective school told me that the deciding factor among many highly qualified applicants is the energy of the student’s essays, and, in my experience, that is true. The student doesn’t have to have swum the English Channel, but he or she has to be energized by that experience and has to write about it in a way that conveys that energy. The student has to be him- or herself, even though that self is an unfinished 17-year old, and has to write the essay no one else could have written.

What admissions officers, high school counselors and parents are looking for is a student who is authentically engaged by her life and her world; that is not something that can be created starting at age 16 or 17. After all, we are not just dealing with applicants in this process; we are dealing with individuals, our sons and daughters, who have been developing for 17 years.

The advice I would offer to parents is to give your children the opportunities to thrive, to grow and to pursue their interests.  Encourage them rather than push them. Support them in their interests rather than finding more “marketable” ones. Engage with them as they engage the world and then step back when they are ready to grow more independent.

To the parent in my office looking for the quick Ivy fix, I’d compliment her on the amazing 16-year-old she has raised and then ask her to let her daughter take it from here. When students come to the college-search process, they will find a good fit if they know how to do their research well. We can help them start their research then give them some space. And the greatest gift we can give may be to joyfully affix the decals of whatever colleges they choose onto the back windows of our cars.
 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Lace up your sneakers or hiking boots and head outdoors for 10 great walks for spring.
412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

Local nonprofit organization 412 Food Rescue is taking food that otherwise would be tossed aside and connecting it with those in need through-of-the-moment technology.
Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Fashion is white haute this spring with the best looks from local stores.
Restaurant Review: Pork & Beans

Restaurant Review: Pork & Beans

The latest restaurant from the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group brings Texas-style smoked meats and more to Downtown.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Pittsburgh Pens' Spouse is ‘Hockey Wife’ On and Off Camera

Pittsburgh Pens' Spouse is ‘Hockey Wife’ On and Off Camera

After a Stanley Cup-winning season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, one player’s wife is working on her own claim to fame.
What to Do with Unused Churches in Pittsburgh

What to Do with Unused Churches in Pittsburgh

A Pittsburgh preservation group says there are approximately 30 unused churches in Allegheny County.
How Would You Make Pittsburgh's Liberty Avenue Better?

How Would You Make Pittsburgh's Liberty Avenue Better?

This week, your suggestions could have a significant impact on one of Downtown’s busiest streets.
A Beginner’s Guide to ‘Hamilton’: Everything You Need to Know

A Beginner’s Guide to ‘Hamilton’: Everything You Need to Know

The hit musical is coming to the ‘Burgh, so what’s the big deal?
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Lace up your sneakers or hiking boots and head outdoors for 10 great walks for spring.
412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

Local nonprofit organization 412 Food Rescue is taking food that otherwise would be tossed aside and connecting it with those in need through-of-the-moment technology.
Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Fashion is white haute this spring with the best looks from local stores.
Restaurant Review: Pork & Beans

Restaurant Review: Pork & Beans

The latest restaurant from the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group brings Texas-style smoked meats and more to Downtown.
Daytripping: Brave the Cave

Daytripping: Brave the Cave

Go subterranean at Laurel Caverns, the largest cave in Pennsylvania.
For Pirates' Jameson Taillon: Pressure is a Privilege

For Pirates' Jameson Taillon: Pressure is a Privilege

As Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon enters his first full season with the big leagues, the weight of anticipation has given way to a need to deliver.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Pittsburgh Pens' Spouse is ‘Hockey Wife’ On and Off Camera

Pittsburgh Pens' Spouse is ‘Hockey Wife’ On and Off Camera

After a Stanley Cup-winning season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, one player’s wife is working on her own claim to fame.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Booze, Beer and Bars: Pittsburgh's Fascinating History of Drink

Booze, Beer and Bars: Pittsburgh's Fascinating History of Drink

Bartender Sean Enright and journalist Cody McDevitt dive into Pittsburgh's boozy history with "Pittsburgh Drinks: A History of Cocktails, Nightlife & Bartending Tradition."

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

These spots are tailored for couples who are looking for a simple, chill night out on Valentine’s Day (or any other day). If your significant other isn’t the type to be wooed by expensive wines and chocolates, this is the list for you.

Comments


The (Very Good) Brewery You Should Be Patronizing in Homestead

The (Very Good) Brewery You Should Be Patronizing in Homestead

Voodoo Brewery is an enticing alternative to the many chains in and around the Waterfront.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Steelers’ Philosophy Back on Display After Hightower Flirtation

Steelers’ Philosophy Back on Display After Hightower Flirtation

Even as they entertained Dont’a Hightower for nearly seven hours during a free-agent recruiting trip to the South Side, the Steelers never lost sight of who they are or what they’re all about.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Turn Your Bath into a Spa with These Oils

Turn Your Bath into a Spa with These Oils

The miniature bath- and shower-oil collection from Aromatherapy Associates makes every shower a luxury experience.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The CMU Film Fest Opens with One of 2016's Best

The CMU Film Fest Opens with One of 2016's Best

Reviews of two films appearing at the 2017 Carnegie Mellon International Film Festival: "I, Daniel Blake," and "The Eagle Huntress." Plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
#Wedding: What’s Trending in the Wedding World

#Wedding: What’s Trending in the Wedding World

Married couples talk hashtags — and why they used them at their weddings.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Get the Scoop Behind One of Pittsburgh’s Most Unique Condos

Get the Scoop Behind One of Pittsburgh’s Most Unique Condos

The Carnegie Museum of Art’s new exhibit features the works of architect Arthur Lubetz and Front Studio, including the vibrant Glass Lofts Building in Garfield.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
New Club is a Hit at Thiel College

New Club is a Hit at Thiel College

The Outdoor Recreation Club becomes the newest student organization at the college.

Comments