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Crunch Coach

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Some 2.5 million students are applying for admission to U.S. colleges and universities this year, and with applications up by 26 percent over the last decade, competition has never been keener. No wonder high school students and their parents are so anxious—in some cases, frantic—about the college crush.

Since 1968 Howard Greene, as a paid consultant, has helped more than 25,000 students weigh their strengths, identify schools that fit their needs and market themselves to college admissions officers. A Dartmouth graduate and himself a former admissions officer at Princeton University, Greene, 63, is the author, with his son Matthew, 33, of several college guides, including Making It into a Top College. Greene—who lives in Wilton, Conn., and whose wife, Laurie, 53, is a consultant for his firm—has four children: Adam, 35, an investment banker; Matthew; Katharine, 20, a student at Vander-bilt University; and Andrew, 13. Greene spoke with reporter Liza Hamm about what students can do to improve their admission odds.

What are colleges looking for?

The quality of preparation is fundamental, especially at the more selective schools. Colleges look for strong academics in a good curriculum, leadership, teacher recommendations, passion for a key activity or two—and testing to back that up. But then they look for something that just grabs them.

What’s the best way to grab them?

Students need to project—honestly and effectively—this is who I am, this is my voice, this is what’s important for you to know about me. In their essays, they need to write well, write from the heart and make it personal. They should write about things that have made a difference to them, challenges they have overcome—such as a learning disability, a parent’s divorce or death—serious events that had a big impact.

What if your life has been peaceful and normal?

A lot of kids ask just that question. But even seemingly mundane experiences—learning to sail with a father, helping a grandmother with her garden—can make a wonderful essay. One of my favorites was written by a young lady, now at Yale, about her life—including a summer archaeology expedition to Greece—as seen through a pair of old sneakers her mother wanted her to throw out.

Any “don’ts”?

Avoid repetition. If somebody’s a strong swimmer, not everything in the application should be about swimming. Get rid of clueless statements like, “I had this incredible experience.” Get the slang out. Don’t use clichés. And don’t be afraid to take a risk in your writing.

Aren’t SAT and ACT scores more critical than ever?

Yes, because of the increase in college applications. And over the next decade we’ll see the largest college-going high school graduating classes ever. So colleges are looking for ways to distinguish among lots of talented students. Testing is one way.

What if you’re a weak tester?

Our theme is, Start early. If students find out that they’re not testing well compared to how they do in classes, they can start working on vocabulary building, reading, fundamentals. It sounds like a cliché, but if you want to prime your child for educational success, read, read, read. Read to your kids when they’re young. Read with your kids as they start to get older, and keep asking your kids what they’re reading when they’re older still.

What are some of the biggest myths?

The No. 1 myth is that if my kid goes to the most prestigious college, then he or she is set up for life. Conversely, if they don’t go to a prestigious college, they’re not going to succeed in life. No college can guarantee success as much as hard work.

Does applying for financial aid hurt a student’s chances at the best private colleges?

Absolutely not. The top colleges use their big endowments not only to hire great faculty and build facilities, but for financial aid. Over half of the student body at many elite liberal arts colleges receives some aid.

What should you avoid on the application?

Avoid overloading. Kids often feel that they have to put down everything they’ve done since first grade. There’s more impact in short and significant. Don’t thicken the folder with outside help. Good teacher recommendations matter most.

How can the parent-child relationship survive the stress of the admissions process?

Most of all, laugh a lot. To the parents—let the kids define what they want. Remember, it’s not life threatening. For the kids, see this not as the end of your lives but as a huge set of opportunities. And enjoy the rest of high school. High school isn’t only about college. It’s about the life you’re living today.