About 10 years ago an unhappy art school student and a booted-out Naval Academy cadet both applied to Brown University as transfer students. On this second grab for college happiness, they got lucky. Though the pair liked Brown and became pals, they often pondered how they got in, never truly discounting the theory of “divine intervention.”
After years of pondering, Paulo de Oliveira, 30, and Steve Cohen, 32, have co-authored Getting In! (Workman, $5.95), a guide to gaining acceptance at the college of your choice. Moreover, they’ve augmented their original musings on the shrouded world of admissions with concrete experience—de Oliveira served for four years as an admissions officer for Brown University. Now a Los Angeles movie executive, he and the New York-based Cohen, a marketing director, created five fictitious students and submitted them to seven colleges. One, a Long Island teenager obsessed with aviation, bears a striking resemblance to the youthful Cohen. On a recent fall afternoon, as leaves on campuses all over America turned colors, the authors shared some strategic pointers with Assistant Editor Deirdre Donahue.
What is the No. 1 myth about getting into college?
That colleges are looking only for the superstar: the valedictorian/ student council president/ head cheerleader who supports herself and her mother as a professional taxidermist. Another myth is the “well-rounded” student. Colleges actually want a well-rounded class with brains, jocks, politicos, musicians, alumni brats, generic nice people and, of course, kids with dorm-building trust funds.
The baby boom is over. With fewer high school seniors, it’s got to be easier to get into college, right?
Wrong. For the top 30 schools, public and private, the competition is fiercer than ever. Last year Brown University received more than 13,000 applications—the most in its history. Only one in five could be admitted. Parents and students have gotten prestige-conscious. If they’re shelling out $13,000, they want the big names like Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Harvard, Brown. But if they can’t get one of the top 30, they’ll send junior to a state school, and they’re also getting harder to crack.
What does your book tell students that a good high school guidance counselor wouldn’t know?
Our book is the first to take the case-study approach. We “created” five imaginary students and had them apply to Brown, Carleton, Columbia, Michigan, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Pomona. We chose those schools because they represented the range of American colleges: private, public, urban, rural, large, small. Although the admissions committees at these places knew the applicants were fictitious, we sent in complete folders, including SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores, teacher recommendations, alumni and guidance counselor reports, coaches’ reports when applicable and class rank, as well as student essays. The committees then evaluated the students as though they were real and told us whether they would accept, wait-list or deny the five students—and why.
How can this help a real student?
The way each school evaluated the students is very enlightening. The large state universities (Michigan and North Carolina) cared more about SATs, class rank and grades. The small private schools (Pomona, Brown and Carleton) stressed recommendations, essays and interviews. Brown accepted a boy from Iowa with 430 verbal SAT scores, 470 math and mediocre grades, turning down another boy, who was fifth in his class of 500, with 720 verbal, 740 math.
Isn’t that unfair?
Not really. Brown University and any other elite college could fill its freshman class with valedictorians with double 800 SATs. The fictitious kid with low SATs got in because of detailed personal recommendations, an interesting essay, a lower-class background and athletic prowess. Most important, he was an Iowa farm boy. The kid with super SATs had lukewarm recommendations, negative school evaluations and no outside activities. His home-town didn’t help either. Shaker Heights, Ohio may be in the Midwest, but with its affluent education-oriented high school, it doesn’t produce “geos”—students who create genuine geographically diverse classes.
What makes a real geo ?
It depends. While Harvard admits many New Yorkers, it also hunts down the Alabama kid who will provide geographical diversity. Seek out schools which receive few applications from your region: a New Orleans native going for, say, Bennington College in Vermont, or a Miamian gunning for Reed College in Portland, Oreg.
A student has good grades and decent SATs. How can that person ever stand out in a sea of 13,000 applicants?
Our favorite Brown applicant listed as a hobby “building sand castles.” Behind closed doors the whole committee snickered until we saw photographs of this kid’s award-winning beach masterpieces. Combined with a good but not fabulous academic record, he was a shoo-in. Another favorite sent a photo of himself and his prize pig in front of the sty. Who could forget a 4-H’er like that? At an admissions meeting the officer gets up and says, “This is so and so. the kid who….” Give him something original but attractive to say about you and your extracurricular—not here’s the chess club nerd who’ll kill kittens to get in, or here’s the dullard who told me during the interview how eagerly he wanted to pursue a business major at Brown. Too bad we don’t offer business courses. Position yourself to stand out. The same is true for your essay. Using your credentials, decide how you want to be remembered: ace trombonist, glee club member extraordinaire, human hockey puck, budding medieval English scholar, future physicist. Then stress those points. These officers read 40 to 50 folders a day, 2,000 to 3,000 a year. Be passionate, be humorous, be anything but boring. The interview works the same way. If you saw 500 kids a year, would you recall the umpteenth kid who stared at her feet and mumbled “bio?” Read the college brochure ahead of time, think of a few intelligent questions such as: “Did you think the Selective Guide’s critique of your school was accurate?” Don’t ask, “Is this place coed?” Finally, try to get beyond being a bunch of statistics. Explain how you came to be the person you are.
Should anyone skip the on-campus interview?
One admissions officer asked students, “If you could be a vegetable, what kind and why?” If you feel such questions will destroy you, don’t go. But if you live within 200 miles and don’t visit, the committee might assume “Old Swami” isn’t your first choice.
What about financial aid?
Never rule out a higher-priced college because you think you can’t afford it. If you are eligible for aid, which is usually based on need, the “expected family contribution” (the amount your family can afford) will remain the same whether your college costs $3,000 or $13,000.
Will applying for financial aid hurt a kid’s chances for admission?
Unfortunately, maybe. “Need-blind” admissions policy (admitting students first, then seeing how much money they need) has weakened on some campuses. The general rule is: the bigger the endowment, the less likely the college is to worry about financial aid.
When you seek out testimonials, who’s best?
Don’t pad your folder with vague recommendations from state senators, clergymen or the rich alumni Dad plays golf with. Ask teachers or a boss who really know you.
Any pointers for the approximately one million students who will be applying to college next year?
You’re crazy if you don’t study with a book or attend a prep course for the SATs. But take the SATs twice, not three times: Admissions officers dislike compulsive test takers. Remember, a B in an Advanced Placement class is better than all A’s in home economics—go for the hardest courses. Apply to enough colleges: five minimum, 10 maximum. Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s only your future. For extracurriculars, don’t join eight clubs your senior year. Focus on two activities in ninth grade and stick with them. Most of all, don’t fixate on a certain college. You can waste your time at Harvard and get a top-notch education at a community college. In the end, it’s more important what you do after you get in. Just get in somewhere.