Tag Archives: college admissions

College Consultant: “Develop Who You Are. Don’t Cheat.”

The recent college admissions scandal — that gross, hydra-headed monster involving enormous bribes, test-taking ringers and fake photos of teenagers “playing” sports they never even tried — has mesmerized many Westport parents and students.

Plenty of educational consultants too.

Richard Avitabile

Richard Avitabile has seen both sides of the process. He’s directed college admissions offices. Since 2002 he’s been a counselor with Steinbrecher & Partners, the Westport-based group that helps students from around the globe make appropriate educational choices — not just for college, but secondary school, therapeutic programs and graduate options as well.

He’s a parent, too.

“This is so entwined with how our society thinks about education, college and success. It’s opened a Pandora’s box,” Avitabile says of the arrest of 50 adults — including the mastermind of the long-running scam — earlier this month.

“This story makes us all wonder what we’ve been doing with our professional careers.”

Yet he is wary of painting all educational consultants with the same brush.

“The goal of independent counselors is to help kids negotiate a complex process, and find a way to succeed,” he says.

“At our core, we’ve always felt that students’ hard work, and the interests they’ve developed, have been the reason for their success.”

After the news broke, he spoke with colleagues across the country. They believe the scandal involves “a very small number of applicants, and a very small number of colleges and universities.”

But because of the sensational nature of the offenses — along with the money and Big Names involved — the story has legs.

The internet was brutal after news broke that Lori Loughlin and her husband paid $500,000 for her 2 daughters to be admitted to the University of Southern California as crew athletes — though neither ever rowed.

“Most students get good grades and work on their test scores without having someone do it for them,” Avitabile notes. “We tell them, ‘develop your own life, and chances are good you’ll have great opportunities and options for college.'”

What Rick Singer, his clients and a few coaches and unscrupulous educators have done “devalues the worth of students,” says Avitabile. “These parents somehow felt they had to rig the system for their kids. I don’t think those families had to do that.

“I’ve spent a lot of time telling families there are opportunities, without playing this game. You can find the right college for your child. We’ve helped them do that for years.”

It’s not easy, he admits. Educational consultants help people with means (and plenty of pro bono clients) through the long process.

Steinbrecher & Partners — and many other educational consultants — often assist families who lack the financial or other resources that well-heeled clients have. “We truly enjoy working with students who are eager for an education, helping match them to a school that’s right for them,” Avitabile says.

Most educational consultants help students focus on their passions, and choose a school that is right for them.

He is not surprised that some people try to use the system for their own ends. He is, however, dismayed that Singer — someone he calls “not an educational professional” — developed “a band of people who helped others commit fraud. They were not helping students through the process. They were thieves.”

Parents often ask Avitabile and his colleagues, “how can I be sure my child is admitted to [insert name or type of school]?”

“We spent a lot of time explaining that there are no guarantees,” he says. “At some schools 75% of the applicants are qualified, but fewer than 10% get in.”

So his message to students (and parents) is: “Develop who you are, in and out of the classroom. Pursue experiences that interest you. Work on talents or activities that fit your personality and goals. Don’t do something because it’s what you think a college wants. Become the person you are proud of, then find the places that meet your characteristics.”

After 17 years as an educational consultant — and 3 decades before that in college admissions — Avitabile is convinced that many families can make excellent decisions about college.

“I love it when a student takes the lead, and parents support the goals their child has for education,” he says. “Our thrust from the beginning is to put students in charge.

“If we listen to them, we can avoid bad intentions. Students can achieve what they want without illegal actions.”

Frank Bruni: “A Generation Of High School Kids Throws Darts At The College Dartboard”

An overflow crowd filled the Westport Library yesterday, to hear Frank Bruni talk about college admissions.

Go figure.

The award-winning New York Times journalist — who has covered presidents and popes, served as chief restaurant critic, and now writes a wildly popular Sunday column — was here to talk about his new book.

Frank Bruni bookIt’s called Where You’ll Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote To The College Admissions Mania. On this topic, of course, Westport is one of the most manic places on the planet.

Bruni, who is 50, grew up in an area similar to Westport — a place that could give us a run for our (college-leads-to-Wall Street) money.

But even though there was an implied competition back then, based on college stickers on the backs of cars — and even though Bruni joked about going to a school (the University of North Carolina) supposedly less prestigious than those of his siblings — he said things today are far, far worse.

Which is why he wrote his book.

Bruni said that as he realized he knew so many contented and accomplished people — and that they’d gone to an enormous range of colleges — he understood that all the admissions talk has been focused on the wrong thing.

“We should focus much more on how students choose and use college, than on how to get in,” he said. “‘Success’ comes not from where you go, but from figuring out a school’s landscape, and how to till it.”

Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni

Citing examples from his book, Bruni talked about schools like Rhode Island School of Design (where the founders of Airbnb went), and the University of Waterloo (which produced the most number of graduates with successful Y Combinator venture capital pitches).

Last year, Bruni taught a course at Princeton. Though he was “in some way in awe” of the school, he realized that many students were tone deaf about their place in it, and the world.

One eating club tradition is “State Night.” Students dress, and act, “as if they went to a state school,” he said.

Part of the reason is that high school students in places like Westport hear messages about the perceived differences between private and state schools (and see “rankings” of every private school too).

College pennantsPart of the reason too is that some students spend so much time trying to “get in” that they don’t care much about what happens once they do.

“We have a generation of kids applying to 18 or 20 different college. They’re throwing darts at a dartboard. They can’t understand what all those schools offer. So once they get there, they don’t know what to do,” Bruni said.

Audience members had plenty of questions.

They wanted to know what Bruni thought about the importance of “making connections” at highly competitive schools. (He thinks that students at those college are already on the path to success. “If you’re someone who reaches far, it doesn’t matter which school gave you its imprimatur. You’ll get there.”)

There are plenty of reasons for this admissions mania, Bruni noted — and it’s not only parents who share the blame. Colleges “cynically” take measures to drive down their acceptance rates — like not requiring SATs, or sending information to students who are clearly not qualified — so their yields will look more impressive in the US News & World Report rankings.

The overflow audience at the Westport Library.

The overflow audience at the Westport Library.

Bruni says it’s important for “influencers” — teachers, counselors, anyone talking with students — to change the tone of conversations.

Of course, those conversations often begin at home. “Kids should not feel that where they go to college is a validation — or repudiation — of their parents.”

The crowd was large and appreciative. Bruni’s message was especially important for teenagers to hear. But there were very few of them in the audience.

I guess the sophomores and juniors were at SAT courses.

And the seniors were home, waiting to hear from 18 or 20 colleges.

Fat Envelopes

Despite the recession, the college admissions process is as competitive as ever.  The high school class of 2010 is huge, and more of them are applying to more schools — including the most selective — than at any time in history.

This month, Staples’ June graduates head off to schools around the country (and world).  They’re eager to start the next stage of their lives.  They’ve got their laptops; they’ve texted their roommates, and their parents have slapped decals on the backs of their cars.

For many, the school they head to is not the only one they could have attended.  Last spring’s acceptances were good news for many seniors.

How good?

The guidance department has compiled a list of how many students got in where.  The numbers are remarkable.  Here’s a partial list:

  • Boston College:  8
  • University of California-Berkeley:  3
  • Colgate University:  8
  • University of Colorado:  24
  • Columbia University:  5
  • University of Connecticut:  66
  • Cornell University:  11
  • Dartmouth College:  6
  • Duke University:  9
  • The George Washington University:  10
  • Harvard University:  3
  • Hampshire College:  4
  • Lehigh University:  12
  • McGill University:  6
  • University of Michigan:  25
  • New York University:  18
  • Northwestern University:  9
  • University of Pennsylvania:  6
  • Princeton University:  4
  • Syracuse University:  26
  • University of Texas:  5
  • Tulane University:  27
  • Washington University in St. Louis:  9
  • Yale University:  4

But Staples students applied to — and were admitted to — a host of other schools too.  For example:

  • University of Auckland:  1
  • Berklee College of Music:  1
  • University of the Arts:  2
  • University of British Columbia:  1
  • California State University at San Bernardino and San Marcos:  1 each
  • University of Edinburgh:  1
  • Fashion Institute of Technology:  1
  • University of Mississippi:  1
  • Montana State University:  1
  • University of North Carolina School of the Arts:  1
  • University of Nottingham:  1
  • University of Oklahoma:  1
  • Parsons School of Design:  5
  • San Francisco Art Institute:  1
  • University of St. Andrews:  2
  • University of Utah:  2

Getting in to college is tough.  Choosing among several is difficult in its own way.

Reading these random results — there were a few hundred I did not have space to list — shows that Staples students do fine in the college game.  They are accepted at schools that are right for them — accepted at several, in fact — and they have good choices to make.

Rising seniors:  take note.

And parents of rising seniors, juniors, sophomores, freshmen, 8th graders, 7th, etc.:  take note too.

Sailing Off To College

Brown University

A couple of years ago, Marilee Jones spoke in Westport.  As dean of admissions at MIT and (according to the New York Times) “guru of the movement to tame the college-admissions frenzy,” she had strong words for parents.

Let the college process be theirs, Jones said.  Don’t steal it from your kid.

She bolstered her message with a vivid analogy.  Your college-searching child is in a boat.  He’s on his own; you’re walking along the shore.   You can see the boat; you know he’s safe.  You can wade in, straighten the bow or do anything needed to help sail the boat — but if you do, you might tip it over.  This is your child’s journey; if you take it from him, you will remove the first really big thing he does as an adult.

Jones’ words resonated with many parents.  She is no longer on the lecture circuit — she resigned after MIT officials learned she fabricated 3 academic degrees when she applied for her 1st job at MIT — but Westport parents continue to grapple with how to manage the college application process.  And how to let it go.

On October 15, 22 and 29, plus November 5, Positive Directions offers a “Taming the College Process” workshop for parents of 9th through 11th graders (senior parents are also welcome).  It’s an important recognition of the fact that we often focus so much on preparing our kids academically for college, that we forget the importance of emotional maturity.

Navigating the headwinds of college is not easy.  But it helps to know who should steer the boat, and who should watch from shore.

(“Taming the College Process” meets at Positive Directions, 420 Post Road West [across from Whole Foods].  The fee is $195, and registration is limited.  For more information click here, or call 203-227-7644, ext. 132.)