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New York Times Reporter Shares Inside Scoop on College Admissions Process

Jacques Steinberg spoke before 300 students and parents Wednesday evening at Westfield High School.

College essays, like first dates? Seems unlikely. But according to New York Times reporter and founder of 'The Choice' blog Jacques Steinberg, this is exactly how students should approach them, he told a crowd in Westfield.

“Think about what you would want that person across the table to know about you,” he stated. “(You) should know that there is a really strong chance that there’s someone (reading your essay) who sees the world in a similar way as your child, or who appreciates . . . your child.”

Steinberg, a New York Times reporter for 24 years and author of The Gatekeepers: Inside The Admissions Process of a Premier College, spent months gathering the inside scoop through interviewing college admissions officers around the country and observing the process of admissions at Wesleyan University.

At his “Inside The College Admissions Process” presentation Wednesday night at Westfield High School, he broke down the daunting application task for an audience of over 300 students and parents. Steinberg’s first piece of advice was to “relax, if that’s at all possible.”

According to the journalist, studies consistently show that most students end up content with their school, even if it was not a first choice, and only about four dozen schools reject more students than they accept. A lot goes into a school’s decision and “there is no formula.”

“So many kids get hung up on the test scores,” he said. “But there is absolutely not (a single most important application factor).” According to Steinberg, while most of the 2,000-plus colleges in the U.S. (minus about 700) do require either SAT or ACT scores, they also consider the rigor of the classes the student took, the student’s grades and grade patterns throughout their high school years, letters of recommendation from teachers and counselors and any activities that they participated in outside of school.

According to Eric Furda, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, the rigor of the classes needs to suit that particular individual—officers look for the degree to which they challenged themselves based on what classes their particular school offers and how students are compared with one another at that school. “It is better to get a B in a hard class than an A in an easy one,” he said in an interview with Steinberg.  

Steinberg noted that even in a town like Westfield, this does not necessarily mean AP classes all around—maybe just a couple.

Even if a student is not a great test-taker and receives lower scores, if they have a strong GPA officers would likely consider that student more than a student who has high test scores and a lower GPA, according to Ted Spencer, dean of admissions at the University of Michigan. “(The latter) tells us that the student has potential, but didn’t use it or didn’t persist,” he explained in an interview with Steinberg, who also stated that at Wesleyan there was never any mention of a “cutoff test score” for admission.

Steinberg also emphasized the importance of letters of recommendation, though he suggested putting a different spin on it: “It’s not necessarily the (letter from) the teacher who gave you straight A’s that compels, but the class where you at first struggled.” He explained that this shows admissions officers that a student is willing to persevere and is seeking to improve.

Colleges also review the activities in which that student participated. “There’s an expectation that (the student) did something, but not necessarily ten somethings,” said Steinberg.  “And (colleges want it to be) something that they’re passionate about, not something they did just to impress the college officers . . . and something that they did for years, hopefully to the point of leadership.”

One of the most important application factors is a student’s essay. Said Steinberg: “When your child is struggling at the keyboard, resist the temptation to do it for them. It’s so crucial that the admissions officers hear a young person’s voice. (Tell them) ‘this is who I am, here is an experience that changed me and made me who I am, and why.’”

Said Furda: “I know what older voices sound like and I don’t want to hear it . . . don’t assume that we know anything about you . . . (think of it as) ‘I’m introducing myself for the first time: 'Hi, my name is Eric. Here’s what I want you to know about me.’”

When deciding on which colleges to apply to and eventually on which one to attend, Steinberg told parents that they should practice interviewing their child much like they will be interviewed by admissions officers, and try to whittle down what, exactly, that individual is looking for in a school. Factors to consider are:

  •  Urban or rural area
  •  If it’s important to be near the West of East coast
  •  Warm or cold climate
  •  Large or small class
  •  Prospective career
  •  Extracurriculars offered by the school
  •  Cost
  •  Learning style (i.e. lecture hall or seminar?)

To actually apply to colleges and universities, Steinberg suggested using The Common Application , though it’s recommended that students do not apply to more than about 12 schools. “Remember that the people reviewing your application are people,” he said, and assured students that each application is read at least twice by different people who have been hired based on diverse life experiences.

If a student is in need of financial aid, he recommended first identifying a budget and who will be paying, then filling out the FAFSA form and attending the WHS annual Financial Aid Night. He also recommended exploring possible scholarship opportunities as well as Finaid.org and Fastweb.com. A number of financial aid sites will allow individuals to calculate approximately how much financial aid they could receive based on yearly income, etc.

For additional information he recommended bigfuture.collegeboard.org/college-search and the following books:

Fiske Guide to Colleges

Colleges That Change Lives (experiences of students)

The Insider’s Guide to Colleges

When a student is applying to any college, he noted “Be careful with any hard and fast rule not to do something, because it might work!”

Ingrid McKinley, co-president of the WHS PTSO and organizer of the event, said the high school was very fortunate to have Steinberg, who announced his retirement Thursday morning, as a speaker.

"The WHS PTSO is grateful to the Westfield Education Foundation for helping to underwrite the fees of the speaker. Without their assistance, the event would not have happened," she said.

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