May 28, 2024
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May 28, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Guidance counselors on what it takes to create an excellent college application.

Here’s a simple fact: The 50,000 applications that typically inundate an Ivy League admissions office yearly like falling autumn leaves all meet the highest requirements. In other words, if a school had 50,000 spots for incoming freshmen, all applicants would be admitted. They all have the GPA, they all have the SAT scores. But most sought-after schools can accommodate only a small percentage of applicants. So how do admissions teams determine which students will make the cut?

The answer—not only for the Ivies but for any school on a target list—make an authentic impact, demonstrate how you stand out. As seniors knuckle down for the last phase of the application process and underclassmen start or continue thinking about their own post-high school journey, college guidance counselors from three tri state-area Jewish day schools weigh in with their top tips designed to educate, empower and encourage students and their parents.

Gary Berger, Assistant Principal

Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, Livingston, New Jersey;

Chair, National Association for College Admissions Counseling Jewish Students and Jewish Schools Special Interest Group

  • If I had one tip to give to the world, I would say don’t get caught up in the college rankings. That list comes out every year in U.S. News & World Report and it becomes the bible; students and their parents get so caught up in it. The college has to be No. 1 or No. 2, but when you look at the many great colleges and you compare the rankings of college No. 1 and college No. 225, what’s the real difference? They all have excellent professors, they all have excellent programs, so it should be about best fit and not about best rank. There’s so much out there for students, and they should take their time to find a school that they really love and enjoy—and you could find a hidden gem.
  • I encourage parents to visit the colleges that are closest to home, even though your child may have no desire to apply there. You live in Teaneck and you may never attend Fairleigh Dickinson. But I encourage you to do the official tour—because it doesn’t cost you any time or money and it’s literally an hour-and-a-half out of your day. I want your child to say, “Wow, I didn’t know that colleges have science programs [in] X area; that is spectacular.” Whether or not they want to go to that college, it’s something they can now look for when they visit another college. There are lots of information points that you could gather while taking a tour in your own backyard. If you live in Highland Park, visit Rutgers. If your student doesn’t like Rutgers because there’s a highway running through it and you have to take buses to get around campus, don’t waste your time driving three hours to Binghamton just to find out that there;s a highway running through that school as well. Many families go to Florida for Pesach or winter vacation. So while you’re there, visit University of Miami, Florida Atlantic University, Nova Southeastern. If you go to California, visit UCLA. Even if you’re not going to apply to the school, see if there’s something that pops for you, that makes you say, “Yeah, I want that, I want a program that has XYZ or a business professor who has worldly experience like the professor we met today or a dorm that has free laundry.”
  • Colleges want to use the essay to learn about who you are. They know you’re a great writer because they have your test scores; they have your grades in AP English. Tell them something they don’t know. Tell them a story about who you are. Pick a question that is interesting to you and that relates to you. Do not write something that you think they want to hear. At these colleges, each reader reviews 7,000 to 10,000 essays themselves out of the 55,000 or 80,000 essays the school receives. When they read one essay, they say, “That’s really good.” When they read 10, they’re able to say, “This one is better than that one.” When they read 500, they’re able to recognize, “This wasn’t written by a kid; this was definitely written by an adult.” If you want to use a professional coach or tutor to help you get started and trigger your brain or to help you trim 850 words to 650 words, go for it. Other than that, professionals should not get involved in the writing process because they’re going to inevitably give you words that you wouldn’t naturally use.

Meghan Fernandez, College Counselor

Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy, Stamford, Connecticut

  • I tell parents a couple of things: Instead of concentrating on whether a college is ranked or not, they need to be looking at the school’s programs— that is, does the school their child is applying to offer one of the better programs to suit the student’s goals and interests? Also, does the school have assistance programs like internships? For example, if their goal is to go to law school and they’re studying political science, does the college have a mechanism in place that allows kids to have an internship with a legislator? Does the school provide them with opportunities to meet different types of people? Do they have study-abroad programs? In other words, look for the program, rather than the college. A college might be ranked in so many things but it may not be strong in the program you choose to study, the direction you choose to go.
  • A lot of kids pack their resume with extracurricular activities for the sake of having something for colleges to see. That’s a mistake. Yes, if you become involved in an activity or a cause you’re passionate about, that helps. But don’t put together bits and pieces of activities that just keep adding up without telling the story about who you are. And try to do something every single year. People who read your application are not stupid. If everything that you did is in 11th grade, they know that you did it to put it on your application.
  • Try to take as many hard classes as you can, and show that you’re interested in a specific area. If your school is not offering classes in a subject and you still want to show colleges that you are interested in that particular area, there are so many online platforms, like Coursera and several others, where you can take a course from a recognized college and get a transcript.

Show that you’re a well-rounded student by getting a teacher from your STEM department and from your humanities department to write letters of recommendation. And spend time with your college counselor; let them get to know you as a person. Teachers have to write your recommendation letter, and if they don’t know you as a person, then they are merely writing a form letter.

  • Some schools pay a lot of attention to something called “demonstrated interest.” These schools really want to know that you are interested in them, so follow them online. If the school hosts virtual meetings, attend them, ask questions and be engaging. Make yourself visible. And if it’s a Zoom meeting, keep your camera on and make sure it’s not facing the ceiling. I’ve had so many meetings with admissions directors, and each and every one has said that they have a compulsory rule that the kids must have their cameras on and their sound unmuted. Likewise, make sure you’re attentive and dress properly. As soon as the meeting is done, send a thank you note to keep the channel of communication open. I encourage my students to send an email to the colleges they’re interested in, let them know that this is something that you’re very passionate about, and explain how you would like this to translate into your future plans.

Jeffery E. Frank,
Director of College Guidance

Karen Bialik,
Director of Academic Affairs

The Jewish Educational Center, Elizabeth, New Jersey

  • COVID considerations: There is no question that colleges will be flexible when examining a student’s activity list. Colleges have assured parents and students that they understand that students have not had the opportunities to explore, lead, participate and develop skills they would have had if we weren’t dealing with a worldwide pandemic.

Therefore, you should be honest on your application. If you feel compelled to share all the things you would have done if it hadn’t been for COVID-19, then write the optional COVID essay. But most students can relax and know that colleges understand and have adjusted their expectations.

Colleges base their admissions decision on two sets of student qualifications: objective and subjective criteria. Subjective criteria allow you to set yourself apart from other applicants: In addition to extracurricular activities, essays and letters of recommendation consider anything that allows you to stand out (and brings the focus back to how your special activities have affected you), and real-world experience like paid or volunteer work.

  • Special advice for freshmen and sophomores:

Take the most challenging courses that you can handle. Be a leader in the classroom so that the teacher gets to know you.

Identify extracurricular activities that you can participate in for three or four years, including volunteer work in the community. Find a passion and stick with it; use your summers wisely, e.g., internships.

Freshmen: Start focusing on the PSAT—question of the day or word of the day.

Sophomores: Buy one or two SAT Subject Test Prep books to start studying for the appropriate subject. Take the PSAT exams and begin to determine if the ACTs or SATs are best for you.

  • With college tuitions rising faster than inflation, we get questions about how college credit can be earned while in high school. In general, there are three ways that college credit can be earned. We surveyed several of the colleges that our students attend to see which of the three opportunities are recognized by most colleges:

AP Exams—All the colleges we contacted accepted AP scores of 5 or 4. To see what score a college accepts for specific tests:

CLEP Exams (College Board)—Like AP exams, CLEP exams assess learning by specific academic subject, and college credit can be earned. Unlike the AP exams, the student is responsible for studying for the exam outside of the classroom. Rutgers does not give credit for CLEPs and Lander College for Men will give up to 12 credits, but not in major, minor or core courses (“blank” credits). CUNY schools recognize CLEPs on a school-by-school and course-by-course basis. Other colleges use CLEPs to give credit to military veterans. For more information about the CLEPs:

Dual Enrollment Programs—Some high schools offer college-approved courses on site, and when the students pass the course, they receive college credit for the course. Most of the state colleges and some private colleges will accept the credits.

  • If full-time college is not for you and you know what you want to do, you may want to consider a college that provides a focus on specific majors, e.g., accounting, business management, nursing, etc. Testing and Training International (TTI) partners with online schools to provide low-tuition degrees in specific fields, such as accounting, business, education, psychology and healthcare. Monroe College is another option that provides a flexible path (online and on campus) to a college degree. Programs include degrees in business, accounting, nursing and criminal justice.

A last bit of advice for parents, from Gary Berger: “You just have to trust the system that you’re working with. If the college counselor at your high school is the person running the show, let them run the show. When you get other people involved, there’s so much additional stress that’s unnecessary because we already have it down to a science. Guidance teams know exactly what works for their kids and that’s why counselors can produce a list of all these great schools students got into. They got in because they followed the process.”

Additional reporting by Judie Jacobson.

By Cynthia Mindell


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