Following March’s college admissions scandal, when dozens of overly devoted parents were indicted on charges of conspiring to commit fraud and money laundering, more conventional families can be forgiven for wondering if an already byzantine process is now shifting again. Neha Gupta, founder of leading boutique college advising and tutoring firm College Shortcuts, has some advice on navigating the post-scandal college admissions landscape.
Q: If you’re a parent who doesn’t want to bribe an admissions fixer, what are some lessons from the college admissions scandal?
A: The scandal really put a spotlight on how competitive admissions is, but the main way to get into a top tier university is to have a compelling application. This includes four major components: GPA, test scores, resume and essays. It is extremely important to have a unique angle and powerfully written essays. Also, showing exactly why you want to go into a specific program at that school can absolutely give you a leg up.
What are the typical mistakes families make?
First is they think grades and scores are all they need. Second mistake, they’ll say “let me shove my kid into every extracurricular: dance, karate, chess, debate.” So there’s no clear path of any sort, and it’s exhausting for the parents and the students. Stuffing the resume hurts your chances of getting in.
Another big mistake: Parents think because they’re parents, they should do everything for their children. Meanwhile, overachieving kids, in particular, feel that they should be able to figure everything out for themselves, and have a hard time accepting tutoring or help.
I tell parents that kids have to experience rejection. Only playing it safe is not a good strategy.
Why should families consider hiring a consultant?
Grades and scores will get you considered, but the other 50 percent is where most parents and students are lost. You could have merit, but the other aspect is how do you package yourself?
College admissions offices have seven minutes on average to review your child’s application. It could be 120 seconds for the essay, 60 seconds on the resume, another 120 seconds on the actual application, another 60 seconds on a teacher letter of recommendation. Next kid.
A lot of parents say, “I don’t want my kid to get rejected.” I tell parents that kids have to experience rejection. Only playing it safe is not a good strategy. An outside consultant can say to your kid, “Hey, let’s take all the shots. Whatever’s supposed to happen is going to happen. It doesn’t say anything about your self-worth.” And kids hear it better from a person who feels young to them and is not their mom or dad.
How do you find a legitimate advisor?
College consulting is a billion-dollar industry. Almost 30 percent of families at some point look at outside help. You’ve got to do your homework. Does your consultant have testimonials? Will your student be treated as an individual? What is the consultant’s background and what are their values?
When should families start thinking about college admissions?
I’m a big believer in starting things early. We start as early as 8th grade.
That sounds young.
It’s not. If you look at a child in 8th grade, they’re not fully a teenager. Their hormones haven’t kicked in yet. Buy-in is much easier with an 8th grader than an 11th grader, or a 10th grader. They’re excited about new things, still. By 10th grade they’re saying, “What are you trying to add on my plate? What are we doing? Why are you telling me what to do?” Our mentorship program is very holistic, and then we find really great activities for them either in school, or outside of school, we create activities.
Seriously? You create activities?
One of the students we worked with was a bright eighth grader with straight As. She plays chess and guitar, and is very interested in music. We helped her to create a profile on YouTube where she posts her songs and performances. She now has thousands of subscribers.
What are your fees, and why do you think they’re worth it?
We don’t disclose fees, but 98 percent of our families get merit scholarships ranging from $30,000 to $300,000. You can get scholarships based on merit. Again, it boils down to packaging. These are cool kids. They should be getting scholarships. We typically cover our consulting fees by the scholarships we get for kids.
We don’t perform miracles, but we’ve helped students get into their top choices year after year.
When parents come to you, what are their expectations?
I’m very clear that I do not offer a 100 percent guarantee into getting your child into school. We don’t perform miracles, but we’ve helped students get into their top choices year after year. Kids have gotten into every Ivy, every top 50 school. But I can’t guarantee it.
Admissions have become so competitive. Are there still “safety schools”?
Absolutely. But for one student, a safety could be another kid’s reach. Your child may excel in their school, and you may think your child is extraordinary. When you work with a college admissions firm, we can say, “Hey, we see the same profile over here. How are we going to make a child unique?” We see how every kid starts to look like a stereotype even within the firm. And that way we can create really powerful essays and unique angles for these students.
So, when you say “we can create” an essay—do you actually write the essay for the student?
No. And I say that very clearly in interviews with prospective clients.
What tips do you give kids to help them write the essays on their own?
We work with kids to get a sense of what they truly want. Then we build the school lists. Then after that we look at the resume and we edit it, make it a perfect set of what these colleges are looking at. From there, we figure out what the angle’s going to be that’s going to help them get in.
For example, let’s say I have a South Asian student who wants to be a doctor. Boring. [Editor’s note: For context, Gupta is the daughter of South Asian immigrant parents.] But let’s say the reason this child wants to become a doctor is because his or her parents passed away of cancer. That might be a unique angle. “Hey, I’ve faced some adversity. This is why I want to do this.” Or it could be, the child that wants to do engineering and how he’s got Legos coming out of his ears and why all of that passion came from them.
Once we discussed all that, it’s really easy for the student to have the shortcut to figure out what their essays need to be about. We’ve literally created an outline together. We show them example essays as well. They write the essay in half the time.
And then the consultant comes in to polish the essay, but I keep it to the child’s voice. I make sure it looks like it’s still a teenager.
We also assist with letter of recommendation strategy.
What do you mean by letter of recommendation strategies?
Most students will come at their teacher a week before the applications are due. Especially for the January 1st deadline, they’ll bother them during Christmas. Clients have to remember that their urgency may not be the teacher’s urgency.
Are you on Snapchat all day, or are you possibly using social media to start a movement about what your interests are?
The College Board just announced a new system of adversity scores, which will boost SAT results for students deemed to be at a social disadvantage—based on 31 data points—in their neighborhood and/or school. What do you tell parents who are fortunate enough not to score on that? What should they be thinking about now vis à vis the SAT?
First of all, children of higher socioeconomic backgrounds typically do score higher on the SAT, but a lot of these affluent families really should still get outside help for the SAT because a lot of times the student will stall out on a score. It is one of the cut offs for college. So if you’re paying for private school education, go ahead and pay towards test prep.
As for the question of being from an advantaged background, if a child does not face adversity, the second question that most colleges are asking is: Is this an entitled child? For higher net worth families, admissions officers are going to expect even better packaging of the essays and resume, but they’re also going to be asking: What have you done with all of this? Are you on Snapchat all day, or are you possibly using social media to start a movement about what your interests are? You’ve got to make sure that you’re doing something that creates impact.
And if you can’t show adversity, show perspective. Perspective is critical.
Given the scandal, what are you advising people about donating to their alma maters with hopes of helping their children gain admissions?
In terms of families that are donating and things like that, I don’t work with these types of conversations.
What if a family is very eager to make a donation?
First of all, if the child is not a student that should’ve gotten in, I make it very clear and ask: Do you want your child to fail out? You could do it and they do get in and you know as a parent, that your kid wasn’t supposed to go there. So you have to live with that. But not me.
What final advice would you give parents who may be feeling anxious about this process?
We talked about how one of the biggest mistakes of very overachieving parents is stuffing the resume. When a child knows what they need to do and how to do it over the next few years, there’s actually a lot of downtime with our kids. Because they’re only doing a few things that they really like to do. And that’s it. I don’t stuff their summers. I tell every family, you better take that family trip—these are the memories you’ll remember.