Welcome to #AdmissionsPros! In this series, admissions advisors and educational consultants offer their advice and insight on the big picture of elementary, secondary, and graduate school admissions — from extracurriculars, to essays, to, (of course) standardized tests.
Whitney Mufson Shashou is the Founder and President of Admit NY, an NYC-based firm helping pre-k through high school-aged students find public, private, and boarding school placement. As an experienced teacher and admissions expert, Whitney believes that “every kid deserves to go to the right school.” Learn more about her educational philosophy, the lifelong lessons she imparts on her students, and the role parents play in the admissions puzzle.
Tell us a little bit about your background, and how you got into the world of admissions advising.
I went to the University of Pennsylvania, and I focused on urban studies and urban education. I worked in the West Philadelphia school system in private schools, public schools, and charter schools as an undergrad, and I was a student teacher there for my final year. That was a really interesting and eye-opening experience, and it catapulted my career in education.
Out of college I did Teach for America, and I received my master’s from Relay Graduate School of Education. I was a formal classroom teacher for elementary school, and I was the curriculum developer for both middle school and elementary school writing — I created the entire curriculum for all fourth grade writing, and the curriculum for all eight grade writing. This touched on the foundational skills and tools that I use in my current work; there’s a lot of essay writing involved in admissions!
While I was teaching, I began to notice that there were a lot of kids in my classroom who could have benefited from being in a different school environment. And it really frustrated me, as a teacher, that these conversations weren’t happening, and that parents didn’t seem to know where to find schools for their kids. So this sparked my interest in school consulting.
When I left the classroom, I went to work for a nonprofit organization called Breakthrough New York. Breakthrough is a ten-year program that supports kids starting in middle school, to and through college. All of the kids are considered low income, and are also incredibly high achieving, driven, and motivated. My job there encompassed a lot of roles — as is very common in nonprofits! I was responsible for training all of the talent and teachers who came into our program, recruiting new students, creating a curriculum for our summer and afterschool programs, staff recruitment and hiring, and data analysis to keep students on track to meet their goals. And then my biggest role was as high school placement director. I was responsible for getting about 65 kids from all over New York City into college prep high schools across the country. And that gave me a unique lens into this whole idea of school choice. Public, private, day, boarding, there are so many out there, but how do you really find the right school for a particular student? It was fascinating to sit down and meet with students and families, and then to construct individualized lists that were specific to each child’s needs. And then of course, the list is really only step one; there are about 50 million steps after that to ensure that students get into the schools they really deserve to get into.
So that’s how I was exposed to this work — not only as a teacher, seeing it from the classroom side, but also at Breakthrough, seeing it from the school’s perspective and from an admissions person’s perspective.
Another benefit to my work at Breakthrough was that because I worked for an organization, meaning that I wasn’t siloed to one school, lots of schools were interested in building relationships with me. They wanted my kids! So I had this unique opportunity to get invited to schools, go onto campuses, get to know the school communities and curriculums and their unique application processes, and, most importantly, form relationships and bonds with admissions directors.
After Breakthrough, I decided to continue doing the same work, but on a more one-on-one level. And I took all of those relationships with me; now I’m able to leverage those contacts and advocate for the kids that I work for.
Is there a particular kind of student that you usually work with?
The short answer is, everyone. We work with international families, New York-based families, families that are going from public to private, private to private, private to public, entry years, non-entry years, emergency cases. We do it all. Also, I think that every kid deserves to go to the right school. And so whether you can afford to pay my rate or you can’t afford to pay my rate, I am open to working with you. Of course, I am a business and I need to pay the rent, so I do have a larger percentage of full-paying clients. But every year I take on a handful of pro bono students, depending on my capacity.
The only kinds of students that my company doesn’t typically serve are students with extreme special needs or those who are looking for therapeutic schools. My background is not in special education, so I refer those families out to other consultants who are experts in that field.
What are some questions that you typically ask in your first meeting with a client?
I think that admissions is not only about getting into a school, but also really about empowering students. And so I like to spend the majority of my time in an initial meeting getting to know the kid. Because this is their journey, their process, and their school — not mine, and not even their parents’. I do a lot of work on the forefront asking the kids tons of questions and playing games, and I have them draw their dream school (what it sounds like, what it smells like, what it feels like). I try to gain lots of information that way.
When talking to the parents, I just say, “Tell me about your child. Tell me about their passions, their interests, their strengths, their areas for growth, their hobbies. Tell me about your family.” It’s important that we find a family match and join a community that the family is connected to as well.
And then a huge question is, “What are you looking for in a new school?” and “Why are you looking for new school?” Those answers give me some insight into what this process may look like for a particular family.
When do students normally come to you? How long do they work with you before applying?
Ideally, all students would come to me at the same time, and we’d start on time and end on time. But that’s not always how this works! I’d like for families to start the spring before the year that they’re applying out. So, for example, the spring of their 7th grade year for 9th grade applications. But I have families come to me in the spring, summer, and fall.
Oftentimes I’ll also have an influx of families coming to me right after applications have been submitted, saying “Oops, I missed the deadline,” or “My company just told me that they’re sending me to New York, and applications were due months ago, what do I do now?” So I work on those cases as well. But best scenario is the spring before the year in which they’ll be starting the application process.
What is your perspective on standardized tests and test prep?
Tests are incredibly important to the admissions process. I hate to say that, because it’s just a number on a page, and doesn’t represent all of the great things about the kids that I work with. But test scores are a key indicator that schools use to evaluate where kids are academically, and whether or not they’ll be a good fit. They are one of the very few quantitative factors that can be used in admissions. If schools look at them and see that all of the students they admitted over the last five years within a certain score range are still enrolled and doing well academically, they will use them as an indicator in that way.
I refer out for all test prep to wonderful places like Noodle and my other test prep partners, depending on the students’ needs. And I’ve seen a huge positive impact with test prep; the earlier you start, I think, the better. Unfortunately, this process is incredibly competitive, and students are competing with kids who started test prep years before applications were even started. And it does give those candidates a leg up.
But while test prep is important, and tests are a key factor in admissions, getting into schools is very much a holistic process. And so it’s important to think about all of the factors as a whole.
You work with a wide variety of ages, so parental involvement may change as the students get older; but is there ever a time that parents should not be involved?
That’s a good question. There are so many transferable skills that students can acquire and master throughout the application process. Time management, organization, self-advocacy, interview prep, essay writing. You don’t want those skills to get lost because of parent involvement. So I’m a huge believer in really empowering students to be the drivers of this process. Especially my older kids in middle school and high school. I am constantly asking for their opinions. I ask for their cell phone numbers and communicate directly with the kids most of the time. This is their journey! And there’s a lot that can be learned that will be beneficial for future educational opportunities, college, and career.
Of course, it does vary by age. For my younger kids, parents are much more involved. But no matter the age, we always encourage our students to speak up throughout, to express their likes and dislikes, to take notes on schools, and to be very active in the process.
One thing that’s worth mentioning is that in both public and private admissions, there are a lot of tasks for parents to do as well. There are parent essays, parent interviews, school visits. Not many kids that age are traveling alone! So parents have their own responsibilities, and they need to be on top of those things. I’ve even seen lower quality parent statements hold students back in the admissions process. That piece of the puzzle is very important.
You mentioned parent essays. Let’s talk about the student essays and personal statements; what is their importance, and how much help do you think students should be getting?
All aspects of the application process are important, but essays are interesting because they provide schools with a window into a student’s uniqueness, their creative side, and their personality. In addition to showcasing a student’s writing ability, essays should be used as a tool to stand out from the rest of the applicant pool.
And so that’s the key reason why a parent shouldn’t be writing the essay on behalf of their child. Admissions people are smart. They have been doing this for years, and they’re going to smell out an essay very quickly if it doesn’t sound like a kid wrote it. And it’s important for the school to see what a kid’s writing ability looks like; if the student’s writing is very far behind and doesn’t align with the school’s expectations, it won’t be a good fit anyway. We don’t want to put kids in a position where they’re going to be struggling to keep their heads above water. But I absolutely do help with the writing process, for both the parent statements and student essays. And most of the time, it’s actually ten times harder to get parents to write their essays!
With the kids, I support with brainstorming, help them create an outline, and then once they’ve drafted the essay on their own, I help with editing and revising. You still want it to be a polished essay, but it needs to come off as the kid’s authentic voice. Something to remember is that schools will compare these essays to the essays that they see on the ISEE and the SSAT. And if they look very different, that’s a big red flag. I’ve had families overly write their kids’ essays, and it hasn’t worked in their favor.
Is there a common misstep that you see students and parents making when it comes to admissions?
I think that the key misstep is not being open-minded at both the beginning and the end of the process. So many times, I have had parents come to me already knowing what school they want their kid to go to. But I think that if you go into this process with a closed mind, and you’re not open to the many, many, many schools that are out there, it’s not going to work in your favor. It’s important to weigh all of the options equally. These options are a privilege, and we should use that privilege. And the prestige or name brand of a school does not mean that it’s the right school for a child. Nine times out of ten, I’ll see families end up at a school that they didn’t even walk into the process knowing of, and didn’t plan on applying to. More crucial than looking at the most prestigious schools is looking at schools that are the right fit academically and socially. Remaining open minded throughout is so critical to success.
If students do have their hearts set on one particular school, do you have any tips for helping them cope with disappointment if they don’t get in?
It’s disappointing to be rejected, especially for New Yorkers. We tend to have high expectations for ourselves. And I see disappointment across the board, no matter the age — 2 to 14. Rejection isn’t easy. But there is always a lesson to be learned. And I always make it very clear on the forefront that this is incredibly competitive, and it is not a guarantee to get a match to a particular school.
School admissions is not a prize to be won, it’s a match to be made. If there isn’t a match made, that’s not a reflection of how of how poorly a student did, it just means that it was a competitive year. So when I see disappointment, I try to use it as a tool. It’s important to persevere, it’s important to reflect, and it’s important to set new goals.
It’s also helpful to talk about it in numbers, and just show the kids how many seats were available versus how many applications came in, and that the numbers just didn’t work in their favor this year. If you show them that there’s a bigger picture to the process, they tend to understand it a little bit better.
Last question: What is one piece of advice you can offer for students who are applying to competitive schools and programs?
Kids sometimes have a hard time realizing what they’ve accomplished, and don’t think that they’ve accomplished very much. And so a piece of advice I always give my kids is to be yourself. I often see students walking into an interview trying to be someone else, and that’s not going to do them any good. I encourage parents to spend a lot of time reflecting with their child, and helping them to identify their strengths, accomplishments, and unique talents. Whether it’s “I babysit my younger brother” or “I wake myself up in the morning.” That’s huge for a 13-year-old to do! But they might not see it as anything significant.
Part of my job is spending time with students to help them identify those accomplishments, big and small, and then supporting them and empowering them to put those things into words. That way, when they represent themselves in their essays, and in their interviews, and on a test, they truly are coming from an authentic place. They’re building confidence.
I have seen kids who bombed their tests, and whose essays were subpar, but when they walked into the interview they owned the room. They had such confidence and were compassionate and lovely, and they gained admission to every school they applied to.
Confidence, belief in yourself, and knowing who you are can go a long way in the admissions process.
Are you interested in working with Whitney Mufson Shashou? Reach out via the Admit NY website.