#AdmissionsPros: Advisor Rob Annis On Being Interesting

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.

Admissions expert Rob Annis is the founder of The Art of Admissions, a boutique company specializing in college and graduate school admissions for domestic and international students. Rob spoke with Noodle Pros about the services he provides to college applicants, the challenges faced by international students, and the importance of discovering your personal “hook.”

Tell us a little bit about your company and the services you provide.

My company is called The Art of Admissions. I work with both domestic and international students, helping them navigate college and graduate school admissions. I focus on comprehensive service packages, really handholding from beginning to the end.

I offer advice at each stage of the process, from the moment students decide to take the first step, until they ultimately get their acceptance letters. I divide it into three categories of services: First there is the pre-application assessment and advising, which will include strategies to develop and strengthen what I call a student’s “hook.” This will involve advising on ways to cultivate relationships with teachers, professors, and other recommenders, along with some academic planning.

Category two is application assistance, which is the bulk of the work. This includes everything from devising a list of target and safety schools, to strategizing early decision or early action, to extensive time spent on the essays.

And finally, the third category, post-application help. This consists of nailing the interview, if there is one, and also, if necessary, converting a wait list into getting in.

When does the first part of the college application process normally start for high schoolers? Do you have students coming to you during sophomore year?

It really depends. I have students come to me in sophomore year, and I have students who even start the process as freshman. I also have some students come to me a few weeks before an application deadline, very late in the process, which is obviously not the most ideal. Preferably, students will get started in the sophomore or junior year.

What is your typical student like? What kinds of students do you work with at the high school level?

It’s a pretty broad spectrum, really, from all geographic regions and aptitudes, and a variety of academic interests. I have had a lot of STEM students lately, but I’ve certainly worked with a variety of arts and science students. But the key is working with students who are motivated. Students have to want to succeed, because what I do is maximize their potential. I prefer to stretch them and pull them, rather than to push them.

Do you usually involve parents in your early meeting with students? Are there times when parents should not be involved?

I do always prefer that the parent is present for the first session, and I generally prefer them to not be involved in any subsequent sessions. This is generalizing, but it can be hard for parents to avoid hijacking the conversation or pushing the student in a particular direction, which is not helpful. I do want the parent to be present in the beginning, so that we’re all on the same page, but later on it’s much more effective when I can work directly with the student and let his or her voice shine through.

An early step to my approach is what I call a “discovery session,” which is an in-depth, one-on-one conversation in which I ask a series of questions designed to ascertain personal qualities, special talents, and experiences that really set a student apart from the rest of the crowd. For these sessions to be effective, it’s best not to have a parent weighing in and steering the conversation too much.

What is your perspective on test prep? How do tests fit into the big picture of the college application process?

Test prep is as critical. My two pieces of advice are start early, and work with the right tutor. There are some students who can prep for a test on their own, and they can practice very hard. But it’s important to practice the right way. That’s only possible when it’s under the guidance of someone who knows.

You work with international students as well as domestic students. How is the college admissions process different for an international student?

The easiest way to explain that, is that it’s just simply more. This is for a variety of reasons, starting with English proficiency. Some students have difficulty reaching a high score on the TOEFL or the IELTS. That’s an issue.

International students are also not as familiar with the significance of extracurricular activities, or even things like community service. Their schools often don’t have the kinds of options we’re accustomed to in the states. Writing an essay can also be a challenge — although I think domestic students can find it challenging to write about themselves as well.

Can you tell us about yourself and how you got into this field?

Sure! I’m from the Washington D.C. suburbs, and when I was in college I would come home for the summers and work on Capitol Hill; I worked for a newspaper, but then I had these other political internships on Capitol Hill where I would not get paid. And they were great experiences, but I needed to find a way to save money. So, I developed an SAT tutoring service.

Since this was many years ago and I’m kind of old school, I actually hand-addressed flyers to the rising juniors and seniors from my high school. Over the years, I was able to work with around 50 students — I would help them with the SATs over the summer, then I would go back to school in the fall. Once I was back at school, a lot of my students would say “Hey Rob, thank you for the help, I took the SATs, but now I’m applying to college and I’d love your thoughts.” So I really started doing this as a favor, as an add-on service for the students I was really impressed with — helping them navigate the application process, reviewing their essays, and just offering some advice.

Fast forward, I went to law school and I spent many years working at a law firm. But I had always been doing this on the side. I had no advertising, so I really just got clients through word of mouth referrals. Finally, I left my law firm to launch this full time.

Education has always been an interest of mine, because I’ve seen it really change lives — particularly for some international students. One example that comes to mind is a female student I was recently helping in Saudi Arabia. I was there last month, and I asked her why she’s interested in studying in America. She told me that she hopes to be a biomedical engineer. She has a friend who is paralyzed, and her dream is to create prosthetic limbs for her friend, and for any other children who can’t walk. And I said, “Okay, but you still aren’t answering my question: why the US?” And she said, “If I stay here in my town, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I won’t be allowed to pursue that degree.” That’s one of those stories that keeps me going.

What do you love most about working with students on college admissions?

There are two things. The first is when a student reaches their academic goal, or gets into a top school — although often I’m not seeing them, it’s usually an e-mail from the student or the parents. So the second is when I when I work with a student who initially is not excited about the process — stressed, perhaps a little bit intimidated in the beginning — and then, after we go through this in-depth one-on-one conversation, by the end of an hour I see their eyes light up because we’ve touched on something that they’re passionate about, something that makes them unique. I love seeing students learn something about themselves through this process. That is awesome.

And what is your best piece of advice for students who are applying to competitive universities?

So my advice is simple, but it’s also difficult: be interesting. That begs a lot of questions, I know! But that is my parting advice to my students: be interesting.

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Interested in working with Rob Annis? Contact him via The Art of Admissions for more information.

Are you an admissions specialist who would be interested in being featured in #AdmissionsPros? Reach out via our online form.

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