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.
As the founder and CEO of Admit Advantage and Admit.me, Kofi Kankam has dedicated his career to helping students from all backgrounds achieve their college and grad school dreams. He shared some of his admissions advice with Noodle Pros, and spoke about his own educational path and why he loves supporting students.
Tell us a little bit about your company and the services you provide.
Our companies are called Admit Advantage and Admit.me. Admit Advantage is admissions coaching; we help candidates with everything but test prep. This includes helping with school selection, essay outlining for content, structure, and grammar, writing the resume, finding recommenders, preparing for mock interviews, planning school visits, helping students get money from schools or helping them get off a waitlist — anything that goes into getting into school that is not test prep. So from thinking about the stories, experiences, accomplishments, and critical leadership components around which students can build their applications, to the brass tacks of actually applying.
About two years ago, we conceived a new product called Admit.me. Admit.me is geared towards candidates who don’t have huge sums of money to invest, and/or candidates who want to work with us off-cycle or just want a lighter touch. The site is similar to LinkedIn, but for college and grad school applicants, and incorporates tools to manage their applications as well as to network. The crux of Admit.me is that students create a profile listing target schools, interests, scores, things like that, and then get digital annotated feedback from our admissions experts. Students can also meet other candidates who are applying to similar schools, they can see the scores of the people who got into their dream schools, and they can meet candidates who have similar interests but are applying to different schools. If a student wants to study math in college, for example, but plans on attending somewhere on the East Coast, they can meet someone who wants to study math in college on the West Coast, and talk to each other about their different approaches.
Our market is high school to college, and continuing on to grad school. With Admit.me we’ve gone from just being a service-oriented company to being more of a product company with admissions coaching on top.
What is your educational background, and how did you end up in admissions?
I grew up in Ohio as a first generation American — my parents are from Ghana. And I’d say that 70% of the students in my public high school class went to college in the state of Ohio, or maybe in Michigan or Pennsylvania. I was looking at colleges in those states too, when a representative from Harvard College came to my high school. Now my high school was not exactly on Harvard’s list — I was the first person to go there in eight or nine years — but this person basically said, “you’re one of the top students here, you should consider going to a more selective school. It will give you more options, and more of a global brand and a global footprint.” She really made me see how a competitive school could be a possibility for me. So I ended up going to Harvard College, and I majored in Biology with a focus on Neurobiology. I got really involved with volunteering and student teaching through different organizations when I was on campus, and I ended up staying and getting a master’s in education from the Harvard Ed School.
I worked for a little bit after undergraduate, and I was thinking about doing an MD/MBA. But I realized that I really wanted to just do an MBA, and look at education and technology and where those two overlap. So I ended up getting my MBA from Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania.
Throughout my whole education, I was also involved with helping other people get into schools. I’d go home over breaks while I was in college, and my Mom would have people on the couch waiting for me to talk to them about looking at schools outside of Ohio. I ended up volunteering in the admissions office, and when I moved to New York, where I live now, I got involved in the Harvard Club of New York’s College Outreach Committee. I was also an alumni interviewer at Wharton and now serve on the Board of Directors of the Wharton Club of New York. So this work is really a culmination of all of that. I wanted to do something that was important to me. Of course I wanted to do well from a business perspective, but I also wanted to do good.
What is your favorite thing about being an admissions advisor?
My favorite thing about it is really helping people. It’s playing a small role in getting people to their next step. What’s amazing is that in every major city across the US, and lots of cities internationally, we have students who are now becoming friends.
Another thing I like about it is that I prefer to be very direct and truthful, and pretty no-nonsense. In this job, people expect that. It’s not political — people want the unvarnished truth. So it’s nice to be able to be the way I want to be personally, professionally.
What kinds of students do you generally work with at Admit Advantage and Admit.me?
A very wide spectrum. One of the reasons we started Admit.me is that Admit Advantage is very heavily focused on kids who are trying to go to elite schools and top 10 or 20 programs. With Admit.me, the audience is decidedly wider. So through both companies, we’re able to serve the full gamut of applicants for college and grad school.
With such a wide range of students, what is your perspective on tests and test prep?
Scores and numbers are gatekeepers. And then essays, letters of recommendation, and your narrative, those are what gets you in. So generally, if you don’t have the right kinds of scores — if you’re not within a standard deviation, maybe a standard deviation-and-a-half for your SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, LSAT or MCAT, and your GPA is not within that range either, it’s going to be very hard for you to get in. But these days, we’re also seeing that high scores alone are not enough.
So the way we look at it is that tests are just to get you in the game. Your essays, recommendations, leadership characteristics, stories, experiences, and accomplishments are really the things that give you the advantage.
At what age do students normally come to you? When should they start thinking about engaging with an advisor?
On the undergrad side, a lot of candidates come to us around Spring of their junior years. At this point they’re just starting to think about colleges and visit colleges, and they’re trying to get ready for the summer. Admit.me has allowed us to push that even earlier. That’s a good thing, because by the end of junior year a lot of things are fully baked in terms of course selection, academic weaknesses, extracurriculars, etc. So we want more touchpoints to be corrective early on. There’s a big difference between advising you on how to represent a weakness on your application, and assessing that weakness earlier and actually taking steps to address it.
For grad school students who are applying straight from undergrad, the timeline is similar. But it might vary once students are out in the world working. It really does run the gamut. We want to help as many people as we can, so even if someone comes to us two weeks before their apps are due, we will work with them.
What are some questions that you typically ask in your first meeting with a client?
There are a lot of questions. One thing I want to know is what they dream about; what are their dream schools, and, more importantly, why? If they’re looking at certain name brand schools, I want to know what it is about those programs that attracts them.
I also ask questions about their academic performance, and try to see if there are any trends. Because not all 3.3 GPAs are the same. A student who started with a 2.9 freshman year and ended with a 3.7 is very different from a student who started with a 3.7 and finished with 2.9.
Next, we want to know what it is they’re interested in, and what they want to do after they finish school. Oftentimes, students overlook programs that might be a really good fit for them because they don’t really know about every option.
What are some of the ways in which your services go beyond admissions to prepare students for life after college or grad school?
I think that with the cost of higher education, people are more attuned to the fact that they are going to school for a reason. People are saying, “well it’s really expensive, so I need to make sure I’ve got some kind of direction heading into this.” They’re thinking about their career goals and their post-college plans, even when they’re applying, in a way that they probably wouldn’t have 5-10 years ago.
What is one piece of advice that you would offer to students who are applying to competitive schools and programs?
I would tell them to get a piece of paper and list the stories, experiences, and accomplishments that really represent them. If I interviewed their best friend or their parents, what stories would they tell?
Then I would ask them to think of leaders that they respect: military leaders, government leaders, athletics leaders, entertainment leaders, whatever, and think about their particular characteristics. What qualities do these leaders have that a student thinks he or she embodies as well? Things like being a great communicator, being community-minded, being able to make decisions without authority, performing under pressure, being inquisitive, innovative, adaptive, etc.
If students follow this advice, they will have a list of their stories, experiences, and accomplishments, and they’ll have a list of leadership characteristics. That will be their seed — the beginnings of their narrative. Then they just have to think about how they can apply those things across their essays, letters of recommendation, and their resume, if they’re submitting one. That’s how they start to show who they are.