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.
College admissions expert and Ivy League professor Dr. Aviva Legatt is the Founder and Principal Consultant of VivED Consulting, where she works with students and families from 8th grade through senior year of high school. Having been previously employed in admissions herself, Dr. Legatt draws on her personal and professional experiences to provide values-driven, emotionally intelligent college guidance. Here, she chats with Noodle about her process as an advisor, the role of parents in the college application process, and the importance of making connections at top-choice schools.
What is your personal educational background? How did you get into college consulting?
I grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, which is a very cute college town. It’s an idyllic community, but because there are so many amazing, intelligent people who live there, it’s very easy to feel as if you’re not that exceptional and don’t really stand out. So I was a super stressed out kid, and by the time I reached high school, I really only had one college that I wanted to go to: New York University. I got really obsessed with NYU as my top choice college, and I ended up stressing myself out so much that I got pneumonia the month before applications were due! Which is not that surprising to me now, since I’m seeing it from the other side. That said, my memories of this extremely stressful and high-pressure college process really stuck with me, all the way through my career.
I ended up going to NYU and majoring in music business. But the whole time I was there, I felt myself gravitating towards other projects: launching new initiatives for the curriculum, putting together concerts, things like that. After a while, I felt compelled to change my initial plans and pursue a degree in higher education. That’s what brought me down to Penn, and that’s where I got my master’s and my doctorate. I also began working full time at the Wharton School, serving on the Freshmen Transfer Admissions Committee and overseeing the Leadership in the Business World pre-college program. While working there, I got insight into how admissions decisions are made, and the most important admissions factors from an institutional standpoint. I also developed a general expertise in higher education by looking at different trends and forces, and examining their impacts on students and on the industry in general. And now I write about that for Forbes, and I still do some teaching at Penn around issues of organizational dynamics, teamwork, collaboration, and diversity.
So I’ve got a very broad view from which to help students, and I also have personal perspective on the process, both from my own college experience and from seeing what happens on a committee and how decisions get made. I love helping families and students figure all of this out, and I love using my knowledge and expertise to remove some stress and pressure and to help them set and reach their goals.
What services do you provide at VivEd Consulting?
I Provide what I call values-driven, emotionally intelligent college guidance. The concrete aspect of this is one-on-one guidance for students and families who are going through the college process, or who are preparing for the college process. This includes guidance beyond the steps they have to go through and the things they need to do to stand out; it’s also the bigger picture. We are finding the best possible colleges to match their strengths and meet their goals, that will take them to the next level in life.
In addition to working with students one-on-one, I do webinars and boot camps that reach a much wider audience, so that I can support as many people as possible through this process.
What kinds of students do you generally work with?
Generally, I work with students who are targeting top-tier colleges. I work with students from all over the United States and internationally as well; I’ve had students from Indonesia, China, India, Canada, Turkey, really all over the world. I’m working with students who really need help, who are really driven towards one or more particular colleges, and who want to know how they can approach their high school experience in order to maximize their impact before they apply to college.
I have a remote-based business, so while I’ve had a couple of occasions to meet in-person and help students with their college process, usually we’ll have online meetings, Skype meetings, email correspondence, sometimes a little text here or there, or WeChat for students from certain countries. My counseling really takes place anytime and every time the students need it. We want our students to be spending their time doing as opposed to just talking about doing. So that’s what I encourage my students to do: make a plan, and then we’ll check in on the plan as it goes. Really what it should be about is helping students discover what they’re good at, and then supporting them to be as good as they can be at that thing.
What is your process for working with students? At what age do they usually come to you?
I start working with students anywhere between eighth grade and the beginning of their senior year of high school. There are some families who will reach out around August or September, as the student is getting ready to apply early decision to a college. A lot of those students are targeting one top choice college, and they want to put all their energy behind it, so I help them with that process. I help them identify the right people to get in touch with at that college, and the right way to articulate their fit. I help them figure out what story they want to tell in their essays, and how should they frame their experiences on their resumes. An article published in The Wall Street Journal said that students’ applications get viewed for eight minutes, if that. That’s a very short time to make an impression on admissions, so you have to provide a context of what you’ve done, and you have to describe how it impacted other people. That’s not an easy task.
I have a different process when students start working with me earlier on. A lot of my younger students will come to me wanting more of a general plan, so in those cases I will assess what they’ve done so far. I’ll look at their grades and all of the things that admissions officers will look at, and I’ll determine where they’re strong, and what areas they may need some help in. What are some steps they can take to get help in those areas? What are some areas they can capitalize on, and continue to build on? I provide them with a plan, and then we’ll check in at appropriate intervals in the months and years leading up to their applications.
Aside from working with students one-on-one, I also do webinars and group coaching, I recently started this group coaching program called the Insider’s Club, which involves twice monthly webinars where students can send me whatever questions they have about their college process. I anonymize their questions and make them more general, and then answer them for the whole group. Students also have access to a portal where they can track their scores and their plans, research colleges, look up financial aid, and so forth. So that’s a monthly subscription service, or families can pay a one-time fee and have access through the end of high school. I’m really excited about this offering, because it’s a more accessible way for students who can’t invest in one-on-one help to get a general boost and ask questions.
From your experience witnessing committee decisions, and now advising students, is there a common misstep you often see college applicants making?
Yes. One of the biggest misconceptions is that students should do “x” activity or ”y” activity; a lot of people map out what they should do based on what has worked for other people, but that can really be a huge mistake. I try to educate students and parents about that as much as I can, especially if they come to me earlier on in the process. I try to help students get an idea of which activities will truly enhance their high school experiences— either their learning, or their achievement in one particular area. Because those are the types of things that colleges want to see. A lot of people will spread themselves too thin, just adding activities because they think they have to check a certain box on their resume. This turns the vast majority of the admissions pool into a bunch of “blah” candidates who all look alike. And even worse than that, it turns these students into people who don’t really know what they want. I think part of that is the pressure that children feel to succeed. Another part of that is that parents are sometimes inserting themselves a little bit more than perhaps would be ideal to push their student to where they think they should go.
Can you expand on parental involvement in this process? When should parents be involved, and when should they step back?
Any parent who cares about their child is going to be involved in their lives in some way, and invested in what’s happening with them, not just financially, but emotionally. And I get that. What I see as a problem is when parents are doing all of the driving. When they say to their child “You have to take these courses,” “You have to do this,” “You have to do that,” it completely stifles that student from setting their own goals and it stifles them from realizing what their interests are.
I’m currently writing a book, and so I’ve been interviewing a lot of leaders about what their own college admissions process was like, and how their college experience impacted them. And I’ve been really surprised — although I shouldn’t be — that pretty much everyone who has spoken about their parents has said, “You know, my parents saw that I was good at something and they let me do it — as opposed to making all my plans for me.” So you want to support your children in whatever ambitions they have, and you also want to allow them to have ambitions in the first place.
In a practical sense, it’s hard to say exactly when or where parents should pull back. Parents should obviously be informed, and they can give input, but I don’t think they should be the ones driving the plans and the goals. It needs to ultimately come from the child. It’s the adults’ wallets in most cases, so of course they have a right to make financial decisions. But beyond budgeting, there is no real reason for parents to be overly involved in test prep or any other aspect of the college process.
We know that for many of our students and parents, test scores are a huge deal. From your perspective, looking at the process holistically, what role should test prep play in the college admissions priority list?
I’m not just saying this because I’m talking to you — I really think test prep needs to be a huge priority. Unfortunately. I say “unfortunately” because there are so many other ways that students can be amazing candidates, and they may or may not be good test takers. But if you have the money, you should absolutely invest in test prep; it’s an investment in your future tuition payments. Even if you don’t get into your top choice college, you become eligible for lots of scholarships with a higher score. So even though the costs for test prep may seem high, it’s definitely worth it.
You have to have a baseline of excellence to be considered for the top tier colleges. And if you’re an international student, then your test scores will be even more important than for domestic students. Your grades are obviously also important, but if you were educated in a foreign country, where the grading systems may not be comparable to the U.S., your SAT or ACT score will be the best tools colleges have to measure you against other people. And again, even if you don’t expect to go to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Penn, you’re still wise to get as high a score as you can, because you’ll be a very attractive candidate for merit-based scholarships.
It is unfortunate that most colleges emphasize the tests, as I said. But there are many test-optional and test-flexible colleges. So if you’re someone who is not a good test taker, and you don’t think you’re going to benefit from tutoring, you might want to steer yourself towards one of those schools.
Let’s talk about the essay. Are there any essay topics that you tell students to avoid?
Colleges need to see your individual voice, and they need to see that you’re bright and curious. They need to figure out how you’re going to contribute to their campus. Some topics — for example, breakups — don’t lend themselves as well to thinking about these college goals. So when it comes to writing about adversity, which many students do, you have to think about what the college really wants to know. Number one, they want to know why this event impacted you so much. Number two, they want to know what you learned from it. Number three, they want to know how it will help you be a better student. You have to be truthful and realistic, and you have to show your authentic self on your application, but there are some experiences, like a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, that might be really important to you, and a big part of your story, but they may or may not help you tell the right story for college.
You also just have to be careful around certain topics such as mental health struggles or violence, because you don’t know who the audience is and how they will respond. At the same time, if something is a huge part of your life, and it feels inauthentic not to share it, like you’re betraying yourself, then of course you should write about it. The right college will see you for who you are and accept you.
What is your biggest piece of advice for students who are applying to selective schools?
It’s something I mentioned earlier, which is to take advantage of the opportunity to develop relationships with people at the college. I think a lot of people are afraid to ask questions, and they’re afraid to approach people. But approaching college representatives can really help you stand out, because most people are afraid to do it. And I’m not just talking about admissions officers; I’m talking about professors and people from different resources centers, such as the resource center for underrepresented students, the Hillel or Jewish student organization, the civic engagement office, those types of groups. There are a lot of offices that are going to relate to student interests, and a great way to learn about a college is to think about what kinds of resources you will want to take advantage of once you get to the campus. When you’re researching schools, reach out to someone from those offices for a 15-minute call, and set up an appointment to stop by and meet in person if you’re planning a campus visit. Because you never know! Potentially, one of these offices could advocate for you if they really want you as a presence in their resource center on campus.
Building these types of relationships is a big opportunity that most applicants miss out on, so it’s the number one piece of advice that we give to every student.
Are you interested in working with Dr. Aviva Legatt? Reach out via the VivEd Consulting website.
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