Dr. Wray: Hi, everyone! Welcome! I’m Dr. Maggie Wray here from Creating Positive Futures Coaching where we help high school and college students develop the time management, study skills, and mindset they need to thrive.
I’m really excited and honored to be here today with Shirag Shammassian. He’s here to talk with us about The Myth of the Perfect Application and how to turn weaknesses into strengths. This is really important because most students out there don’t have the “perfect” application, but they can really make the most of what they do have and turn it into a really wonderful application that showcases what they are amazing at. Welcome! Thank you for being here.
Dr. Shemmassian: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to dive into everything.
Dr. Wray: Wonderful. I’d love to share, too, with people who are here a little bit about your story and background because I think it is so interesting and it will help them understand why I wanted to invite you here to speak today.
Dr. Shemmassian: Sure. I quick educational background about me. I did my undergrad in human development at Cornell and I did my PhD in clinical psych at UCLA, so I have a big heart for the mental health world and for working with students with disabilities and so on. I actually grew up with Tourette’s Syndrome myself. I still have the condition. I live with it every day and I’m happy to share insights about my personal admissions journey and how it can help students.
Really, how I got into this work, it developed organically. I went to a high school that had very few college admissions resources and very little support. I grew up in Los Angeles and the goal was to get into UCLA. We didn’t really think outside of that sort of bubble. Growing up in a small ethnic community, the Armenian community there.
I always wanted something different. I realized that I have to learn about it all myself. I was successful with my own admissions and getting into Cornell, and then along the way, when I was getting scholarships and getting into great schools and things like that, people were asking for support. I helped my brother get into medical school. I had friends of friends asking for support and parent’s friends asking kid’s support. It grew organically from there. And as they were having success, they were referring and referring, and this was born.
It’s always been a big passion of mine. I feel like with every passing year, when students get into their top-choice schools – this is going to sound kind of corny, but it’s still exciting – it’s like you getting in and reliving that moment. Just knowing that we can be a small part of a student’s academic and career journey is such a blessing.
Dr. Wray: That’s wonderful. I’m so excited that you’re doing that and offering that service, because as somebody who didn’t really have a lot of guidance as a high school student either, I know how difficult that can be to try to learn everything on your own. You hope you’re doing the right things, but you don’t really know because you don’t have anybody guiding you.
It’s such a valuable thing that you’re doing for students to help them figure out their path and figure out how to approach the process because it really can make such a difference in your life. Where you go to college, it’s not the end-all-be-all of the rest of your life. It’s not like if you don’t go to this particular college your life is over, the way that some students feel like it is, but it can make a real difference. I’m very excited that you do what you do. Thank you for it because I know a lot of kids really benefit.
Dr. Shemmassian: Of course. Thanks for your kind words.
Dr. Wray: I’m looking forward to diving in here and talking a little bit about some of the things that I’ve heard parents and students express concern about when it comes to their college application. Like you know, there really are very few students who have the perfect application, and even if there are some who maybe do have a great application, they always are going to think about the parts that aren’t as strong and worry about, “Oh, my gosh, is this going to get in my way? Is this going to keep me from getting in?”
College courses is a big one. I know colleges are looking at GPA. That’s a huge piece of the admissions decision. For students who are trying to decide, “How much do I push myself?” it’s this kind of this Catch 22 because they’re also looking at rigor. They want you to take hard classes, but they also want you to do well in your classes.
How do you help your students decide how to select a course and whether to go into that class that’s a little easier that they could get a better grade in or the harder one that’s going to push them?
Dr. Shemmassian: Wow. That’s a huge question that I’d love to unpack. You’re absolutely right in that schools – when I say schools, I mean colleges – aren’t just looking for the highest grades. They’re also looking for rigor.
I should back up for a second, too, and say that grades and test scores, like ACT and SAT scores, are still the foundation for a college application. There’s a lot of information out there about extracurricular activities and essays and things like that, but grades and test scores are sort of the threshold you have to meet to be considered for various schools. It’s incredibly important.
But, it’s not just the number that matters. It’s the rigor you take on. A student is going to be faced with a ton of choices when choosing their coursework at their high school and there are going to be various levels to things. You can take regular math, or you can take honors math, or you can take AP Calc and then there’s AP Calc AB and there’s AP Calc BC.
The classic question that comes up with this is: what’s better, basically, an A in a regular course or a B in an honors or AP course? The canned answer and the answer that a lot of people don’t want to here is, well, get the A in the AP or honors course.
Dr. Wray: Which is so unhelpful and that’s what the committees will always say, but what if you can’t do that?
Dr. Shemmassian: The short answer, and if we’re going to answer this directly, is to get the B in the AP or honors course. Of course, don’t aim for the B. Aim for the A. But, if you were faced with the decision of taking a B in an AP course or an A in the regular course, then take the B because rigor matters. Your competition is going to take very rigorous courses. So, if you have really, really high numbers, but then you haven’t taken anything too difficult and someone else has pushed themselves constantly, then that’s also going to make a difference.
It’s not just one AP course. It’s the number of difficult courses you take, how you do in them, which ones you chose, how they fit in with your overall admissions profile, because grades and test scores don’t exist in a vacuum. What a student does outside of the classroom does a lot in terms of forming a context around that student’s story. So, if one student does really well, for instance, in AP physics and gets a 4 or 5 on the AP exam and they’ve also done an internship in a physics lab over the summer, all of these things work together to tell a story, so we have to think more broadly about a student’s admissions picture.
Dr. Wray: That’s a good point, actually. And I do wonder, are there times then when strategically you might not want to take an AP? Say it’s that physics student, but they know they’re horrible at history, and technically to challenge themselves would be to take an AP European history class, but just the thought of that sounds so dreadfully boring to them and they’re not interested in it. They don’t want to do it, but they feel like, “I should because this is what colleges are looking for.” What do you think about that?
Dr. Shemmassian: I love that you used the word “should” because every time I hear a student say the word “should” that’s when a lightbulb goes off in my head that they might not be doing it because of self-motivation. They’re doing it because they believe someone else wants them to do it and that’s a really good red flag. If you say the word “should” you should catch yourself. That should be a hint that something might be awry.
Let’s think about the highest-level colleges for a second. Let’s take the Ivy League just because that’s what we typically think of at the highest level, but the same advice applies to any other really great school.
They get a ton of applications from really wonderful students all across the country and all across the world. Just based on numbers alone, it’s hard for them to differentiate the top candidates. They get a lot of applications from students with really high scores, really high test grades, who have taken all these courses and whatnot.
They’re looking for a diverse student body. By that, we don’t mean that they have to be well-rounded and do well in every kind of course and they have to do every kind of extracurricular activity so that they show well-roundedness. They want to be specialists in something.
Say this student who is really, really good at physics and driven by physics. Maybe they can develop their specialty in the sciences, so they can take the APs in physics, chem, bio, math, certain humanities that they’re good at. But, if there’s something that they don’t really like or they’re not really that great at, it doesn’t mean that they have to also bend over backwards to check some box because those boxes don’t really exist. Colleges are looking for the collection of those superstars within their niche who collectively will form a diverse student body.
If a student doesn’t like something and they say, “But, my friend Brian and Michelle are taking that. I have to take that, too.” Again, that should be a hint that maybe you’re doing this to please someone else rather than your own pursuit.
Dr. Wray: That’s great to know that because I hear a lot of students actually doing that comparing themselves to others game of, “Well, all my friends are doing this, this, this, so I have to take this, this, this. Otherwise, they’re ahead of me and I’m behind and then I’m never going to get into the schools that they’re getting into.”
It sounds like that’s not necessarily true because your specialty might be different.
Dr. Shemmassian: Yeah. If you try to replicate other people’s profiles, that’s when your profile becomes cliché. Let’s say you have a group of ten students and eight of them are taking all the same classes and they’re all in the same clubs. This person did science quiz bowl, so I have to do it. This person did Model UN and debate, so I have to do it. Now you have eight students who all took the same classes, presumably did well in all of them, and they all joined the same clubs. One was president of this one, one was president of that one. Now I’m an admissions committee. How do I choose? It’s blindly throwing darts.
But, you have to, as an applicant, have something that differentiates yourself. When I ask which one is Shirag, I want to know very quickly. Oh, he’s the student with X who has accomplished Y. But, if I say he’s one of the students at that school who took hard courses and joined those four clubs, now you’re one of many. There’s no way to really stand out. It becomes a little more random.
Dr. Wray: That’s a great point. It actually gets at another worry that I’ve heard students express. I was actually just talking to a parent about this the other day. She was saying that her son is really concerned about getting into colleges. He’s kind of playing it safe, honestly. I think his college list is a little bit under-competitive. He could probably get into better schools than he’s thinking of applying to. We’re trying to stretch him a little bit. He’s afraid because he’s only really done soccer and counseling at the summer camp. He hasn’t been involved in multiple different clubs. He hasn’t done lots of different things in terms of his engagement in school. I think in his mind, he’s thinking, “This isn’t what the colleges want. They want super-involved kids who are engaged in a lot of different things and I haven’t really done that.”
Do you think that’s true or do you think he’s under-selling himself?
Dr. Shemmassian: Based on what you’re telling me, I would lean to the latter. He may be under-selling himself. Depth matters. If you’re involved in a bunch of different things, there’s only so much depth you can achieve within each one. If you’re part of four clubs and two teams and stuff like that, it’s very difficult to develop a specialty.
Let’s say you asked me what I did for work and I told you I help with admissions consulting. I also own and operate a bakery. I also sell clothing or whatever. How good am I going to get at each one? Am I really going to become a true expert in each one? The answer is probably no, versus a student who says, “I’m going to do soccer and counseling, but I’m going to devote a lot of time to this stuff. I’m going to achieve great depth in each one.” That actually can be much more powerful than doing a bunch of different things at the service level.
I also want to encourage families to not think of any activity as just a hobby or just a something I do on the side because that’s another red flag. “Oh, it’s just a hobby of mine. It’s just something I like to do on the weekends.” You can leverage any activity to impress college admissions committees. For example, someone can play soccer and they counsel other students, so clearly they like helping other students. Maybe there’s a way to build a counseling program through soccer that they do in their local community or teach underserved kids in their community how to play soccer, and as part of that, there’s homework prep and they boost grades for students.
It’s not just what you do. It’s how you impact your community through what you do. That context also really matters. Don’t undersell all of the things you’re able to do just because it’s a sport or it’s just art or what have you.
Dr. Wray: That’s a great point. I think a lot of families aren’t really thinking that way. I’d love to learn a little bit more about that and how this is changing in admissions because there was a report that came out recently about how colleges are paying more attention to these types of activities and service elements. Could you share a little bit more about what that report was, what it was about, and why this should maybe shift the way that families are thinking about how to get their kids involved in things?
Dr. Shemmassian: Sure. I think the report you’re referring to is the one that came out through Harvard Graduate School of Education. It was calling Turning the Tide. It came out either in early 2017 or 2016. I forget. A lot of high-end schools endorsed this and so on. It reflects something that we in the admissions community have known for a long time.
A lot of current parents – parents whose kids are in high school and things like that – at the time that they applied to college ... It was changing a little bit when you and I probably were applying to college before there was this pull for well-roundedness, take all of these classes, do really well in them, join these clubs, be the highly involved kid and stuff like that. But, the game has changed dramatically.
Students were realizing, “I can join this club or do these things.” There were all of these low-threshold activities. By low-threshold, I mean how do you join the French club at school? You literally go and fill your name.
Dr. Wray: And go once a month.
Dr. Shemmassian: Right. So, they thought, “If I stack enough of these, then I’ll be super impressive.” But, these are low-threshold activities. Anything that’s very easy for an admissions committee to figure out how you got involved in is actually less impressive. The harder it is for them to figure out how you achieved something, the more impressive it seems.
So, if you do a lot of these low-threshold activities, signed up for something, went to a few meetings, joined this, I get it. But, there’s nothing that really jumps out at me versus the student who achieves depth. That was the well-roundedness approach.
As colleges figured out people have caught on to this well-roudnedness thing. I can’t really differentiate among all these students who have done a bunch of things at the service level. We’re looking for students who are authentically and actively engaged in their communities and are pursuing things because they want to pursue it, not because they think they should. They’re bright. Not only are they very smart people, but they see thousands upon thousands of applications from high-achieving kids every year, so they also have to figure out how do I form a student body that are experts, that are special, that are driven, that are passionate about something and they’ve pursued that authentically?
So, if a parent comes to us and a student comes to us and talk about, “Which courses should I take?” We can talk about that based on interests and whatnot. Then they’ll always ask what activities they should get involved in.
I’ll say it now. There’s no magic bullet activity. There is no special summer camp that if you go to you’re automatically going to get into Stanford. There is nothing like that. If you become president of the debate team, you’re not getting into Emory guaranteed. There’s nothing like that.
What matters is how everything fits together, and how have you used the opportunities that are available to you to make an impact in your community?
So, the student who says, “I like art,” I’ll ask, “What do you like about art?” Some students will say, “I like drawing,” and others will say, “I like teaching,” and another will say, “I like the way it moves people.” So, let’s figure out, based on that, what do you want to do next?
For example, one student who likes drawing art, maybe they can become an excellent artist themselves and show at galleries and get media attention for that and what have you, or they may sell their art and raise money for their favorite charity. Then they form a relationship with that charity and they do more work with that charity. Maybe someone says, “I love teaching others how to produce art,” so they teach kids in an underserved area or kids with disabilities how to produce art. Then they grow that throughout their city or at schools who cut the art budget.
There are so many ways to engage in that. I know I’m going on and on. I can think of a million examples. But, it matters. What do I have available to me and how can I help those around me? That’s really what the Turning the Tide, authentic community engagement, authentic experiences with diversity. If you’re able to show that, then you’ll be well on your way.
Dr. Wray: Thank you for sharing those examples. I think that really is helpful. It requires you to think a little bit more creatively. That’s the point. You can’t just walk in and sign up for French club and go once a month. It’s going to take a little bit more authentic engagement and a little bit more thought about, “How do I leverage my activities and interests?” So, especially for kids who feel like they don’t know what they’re interested in yet, it might be a little bit of work. But, it’s worth it because it’s not going to work anymore to just sign up for ten things and show up to ten things. You’re kind of wasting your time, in a way.
Dr. Shemmassian: Absolutely. Initiative and leadership matters. Leadership isn’t demonstrated necessarily through a title like President at the French Club. You have to demonstrate leadership through all of the things you’ve done. That’s much more powerful than any title you can get.
Dr. Wray: That definitely makes sense. There’s the activity section. We talked a little bit about that. There’s also the section of the application where we talk about honors and awards. I’ve heard from some families who are a little bit concerned because for whatever reason the school doesn’t really give many awards, so their child has never received an award of any kind.
Is it a huge liability for students if they completely leave that section blank? I’m also curious how deep should they be digging to come up with an award? Or, at some point, you should just let it be and let there not be any because you don’t want to say I won the second-grade spelling bee?
Dr. Shemmassian: Congrats on whoever won the second-grade spelling bee. Awards are not necessary. There are awards given by schools, but then there are also community awards and awards given by testing bodies. For example, if a student passes a certain number of AP tests with certain scores, then they’re going to get a national AP scholar award and things like that. So, even if a school doesn’t give awards, it doesn’t mean that you can’t get awards elsewhere, or there might be community awards or scholarships that you win. That’s one. Still, there might be students who don’t win any of these awards and that’s fine.
We should also say that awards are often a reflection of things that we already know about you. For example, if a student gets all As, whether a school puts you on an honor roll or even has a principal’s list doesn’t detract from the fact that you got all As. So, the school cares that your grades are really high, not that there was an additional award attached to the thing we already know.
For example, if there was a white shirt award at my school, I would win it today. But, regardless of whether or not my school had it doesn’t detract from the fact that I wore a white shirt. I hope that makes sense.
Dr. Wray: It does. I think the big point here is the admissions committees are aware of that. They’re aware that if you get the honor roll award, that doesn’t actually add much to your application.
Dr. Shemmassian: It doesn’t add more value than what we already know. Another way to approach this is if a student is concerned about that, then their counselor is going to write a recommendation letter or evaluation letter to be sent to various schools, especially private schools. They can also mention in their letters for that student that, “This student is among the X percent of students that we’ve ever had.” There are other ways to praise a student or tell an admissions committee how fantastic they are academically or in some other way.
They can even say our school doesn’t give awards, but of all the students I’ve seen here in my 20 years of being a counselor, they’re among the top 5% and I strongly recommend them. All that good stuff. When you can place that sort of context, in my mind that beats out any award, if you’re able to evaluate a student in that way and praise them.
Dr. Wray: That’s great to know. With the scholarships, you mentioned that briefly in passing about awards. Would it include, for example, I’m thinking scholarships that students can apply for? There are a lot of scholarships out there. We’re even going to have the interview series talking about specifically how you get scholarship and how to apply for scholarships.
So, if you won certain scholarships, even if they were scholarships you applied for, would those be things you could put on an awards list or honors list?
Dr. Shemmassian: Sure! If you applied for it and you were awarded it, then it’s an award. A lot of people wait until they get into college to apply to scholarships. Senior year they get an admissions decision and the financial aid offers. They’re like, “Oh, my gosh, I need to make up this difference. Let me find scholarships." But, there are a lot of scholarships that you can apply for prior to your senior year of high school or even local. Let’s say you are doing that kind of community initiative and your church awarded you $500 to go do this project. That’s an award.
I want people to think more broadly about this stuff, but at the same time, if the pendulum swings the other way, sometimes people will add things that aren’t super meaningful. So, in the same way that stacking up clubs and things like that isn’t beneficial, stacking up really low-level stuff or things that aren’t meaningful to you will also communicate to the admissions committee that you’re trying to over- reach a little bit here.
Just because you did something once doesn’t mean you have to put it in. I focus on quality over quantity any day.
Dr. Wray: What would be an example? For people who aren’t sure if this is overstepping an awards list or not. Have you seen any examples of things that you’ve sent to a student and, “I wouldn’t put this on here. I don’t think it’s enough of an award to go on the awards list?”
Dr. Shemmassian: I’m trying to think of not enough of an award.
Dr. Wray: Or even just a hypothetical one if you can’t think of one off the top of your head.
Dr. Shemmassian: I’ll do my best to think of one. Oftentimes it comes up in the activities. A student will do a bunch of different activities, but one of them was a low-level participation in a club, but then their other ones are really, really strong activities. We don’t necessarily need to put that in.
I’m trying to think of a specific honor. It could be student of the month or something like that. That’s an example. Again, it’s probably reflective of other things that we know and it’s a one-month thing. That jumps to mind. If a student wants to put that, it’s not like there’s a rule that you can’t put student of the month, but again, that won’t be, “Oh, my gosh! This student won student of the month. They’re a rock star!”
Dr. Wray: But, maybe they won it for something in particular that was a really lovely thing they did for another student that shows character and there’s space enough to put a little explanation for what you got it for. We’re not saying don’t put that on there. Don’t say, “Oh, I can’t put my student of the month on.” Maybe you can. But, the point you’re making is it has to fit into the context of the application and that we have to add value. You don’t want to put stuff on there just to fill space.
Dr. Shemmassian: Absolutely. We think about what story are we going to sell across the application material? I look at grades. I look at test scores. I look at extracurriculars and things like that. I ask, “What are the themes here? What are we going to share?” Then when we talk with students about personal statement or other college essay ideas, what can they write about? We try to figure out who they are as a person and what drives them, and how can we fit this all together?
When we have a cohesive story, it can be very, very powerful rather than an application that’s a bunch of disparate pieces.
Dr. Wray: And again, you sound like everyone else. You want to sound different.
Dr. Shemmassian: Right. Yes.
Dr. Wray: In this whole theme of standing out, looking like somebody is going to fit in out of school, I’ve heard some families say this. I just heard a family a couple of weeks ago. She was saying to her daughter and I was thinking, “No, don’t say this. Don’t create this myth.” Only people who have family connections are going to get into an Ivy League school. We don’t have any family who has ever gone to a school like that, so we shouldn’t even have those on your list. As somebody who went to an Ivy League school, I thought, “What are you saying? This is just not true.” She really believed that.
One thing I thought was really interesting was I saw an article on your site which I loved. It was all about how students can build connections with top schools even if they don’t have a family connection. I guess I’m curious. It’s a two-part question. One, is that true that you’ve got to have a family legacy, family connection, or given millions of dollars to build a building to get into certain schools? Then, if it’s not true, what can students do to start to build connections with schools even if they don’t necessarily know anyone there, no one from their family has gone there, and they’ve got no connection with it at all?
Dr. Shemmassian: There are some schools that have ... Of course, as time goes on, there will just be more and more legacy students at every school just because populations grow and all that stuff. I was reading an article I think in USC’s alumni magazine. I forgot where I came across it. I think they get legacy applications that can fill an entire class.
Dr. Wray: Wow.
Dr. Shemmassian: I’m sure this is true for other private schools and even public schools. Legacy alone isn’t the driver. Certain schools do have admission rates that are slightly higher for legacy students than non-legacy students, but that doesn’t mean that they’re the only ones who are getting in, not by a longshot. I totally hear you. I think I’m the only person from my high school ever to go to a Ivy League school I think before or since. There’s no such thing as you have to be legacy, and we’re not in the minority as being non-legacies who have gone to good schools and things like that.
The question is: how do you build connections? A lot of parents, just like you said, will say either someone had to have gone there or I have to donate millions upon millions of dollars to go there. Neither of those things are true. Again, it’s building a sense of fit with a school that matters. It’s not just, “I am this superstar and you should admit me.”
Let’s think about the transition here. I am trying to get into your school, so that I can get a great education, maybe build a really nice network, have a really great name on my resume’ and so on. But, from the school’s perspective, they’re wondering, “What’s in it for me? What are you bringing to the table? Why should we give you the resources versus all of these other students?”
You have to begin to show all of that, not only through your grades and experiences, but also in your interest in them. If you live near a school that you’re interested in attending, you have to go on an official campus tour. If you live in Atlanta and you apply to Emory and you say, “I’ve been wanting to go to Emory my whole life and they’re like, “Why haven’t you visited?” You’re in trouble.
We call this in the admissions world demonstrated interest. Some schools claim that demonstrated interest isn’t that big for them, but it is, and that trends seems to be going up. As admissions get more and more competitive, schools want to know that if we admit you, you’re going to come here because they also care about their yields. Yield is the percentage of students who get in who then come there because that also affects their ranking. They want to know who has demonstrated the most interest because the ones who have demonstrated the most interest are likely to come here which will boost our yield ranking.
So, how do you demonstrate interest? You can go on a college admissions tour. That’s fine. Again, low- threshold activity, though. If there was a tour guide or an admissions committee member that you met during your tour, send them a thank you note. An e-mail or a card is fine. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. You don’t have to try to bribe them or anything like that. Just say thank you and what you liked about the school. “I really loved X, Y, and Z,” a certain program or something.
Let’s say you’re interested in a specific field like European history, and while you’re going to visit that school, you e-mail a certain professor because you’re really interested in their work. Go spend 15-30 minutes with them and write them a thank you note. Perhaps you’re able to do a summer internship with that professor. Or, there’s a summer camp at that school that really fits your interest or you learn about certain programs that you demonstrate interest in or join their Facebook group or Instagram and comment. If a local admissions rep comes to speak at your high school, go to that.
A lot of times it’s not like you send your application and someone who has never heard of you reads it. A lot of times there are regional admissions reps. So, if I apply as a student from southern California and I live in San Diego, the southern California admissions rep might read mine because they’re familiar with the high schools in this area. They’ll know how good my high school is and what it took to get the grades that I did and my achievements. They’ll understand that context better. You have to build those local relationships, also. All of that stuff matters.
Any opportunity you have to visit, to speak with them, to keep in touch, do those things. If you can do research projects with professors, do those things. All of that will go into your file and help you stand out later on.
Dr. Wray: That’s fantastic and it’s something that I think a lot of students aren’t thinking about is how to show the college they actually really do care about them and want to show up, and that’s something that’s really important. Even down to a lot of colleges track your e-mail open rates. They’ll know if you’re opening these ten e-mails that college is sending you, or if you’ve never opened a single e-mail they’ve ever sent.
Dr. Shemmassian: And click through. Yeah.
Dr. Wray: Right. That’s something to think about, too. That connection piece is really important and that can help overcome, so if you don’t have a legacy connection or if you don’t have a lot of experience with the school but you clearly have demonstrated that you’ve gone to the campus for visits and you’ve connected with professors and you’ve connected with the admissions officers, you clearly really want to go. That might actually outweigh another kid who has never opened an e-mail or been to the campus, even if they’re legacy.
Dr. Shemmassian: Absolutely. Again, context matters. If you can’t afford a trip, like you live in California and you can’t afford a trip, that’s not going to be held against you. Again, context matters. Do the best you can with the opportunities that you have. The Internet gives you access to pretty much everything. Get in touch via social media, e-mail, do the virtual tour, ask questions, speak with students there. All of this stuff can be done remotely. You’ll be evaluated given your context.
Dr. Wray: Wonderful. The last piece I wanted to ask about in terms of other limitations that I’ve heard get in the way or students have been afraid that it’s going to get in the way of them getting into a school is if maybe they haven’t had the most stellar academic record for various different reasons.
For example, I work with a lot of students who have ADHD. We work on organization and time management and those are skills that students with ADHD often struggle with. Sometimes they haven’t been diagnosed until fairly late in high school where it’s just been a struggle for them from the beginning.
I worked with a student last year, and he’s doing much better now, but when we first started, he really had awful grades. It wasn’t because he wasn’t a brilliant, very intellectually curious kid, he just hadn’t figured out. He actually didn’t know that he had ADHD. He got diagnosed during his junior year. His grades were really a problem, especially like you were talking about, GPA is such a huge element of the admissions puzzle. I think he’s a little bit afraid that’s going to be held against him when it comes to college, that they won’t even look at him. He’s not sure how much he should bring this up in the essay or if that’s just going to sound like he’s making excuses.
I was just curious your thoughts. I know this is a big question. But, students with disabilities or students with learning differences, or whatever their situation is, students with challenges that they’re dealing with that have impacted their ability to do well as a high school student or impacted their ability to get involved or whatever it is, how do you address that in an application in a way that turns that into a positive story instead of having it hold you back?
Dr. Shemmassian: There are multiple places where you can address these types of issues, like impact of disability on your life, your academics, and so on. At a high level, you can write about it in an essay, whether that’s your personal statement or a supplemental essay which are the school-specific essays. That’s one.
There’s an additional comment section on an application. That’s more of the matter-of-fact, this is what I have, and all that kind of stuff. We’ll get into that in a moment.
The other thing is someone else can write about it. A recommender can write about it. If you’re not comfortable sharing it or you don’t want to make it seem like you’re making an excuse, someone else can do that for you and that’s usually better. By better, I mean if you say, “This impacted me this way, so you should look at my scores differently,” or something like that. Someone else should say that.
If you are going to write about it in an essay, there are certain dos and don’ts. I’ve actually written this in an article and I’m happy to share it. We can link to it.
Dr. Wray: We can link to that below the video. That would be great.
Dr. Shemmassian: I’ll read the do and don’t pieces. There’s more explanation, but I’ll quickly read. The first one is don’t write a story with the intention to make the admissions committee feel bad for you in any way. Conversely, write a story that demonstrates your unique qualities and how you’ll be a good fit with the particular school. If you write about it in an essay, “This is all the stuff that I’ve had to struggle with. You should really feel for me. This is what I’ve had to deal with that other students don’t.” That’s not good enough. But, if those things have helped you demonstrate certain qualities that you have, I want to know what those qualities are and how you’ve demonstrated it. Is it grit? Is it resilience? Is it compassion? Is it empathy? What has developed as a result of having disability? Not just it’s been hard, it’s impacted my grades, this isn’t a true indicator of how I can really perform at your school. That’s not going to help you out.
Another thing is don’t write simply how you’ve dealt with your disability. Again, communicate how working through it helped you grow. The growth and change process is what matters to these admissions committees. If someone doesn’t have a disability, but maybe they’ve been overweight their whole life, or there’s another challenge like they’ve had to move all the time. Different people experience different challenges. It’s not a contest of who has had it the toughest. It’s who has grown through it and is reflective and can communicate how they’ve grown. That’s really powerful. That’s two.
Three is don’t present yourself as someone who has overcome every issue related to their disability. Rather, you want to be seen as a work in progress. So, if we’re all honest with ourselves, whether or not you have a disability, we all have different challenges. It’s not like you figure out and all of a sudden it’s over and you never struggle with that thing again. Someone who has ever had self-defeating thoughts isn’t like, “Oh, I never have those anymore.”
Dr. Wray: That’s totally solved.
Dr. Shemmassian: It’s all gone. You achieve a certain level of growth, but there’s still room to grow. That work in progress demonstrates not only humility, but it shows the college that you’re the place I want to continue growing in this way, because if you’re like this complete person, why do you need the education? Why do you need the four years of college? Colleges want to know that you’re going to fit in with what they have to offer to help you become the person that you can be. Those are the essay tips.
In the additional comments section, you can not discuss disability at all in your essay but leave it to the additional comments section where you say, “Hey, since seven years old, I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD. It impacts this, this, and this. I actually work with a coach. It’s been incredibly helpful. That said, I haven’t had a lot of resources at my high school. I know that with the resources offered in university, I can achieve closer to my potential.” Something like that. Then a recommender of course can write about, “Not only is this student impressive, but they’ve done it despite X, Y, and Z. This puts in my mind he or she is one of the most impressive students I’ve seen because ...”
Those are the three ways that I would encourage students to approach it, and for each student it’s different which one they should leverage.
Dr. Wray: That’s very helpful. Do you have any quick guidance on how you know? Should I mention it in my essay? Should I mention it in the additional information, is there anything else you want us to know about you section? Should I mention it in the recommendation?
Dr. Shemmassian: It’s truly case by case. It becomes clear pretty quickly. Here’s a good question, actually, students and parents can ask themselves. If a student says, “I think I should write about Tourette’s Syndrome,” or, “I should write about Autism,” or something like that, my follow-up question is always, “What’s the point?” By that, I mean why would you share this? What is it that you’re trying to communicate? If there’s a reason why you want to use your personal statement to communicate that fact about you, then it’s a great place. If you’re doing it just because you think you should and it’s something that others don’t have, that in and of itself is not a good enough reason, so that would negate it in a personal statement, and I would think more additional comments.
Now, if a student thinks they should write it in an essay – and again, that’s not a good enough reason – and they don’t feel comfortable discussing it themselves, then maybe the recommender should write it. There’s this decision tree that we try to go with.
Dr. Wray: That makes a lot of sense. That’s so helpful. Actually, this whole set of information has been so helpful. I’m so glad we got to cover all of this because I think a lot of times students doubt themselves when it comes to the college application process. They worry that they’re not going to be good enough. They compare themselves to everyone around them and they have this fear, “I’m not going to match the expectations that these college admissions people have.”
What you’ve shared, which has been so fantastic, is giving a lot more hope to students that, hey, there are actually a lot of things in your control that you can do that can have an impact on this. It’s not a guarantee. There’s never a guarantee. But, a lot of this is actually in your control and the way you frame it matters and that’s something you control as well. Thank you for sharing all of that. It’s been really interesting.
I know you’re really big on making sure that students another aware of the secrets that people don’t talk about. We talked about some of them here today, this idea that, for example, you don’t necessarily have to take all the AP classes that your school offers. You might want to develop a specialty. There are a lot more of them as well. I know people can download on your site a list of those, the secrets that people don’t talk about. What do you go through in that list, just so people know what they’d get access to?
Dr. Shemmassian: This is something that I encourage folks to sign up for. Through our site, we offer The Top 10 College Admissions Secrets that No One Talks About and basically what you should be doing instead.
There are certain things that you hear out there. You have to take every AP course. You have to sign up for every extracurricular activity that you can. All that stuff. A lot of the advice that we hear out there is actually wrong, and if you follow it, you can get yourself into trouble.
If you take too many of the highest-level courses and bend over backwards to make sure that you get incremental gains in your SAT score or stuff like that or join these low-level clubs, you’re actually going to be taking up a lot of time. That’s the time that you would actually be using to develop a niche extracurricular profile and go deeper.
Time is hugely important and hugely valuable in the admissions process because students and parents are scrambling. Every time a student has free time, they’re like, “They have time! Should they take a class at the local community college? Should they join this other club?” Slow down because that self- exploration and the time it takes to develop a niche is what you need to be using that time difference for.
The 10 College Admission Secrets that you’re referring to all work together to drive that point home. I think families will learn a lot from that.
Dr. Wray: That’s fantastic. It’s a great list. Just go below our interview video and right below it there will be a link to grab a copy of that. It will direct over to the site and you can get a copy for yourself. Definitely make sure you read through those and you’re not falling prey to any of these myths because you will hear people around you recommending that you do these things that are really not things you want to actually be doing. Make sure you grab a copy and double check to make sure you’re not falling into any of those traps.
We’ve covered some of them today, too. If you found this interview helpful, if you’ve enjoyed it, please share it with your friends. Share it with perhaps even your college counselor or other people that you know who have kids going through this process because there’s a lot of stress put on kids to check off all of these boxes, some of which don’t even need to be checking or they have fears about themselves that aren’t really well-founded.
So, please help share this information because I think it will reduce the stress of a lot of kids out there who are afraid they don’t have the perfect application and help them understand they don’t have to be perfect and they are wonderful just the way they are. Please share.
Encourage people to go to YourTeenReadyForCollege.com and they can get free access to the whole series. This replay will be up for the next 48 hours and you can also get lifetime access through our Your Teen Ready For College Success Package. It also includes some bonuses, including 10% off of all the advising programs that you offer through your college advising process. That’s really fantastic. Thank you for offering that.
Dr. Shemmassian: Of course. If you visit our site, it’s very easy, or if you sign up for the 10 College Admissions Secrets, it’s very easy to get in touch with me. If you ever want to set up a complementary 30-minute consultation, you just have to click a link and choose a time from my calendar. I’m always happy to chat with families about their child’s admissions processes. There’s so much misinformation out there, so if we can even do a small part in shedding light on what they should actually be pursuing, then that’s great.
Dr. Wray: Thank you so much for offering that. For anyone who is watching, definitely take advantage of that because it’s such a gift to get such expert advice. It takes a lot of the pressure of to know that you’re making the right decisions.
Thank you, everyone, for being here. Thank you, Shirag, for joining us. It’s been such a pleasure. I really have enjoyed it.
Dr. Shemmassian: Thanks for having me, Maggie. Take care, everyone.
Dr. Wray: Bye, everyone. See you soon.