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It's more competitive than ever when it comes to preparing for college. We'll have tips to give you an edge.

May 8, 2012 1:10 p.m.


Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz, author, adMission Possible

Related Story: Steps To Get Into The Best College


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. As the high school year comes to an end in San Diego, lots of students and parents will turn their attention to another school. Specifically college. Summer break is the time when many high schoolers check out campuses, take advanced placement courses, or take summer jobs to beef up their college application resumes. Admissions are more competitive than ever, and kids are looking for an edge to make their application stand out. What if the main criteria was if a college was right for you? A new guidebook bills it as the dare to be yourself guide to colleges for you. The author of the book, admission possible, Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz. Welcome to the show.

SHAEVITZ: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: It almost seems like some students start assembling their college admissions packages in grade school. Why is it so crazy?

SHAEVITZ: Well, first of all, the reality is that more and more people are applying, and also what is going on is that the acceptance rates of the colleges are going down and down and down. In fact, many of the ivies have acceptance rates of 5, 6, 7%. So often people get fixated on getting into the best colleges. And that probably is not really the best way to go, simply because no matter who you are, what kind of student you are, the chances of getting in are really quite slim.

CAVANAUGH: How much can students and parents rely on school counselors to guide them through the process of college admissions?

SHAEVITZ: Well, I think the school counselors who are out there are simply wonderful, but one of the things that's going on is that the counselor ratio here in California is the lowest in the nation. It is in many cases 1000 students to one counselor. And so what happens is that they have every good intention. They do everything that they can. But you know what? They don't have very much time to see students in many cases the studies say it may be as little as 20 minutes in one year. So what this means is that people have to go outside for sources, such as books, the Internet, and sometimes, you know, attending seminars and so forth because it's really falling into everybody's laps.

CAVANAUGH: Your book, admission possible, it gives an enormous amount of information about college admissions. Included is sort of a philosophical premise, that you say kids should figure out what they want out of college. Why is that important?

SHAEVITZ: Well, because what happens is if you decide that you're going to approach this in a better way than everybody else, and what I tell students that I work with, you need to be a little bit better, and a little bit different from the competition, and that will help you be successful. You start out really with who you are. This is followed by what kind of student you are. And then what do you love to do? What you then do is connect that to the kind of colleges that are best going to fit you. The really ironic thing about this, it sounds very narcicisstic, and me me me. But this is a responsible who am I, what do I like, what do I want, what do I love to do? You follow this then with choosing colleges that really fit you that connect all to those pieces about yourself. The interesting thing is that when you do that, when you choose based on that query of yourself, you have a better chance of getting into the colleges and the other thing is that it increases your chance of being happy once you're there.

CAVANAUGH: Right. That's so important too. Can you actually tailor maybe your summer jobs, your volunteer work to stand out from the pack based on an evaluation of what your passion is, basically.

SHAEVITZ: Absolutely. Let's do San Diego. Let's say you're a surfer. One of the things you can do for the summer, let's say you work for a surfing group that essentially teaches disadvantaged kids how to surf. Let's say you go to the Scripps aquarium and you volunteer there or maybe what you do is you take a marine science class. What you want to do is take what your interests are and go every which way you can with them because you may not end up being a professional surfer, but I once worked with a student who started that way and is now working on his PhD. In green science. So starting with a kernel of truth about who you are is a wonderful way of determining what to do with your summers as well as what kind of college you want, what kind of major you want, and what you're going to do with your life.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as I said Marjorie -- by the way, I'm speaking with Marjorie Hanson Shaevitz, about her book called admission possible. As I said in the beginning, a lot of families go on trips during the summer time with their high schoolers to check out campuses and so forth. Summertime. When you visit a campus, what should you be looking for

SHAEVITZ: Well, first of all, let's talk to the students specifically.


SHAEVITZ: The first thing you do in the next one minute, two minute, three minutes, check it out. Does this feel like a good place for you? There's this author, Malcolm Gladwell, who has the bling philosophy. When you come on a campus and in the first two or three minutes you say I can't wait to go here! Or huh-uh, this is not the place for me, pay attention. Those first impressions are not superficial. They're really everything about you and what appeals to you and what it is that makes you happy.

CAVANAUGH: And it's not your parents' impressions. It's your impression.

SHAEVITZ: That's right. Thank you for saying that. But the second thing is that if it passes the first smell test, then part of what would be useful is to go to the admissions office and sign in. This is particularly true for the smaller colleges because you see, interestingly enough, colleges often keep track of how interested you are in them, and that can even help you in terms of getting in. Colleges don't want to take students who are going to reject them. So you're showing interest in them is going to be very critical. Walk around the campus. Try to talk with students. See if they're like you. Asc them questions about the relationships that students have with professors and are they good one, and can you get in to see them. Look for things that you love to do and check them out. If you're an athlete, go talk with the coach. If you have learning disability, go talk with the learning center. Make it a personalized individual, and if you have time and can arrange this, sit in in a class to see what it's like.

CAVANAUGH: Whether or not a family can afford a certain college is often a huge consideration, what is your advice about that?

SHAEVITZ: Well, there are some wonderful resources now available. There are financial aid calculators that every school in the country offers. And what you do is you plug in your financial background with what is likely to come from the college, and basically you get a kind of sense of things. But my suggestion to students is that you don't really ever know exactly what that financial aid is going to be until they accept you. So don't eliminate all colleges because believe me, there's money out there. There are merit scholarships, and especially for under served students, sometimes the entire thing is paid for. So my suggestion is to start again with yourself and then do a good job of looking at what the resources are through their financial aid calculators, and there are some wonderful resources. And I have a website, that's totally free, I have a whole section on financial aid. I even have a questionnaire that you can go through and ask yourself about what's going to be good for me. And this is very, very important homework to do before you go out and visit or select colleges.

CAVANAUGH: You're right. A lot of kids as you say, under served kids, of all kinds, who don't know how to go through this process of college admissions don't get much help from the counselors who are trying their best, but there's just not enough of them. These students could go to for-profit colleges --

SHAEVITZ: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: Who basically accept anyone who pay for the courses. What are the down sides of that?

SHAEVITZ: Well, I think one of the things that you have to be careful about, for-profit colleges, you need to check out their better business bureau reputation, because some are unscrupulously. You can look at private colleges too. They have many times especially for underserved students, a lot of money to give away to help them do this. And by the way, one of the things I'm trying to do is to work with the San Diego library system so that they'll begin providing even better book resources, Internet resources, and a place where students can use their computers to apply to colleges. So stay online and you may be finding that there are sources available to underserved students pretty soon.

CAVANAUGH: Now, it's obvious that this has become your passion.

SHAEVITZ: You bet.

CAVANAUGH: How did that happen?

SHAEVITZ: Well, it starts like everybody else. I knew about admissions from work I had done at Stanford and UCSD. But it never means anything as much as when your own children go through it.

SHAEVITZ: And so first my son, and then my daughter went through this process. And I was thoroughly confused and overwhelmed and annoyed. And it just seemed like there were so many myths and misconceptions, I decided I was going to find out what this was all about. And I did, and fortunately they got into all the colleges that they applied to. And my best friend asked me to help her son. And what happened is he got in too. And then she told everybody. So I ended up changing professions.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I want to talk just a moment more about the online version of this book. First of all the book itself, admission position, is very user friendly. There's checklists and timelines for students. But the online version is completely free T. Contains most of the information that's in the book. Why was it so important for you to have that free online?

SHAEVITZ: Well, listen, I know a lot about college admissions. I've been working in this area for 20 years. Why should I keep this information to myself? Why should people have to pay for it? I think it's really important that every student have available to him or her what it's like to go to college, and to know everything there is to know about it so that they can do it with less stress, understanding what needs to be done when. And rather than tell people what to do, I show them what to do because I think it's very important we have samples and examples and checklists, and timelines, so it's not so upsetting and frustrating.

CAVANAUGH: We have to end it there. Thank you so much

SHAEVITZ: Thank you.

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