The landscape for applications in the greater Los Angeles area shifts rapidly and it seems that every year, parents and students face new challenges. Limited spaces, difficult testing expectations, vague answers from admissions advisors and conflicting information from other parents converge into a complicated grab bag of half-truths and rumors. We all want the best for our kids and can’t get enough information about what the best might actually be.
Our experience over the last 18 years of ISEE and SAT tutoring has generally shown that admissions teams don’t set out on a hunt for a specific type of student with a niche set of skills, GPA or teacher recommendations. Instead, schools want students to assemble a student body with unique talents and skills that enrich the overall climate of the school. Rather than finding a way to fit their families into the mold that the school may or be not be looking for, admissions teams wish that parents knew ahead of time, even in the years leading up to admissions, how to help students become strong applicants and better-rounded individuals.
1. Outside Activities! Do More than the Minimum
Stand-out applicants find what they are passionate about and go for it! They try new things and take risks. Students should push themselves to try something new in sports, music, art, robotics, volunteering, or job-shadowing. These students look ahead to a life that will ask them to change their skill-sets multiple times, so learning a new skill, experimenting and pushing their comfort zones, and branching out to a different opportunity will prepare them for the variety of challenges ahead. Students who broaden their base of experience will inevitably be more self-aware and mature. They should know what they like and why. They should also know that it’s ok to try an internship or shadow a job and know that it isn’t the right fit. Give your child opportunities to try, fail and keep going! The standard for a child is not perfection; it’s connection!
2. Building Relationships and Mentorships
We all know we will have to approach a teacher, coach or religious leader for a letter of recommendation, but what we don’t often think of is that these teachers are writing recommendations almost constantly. The best recommendations come from a place of genuine respect and a relationship with a student that goes beyond superficial relationships. It is in poor taste, to say the least, to spend time with a teacher in anticipation of that solid letter they are certainly penning in their heads during every interaction they have with your child. However, fostering empathy and maturity in your child at the level where they demonstrate compassion and kindness to their peers and mentors shows a tremendous skill for students that goes far deeper than school applications. Understanding the human experience beyond one’s own boundaries is a stand-out trait in students.
Teach and model for your child how to connect with peers and adults in a meaningful and empathetic way to ask thoughtful genuine questions. Build relationships outside of screens and give them real-life connections with a wide background of people. It is a challenge for us all to push back against a massive societal trend, but the rewards of giving your child the social and empathy skills to connect with a broad range of different backgrounds go far beyond school applications. This is a vital skill for their lives!
3. Dealing with Privilege and Entitlements
There will always be a difficult balancing act with each parent and guardian in giving your child every opportunity while also acknowledging the tremendous disparities and limited options that their peers have even a few miles away.
The perspective and awareness of privilege for adults and children push some very uncomfortable boundaries, so choosing a volunteer opportunity that fits the personalities of the students makes a big difference on the emotional tax it might take for a family to stick to their commitments long-term. Awareness of one’s own privilege and the responsibilities and difficulties that come with that make for a more mature student who generally tends to be more successful in empathy and making human connections.
This also helps with point number 2: empathy! It will never be a simple conversation, but a long-term discussion of how volunteering with those under-served affects our decisions and changes our perspective on the needs vs. wants in our own lives.
This is not simple. It isn’t easy for me to discuss and it’s harder to teach, but so often the idea that money can solve a problem permeates our deepest sub-consciousness. A no-nonsense mom we worked with years ago said, “Money alone won’t get [my child] into Harvard-Westlake, but it will get me therapy and chocolate.” Her perspective helped ground her sense of what could or could not be done with financial resources alone. Most schools look for a student who thrives in many environments and will not feel restricted by a non-homogeneous community. This means that the more successful students have spent time in environments that push their levels of comfort and give them skills to communicate in nuanced ways.
No matter the circumstance, we should never expect that our ability or inability to pay for tuition for our school of choice is a reason to get us in or keep us out. Schools have an interest in building a strong school culture, educating a strong alumni class and building a diverse student body in abilities, socio-economic backgrounds, and talents.
4. The Importance of Being Yourself
By the time your applications are in and you are there for the interview, schools have a good sense of what you bring to their school. It breaks my heart every time I hear of a student who has dyslexia (or any disability) and doesn’t want the school to know of it because they are worried that the schools would not accept them! If a school wouldn’t accept you because of a disability, that is not a good school for you! Find somewhere that you feel safe being you.
Know what you like and who you are! This is a big step in maturity, but if you have done your due diligence, you are well on your way to self-awareness and a clear sense of how or why you fit in at a school and what makes you special or unique. This goes beyond just self-confidence to self-awareness. As an applicant and a person, you like and dislike specific things for a reason. That knowledge is a special skill and that, combined with the ability to empathize with those who have different preferences, puts you in a class of incredible wisdom.
More than trying to become what you feel these schools want to see, you should know they want to like you! No one is out to judge you or dissect your wrong answers! They want to like you and get to know you. The more you can say about yourself in an in-depth way, the more you are bound to impress.
5. Do Your Homework.
Get ready to burn some shoe leather and do your due diligence. Visit schools, go to events and fairs, talk to friends. Students feel they need to apply to the school where all their friends are going, but there is a refreshing resilience in a student who knows they want a school for the programs, staff or facilities. If they know already what they like because they have done internships, sports, and music, then they know better what they love and why.
Does the school have matriculations to high schools or college programs that interest your child? Is there a field for sports or an auditorium for music? Do you feel welcome when you go on campus?
Do the work for your child to show that you are looking ahead. This process usually takes about 6-9 months, so give yourself time to be sure you have a good knowledge base of the options that are out there. Don’t make a school fit you! Find a school that is a good fit.