Ep 149: Does Your Teen Look Good On Paper?

Episode Summary

Aviva Legatt, author of Get Real and Get In, joins us for a behind-the-scenes look at the college admissions process and what your teen can do to stand out from the crowd. Plus, how being on student council might actually hurt their chances!

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

We’ve always been told that the secret to getting a teen into college is for them to look perfect on paper. We nag them to join the honors society, sign them up for a hundred SAT tests, or even convince them to quit guitar lessons to make time for academic decathlon. But what if simply checking all the right boxes of what colleges are “looking for” isn’t the right approach anymore? Could it be that admissions officers are getting a little bored of reading essay after essay about the challenges of AP biology?

We might just be so focused on helping teens fit the mold we aren’t encouraging them to think outside of the box! More than just routine extracurriculars or high test scores, admissions officers want to see that kids have unique talents and passions. Instead of pushing kids to drop dance for the debate team, maybe it’s time we talked to them about how their natural interests can propel them towards a brighter future.

To get a behind-the-scenes peek at what college admissions officers are really looking for, we’re talking to Aviva Legatt, author of Get Real and Get In: How to Get Into the College of Your Dreams by Being Your Authentic Self. She’s also the founder of Ivy Insight, the gold standard in college admissions consulting! Her advice for your teen? Forget what they’ve been taught about being the “perfect” college applicant, and be themselves instead!

Aviva and I are talking about what she calls the “impressiveness paradox”, or why fancy shmancy credentials alone might not help your teen get into the school of their dreams. We’re also covering how teens can tap into their passions to find their potential, and the value of making connections with people on campus before even submitting their application.

Getting in by Being Authentic

Students and parents are constantly told the same things about getting into college: they’ll need perfect grades, perfect test scores, and academic extracurriculars to round it all out. And sure, that might have been the golden formula for getting in a decade or so ago…but times are changing! More and more students apply every year, with thousands of students submitting the same “ideal” college app. Aviva explains that for admissions officers, this rigid approach is no longer the key to getting that acceptance letter.

Instead of trying to seem perfect, kids should be aiming to be themselves, says Aviva. Those reading applications are much more interested in a student who seems authentic, someone who shows they have a spark of excitement and passion. If kids are enrolling in a coding club but just sitting in the back of the meetings texting, college admissions officers are going to see through that facade! Just going through the motions of being a model applicant won’t thrill anyone.

So how can students show off their real interests in their application? In the episode, Aviva drops some tips for students to exhibit their genuine love for orchestra or student government. This includes not only writing killer essays, but also finding the right letters of rec to highlight their spirited involvement in whatever it is they love to do. The goal is for the student’s joy and passion to come off the page while an admissions officer is reading it!

Not sure what your teen’s passion is or how they can write about it? Aviva and I tackle that too!

Turning Passion into Purpose

For teens who love gaming or jamming out on the drums, it can be hard to turn their interest and a winning college app. Aviva suggests inquiring what it is about music or Fortnite that excites your teen. Consider evaluating what skills and benefits their chosen pastime brings to their lives and the lives of others! 

For example, if your teen is a film buff, there might not be a clear life skill involved. But your teen probably has a rich knowledge of history and the arts. Maybe they’re wise about the business side of the industry! They might even consider setting up and running community movie nights, to benefit a charity. Then, when they go to work on that application, they’ll be able to describe how they marketed the event, overcame the technical challenges of the projector, collaborated with others to put the event on, and so on and so forth! 

As adults who’ve seen a little more of life’s challenges, we know that not every one of our teens’ passions is going to bring financial stability. It’s easy to assert ourselves in their decisions and tell them what to spend their time doing. But Aviva suggests taking a backseat and letting kids find their interests on their own. Then, when they’ve found something, she recommends encouraging them to run with it! By providing opportunities and allowing them to spread their wings, you’ll help them become confident and capable adults.

Now, even an application that’s buzzing with originality could benefit from some good ol’ fashioned networking. Aviva and I discuss how your teen can make some connections on campus before applying to make their application pop.

Networking to Get Noticed

We all know that a job application can benefit from knowing some folks at the company. A cover letter addressed to a specific person is always more powerful! So why shouldn’t a college application be the same? In the episode, Aviva gives the lowdown on how teens can get to know some folks at their dream school to give their application an extra bit of oomph.

The trick is getting to know some people on campus! Aviva has a three part checklist for teens who are trying to make connections with the administration at any school. The first step is for your teen to define their intentions. What programs or extracurriculars will they be involved in once they start attending? Have they picked a major yet? These choices can guide teens to reach out to staff members of certain departments or specific program coordinators. It also helps teens know what questions to ask when they do get in contact!

The next step is to ask for a bit of that person’s time. Although it might be intimidating, these folks are educators! Their goal is to guide students on a learning journey. Most likely, if teens tell them they’re a student, they’ll be happy to have a chat, says Aviva. The last step is a follow up. She suggests teens send a note or an email thanking them for taking the time to talk. This will help them remember who your teen is and will leave a good impression, so when their name comes up in the application process, they’ll have a leg up.

In the Episode….

This week’s interview is chock full of valuable advice for college applicants and their parents! On top of the topics mentioned above, we cover:

  • How the application process can help teens self reflect
  • Why the apps have changed over the years
  • What teens can learn from their weaknesses
  • How to help a teen who’s a little too worked up about their applications

I loved Aviva’s message about applying to college: no matter where you get in, getting real is invaluable. 


Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Redirect your teen’s thoughts when they don’t get what they want:

“If you don’t get [what you want], it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do that. It might mean you have to approach it differently or it might mean you have to do something else.”

Dr. Aviva Legatt

2. Use a business metaphor to show your teen they need to invest in themself:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: So the book is called, Get Real and Get In: How to Get Into the College of Your Dreams by Being Your Authentic Self. I’m curious about this, because it seems to me like some of these things are contradictory. Isn’t getting into the college of your dreams about checking boxes and making yourself into the person that they want you to be? You say that you can get into the college of your dreams by being your authentic self. How is that possible? Can these things co-exist, authenticity and being real and also getting accepted? And what does that look like?

Aviva: Great. Well, I’m happy to jump right in. This book was born out of a lot of different things. So first was my own experience as a high school student applying and the stress that it took. And I have to say at that time, I did try to put myself into a box in a way. I was trying to figure out like, “Okay, what exact score do I need? What extracurriculars do I need to get in?” And I think that’s so often how kids and parents approach this process is like, “Okay, what boxes do I need to check to make sure that I am competitive enough, that I’m ready, that I feel like I can make a good impression when I go to apply?”

Aviva: The reality is though, even though that was going through my mind at the time of the application itself, the push that I gave myself to apply at that time actually helped me become a better person and a leader. So basically, before I went into the professional world of admissions, where I worked at the Wharton School to help students get evaluated, selected for freshmen transfer and pre college, before I built up all these degrees and credentials in higher ed, I was just a kid.

Aviva: So through the process, I had to do a lot of research myself, so that was really valuable to think about, “Okay. Well, what environment do I want to be in? What kind of people do I want to surround myself with? What do I want to study?” All of these questions, they may sound basic and box checky, but they actually require a lot of thought. Even though, in some ways I think that we do check these boxes and we do try, these questions are actually really important. And if people take this process seriously and don’t just box themselves into their goals, then they can actually get a lot from this process, and ultimately from their lives.

Aviva: In this book, I interview leaders as well about their high school to college experience, and some cases their college experience came out as well. So what was interesting to me that was to think about this is a critical juncture in people’s lives, where they’re making these really important life choices, and they’re very young. And I think everybody has some story behind that. Some of the stories are more, let’s say, rich with detail than others. Some people might just say, “Well, I applied to my local community college because that was what I could afford. And then I transferred.” But if you dig underneath, there’s probably more to that decision than just, “Hey, I went with the easiest option for me to get into, or the most affordable one.” There were a lot of other considerations that went into it.

Aviva: So by interviewing these different leaders, I was able to uncover some details about how they approach their process. And I picked people who I thought, these people are role models in some way to some people. And if you can see some of yourself in them, some of their anxieties, some of their challenges and what you’re going through, then perhaps those anxieties and challenges, A, won’t seem so overwhelming, and, B, you can know that even if you have these anxieties and challenges at a young age, that you do have a great potential for your future however you decide to approach this.

Aviva: So when I wrote this book, I wanted to really underscore that figuring out who you are and what you want is the journey to college that you want to take, and it’s ultimately the journey that’s going to help you be the most competitive applicant possible and the most successful person.

Andy: What is the impressiveness paradox, and why do you start out in your book talking about it?

Aviva: So the impressiveness paradox is essentially, as we were talking about with the box checking, if you’re just trying to, let’s say, add on different community service hours for the sake of adding them on, or saying like, “Oh, I want to be president of a club because it looks good for college,” you’re trying to make an impression about yourself. And that impression, if there’s nothing behind it, is not going to actually help you. Because if you’re the president of a club, but you’re basically going through the motions of being the leader, and you’re just saying, “I want the role,” then you’re not really actually going to make a good impression. Versus somebody who maybe didn’t do a school club, but they wrote a book, or they decided to start an organization and bring in other collaborating schools to do that.

Aviva: People who do things that are a little bit more out of the box actually can be more competitive than people who simply go in with the things that they think colleges want to see. And oftentimes those are president of a school club, community service hours, the National Honor Society, blah, blah, blah. But those things are really boring to read about when you’re on the admissions side, and not to put down the involvement of Model United Nations, but I feel like it was like 90% of the applicants who were involved in MUN. And it’s like, I’m happy for you if you love your MUN club and you’re getting a lot out of it, but don’t just do MUN because you think that’s what you should do. Or don’t just do student council because you think that demonstrates your leadership as a student. There are student councils at every school, and, of course, a lot of college applicants are involved in the student council, president of student council, representative of student council.

Aviva: So again, not to discourage anybody from doing that if they really want to, but just to say that like there are things you can do and don’t feel like you have to make this impression where you have to box yourself into this club, because this is a club that on paper demonstrates leadership. It actually makes you pretty boring in a lot of cases.

Andy: But isn’t that what we’re supposed to do is figure out what they want and then do that?

Aviva: Absolutely. I mean, if you want to be in student council, again, I’m not here to discourage you, but a lot of times when people do do an activity like student council or Model United Nations, they’re not necessarily doing it at a very involved level. Maybe they go to some meetings, they show up to the meetings.

Andy: Yeah, you’re going through the motions almost—

Aviva: Yeah, exactly.

Andy: —because you’re trying to get it on your resume, and you’re not passionate about it.

Aviva: There’s no passion behind it, right. So there was no motivation other than like, “Oh, I should do this for college.”

Andy: How does that come across on the application? Because doesn’t it still look the same, whether you’re passionate about it or not if it says student council?

Aviva: Well, the reality is that the way you demonstrate yourself is a little bit different than how you experience things. So you might have an amazing passionate experience in student council, but if you don’t explain that, then it’s not going to be very impressive. However, I’d say beyond your own self-representation, there are also recommenders who can vouch for you and endorse certain things that you’ve done. And that’s a way to highlight some of the passion you’ve had. But let’s say if I’m going to student council meetings weekly, and I’m showing up, I’m doing the thing, but then nobody in my circle, my recommenders, think to talk about that, I don’t write about that in my essay, and I say, that’s my most important thing, then what was I really getting out of that, really?

Aviva: So it is hard. I think it’s a very hard thing for kids to demonstrate, to have that self-representation be really, really strong. But the reality is if they have a lot of experiences to draw from, it’s simply the natural progression of what they’ve done versus having to make up a narrative that’s not necessarily true. That’s a little bit, not a misrepresentation necessarily, but not exactly an accurate portrayal of what is going on.

Andy: You have a chapter in here about breaking the family mold and getting kids thinking about what the expected path is, whether that aligns with what they feel like they want to do. I wonder what advice you would have for parents about those expectations and how we’re putting those expectations onto our kids, and what we could do to help them to see past that and to really get in touch with what they want beyond those expectations.

Aviva: Well, I’ll say, I’m a parent. And as a parent, it’s really hard to do this, because parents have certain things, like when you have a kid, you might expect to do certain things with them. Like I’m going to throw a ball with my kid, or, in my case, I love the theater. So I’m like, “Oh, I’m going to be on stage with my son.” But now that I’m seeing my son grow, I don’t think he’s going to have an interest in some of the things that I want him to have an interest in, but that doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t follow his interest, and I have to step back a little bit. So I think what happens a lot with parents is we have these hopes and expectations for our kids that they’ll do something or be a certain way, but then they show up and they are who they are.

Aviva: So respecting who the child is, and that it may be different from what you necessarily want or were hoping for, and accepting that, that’s such a hard thing. But I would say that’s the number one thing parents can do is, A, try not to have expectations, which is really hard. But, B, if those expectations that you will inevitably have are disappointed or not met in some way, then you have to move on and you have to move forward and nurture the strengths and experiences that they are interested in. And that will help them to develop better self-esteem, that will help them to develop a good sense of their goals and to feel safe in doing so.

Aviva: I think also another challenge that parents have, that I would caution people against, is a lot of people I work with are very successful, so they think they have great career advice for their children. They end up directing them to things that they know will be in demand. Like I talked with a family recently, and they said, “Oh, we, as a family, decided that our son is going to do machine learning because that’s a really in demand field.” You could see the kid was like, “Yeah, yeah. I mean, yeah, that’s what we decided.” I mean, he was being a good soldier about it, but you could see he clearly had some other sparks and passions that were not quite captured in the goals.

Aviva: So I would encourage families with their children to develop a mutually beneficial collaboration process, because I think parents definitely need to be involved, need to nurture and support their children in getting new opportunities, but that doesn’t mean that parents should be driving what those opportunities should be or what the goal should be. So I’d say child should develop the goal with parents’ support and facilitation, and then nurture those experiences along the way.

Andy: So how do you walk that line, you think?

Aviva: I wish I had the magic solution? I think it’s very individualized. Of course, there’s a lot of cultural elements to this. There are family dynamics, history, limitations, or lack of limitations of the child or the parents. So there are so many factors to this, but I think even just to keep in mind that your kid may have a different goal from you and to really try to listen and find out what that is, is helpful.

Aviva: A lot of places I see parents have difficulty as well is they fail to see their child’s challenges and flaws. So they may nurture things that are not, not to say not a fit per se, but maybe the child isn’t really diving into things that they say they’re interested in. So I spoke with a family that said… The child said, “Oh, I’m an interest in computer science.” But then when you ask them, “What have you done?” It’s like there’s a blank. “I play video games.” And then it’s like, “Well, what does that mean?” If they say they’re interested in computer science, try to help them to get that experience that really enables them to say that, not just as a pipe dream, but as a real goal.

Aviva: And then if they can’t pursue that goal in some way, then what might be another challenge? So a lot of kids have learning differences. A lot of kids have psychological challenges. I don’t have to tell you. There are a lot of studies out there about how kids are really lonely these days, they feel disconnected. And especially in COVID, it’s been really challenging. So I think that not shying away from like, “What are those challenges? And how can I help you to overcome them?” That’s great. And sometimes it’s not you as the parent, sometimes it’s getting professional help, or getting support from other places. So I think leaning into your child’s challenges as well as their strengths will go a long way.

Andy: I like this tip that you have in here, which is you recommend making a list of interests and special talents, and then circle the one that’s most exciting to you. And then you say, “If you were to go all in on the activity that you circled, what would that look like for you?”

Aviva: Yeah. And we did this with my… One of the stories in there I have is about my student, Mike, who wrote a book. So essentially, he came to us, and he said, “Well, I love skateboarding. I love playing in a band. I love writing, and I have some poems on my website.” And I was like, “Well, what do you think about writing a book?” And he was like, “Sure, that sounds great.” He just loved to write. So a book is a really great way to demonstrate your interest in a really unique and impactful way, so he did that. He figured out how to self-publish on Amazon. It was a really exciting thing. And then he was able to share that when he applied, “I published this book.” It was sort of a fictionalized memoir of his life and his challenges. And it was really meaningful. And he also created a little peer group out of it. So he created a group of peers where they would help him review his chapters, so he was accountable to somebody.

Aviva: So it was just one of these things where sometimes you see a passion or spark in somebody, and you just nurture that. Then they’ll soar. And then people for themselves, “What do you like to do most? Do you like to write? Do you like to skateboard? Do you like to play music?” It’s like, which of those three do you like the best? And then, what is the next logical step after that? So you don’t necessarily have to go from blank page to book if you’ve never written anything. But if you go from, like if you want to write, and you’ve never written something for yourself, first like go to blank page, short poem, or blank page to a short story. Then that’s a good step forward, and then you can check in with yourself and see if you like that. And then take that a little bit more deep going forward, or go in another direction if it doesn’t seem like the right thing.

Andy: Because then… Is that worrisome as a teenager, going all in on one thing, but, “I like lots of things, and I want to keep my options open. So, whoa, I don’t know about all this circle one and go all in thing. I don’t know. That feels limiting or something.” How do we help them find something or choose something to really go deep on?

Aviva: Yeah, that’s a great question. Again, I think it’s just getting curious about something that you already know a lot about, or something you don’t know a lot about but you want to learn more, and then evaluating as you go. So you don’t have to leave behind everything else for something. But if you just put your toe in all the waters and you don’t jump into the deep end, then you’re never really going to know what you want to do.

Andy: Yeah. It’s funny how unique that is, I guess, and how it’s not something that anybody would think it’s like the standard boxes that you check to get into college, “Oh yeah, I wrote a book.” But you can see how that would really make an application stand out when he has something like that. And I think that’s just a perfect example of what you’re advocating for and talking about in this book. But what if he would have chosen skateboarding? How are you going to impress a college with skateboarding?

Aviva: Yeah. Well, I think that’s a good rhetorical question, but I think I would rephrase that as like, “Why do I want to go deeper into skateboarding? Why does that excite me?” And then that’s the data you use to figure out what to do next with skateboarding. Because, “How does skateboarding help me get into college?” It’s like, who knows? It’s really all about the job. So what I like to call it, and I came up with this after I wrote the book, but I’ll share with you now, it’s called the college admissions X Factor, so it’s experience, expertise and exponentialism.

Aviva: So like with skateboarding, you’ve got the experience, you like to be on the board. Expertise is you’re really practicing a lot and you’re starting to join some skateboarding organizations. Exponentialism is like, you’re hosting a skateboarding event at your school, you’re raising money for charity, and you’re connecting with skateboarders from around the world on your online skateboarding club website. So exponentialism, really, is that impact that you make beyond your own knowledge and experience.

Andy: Wow. That’s cool. I like that. The X Factor. So even if you had a kid who said they circled skateboarding, they wrote down all their things and circled skateboarding, as a parent, you don’t think that’s a bad idea? I mean, writing a book, that sounds… That’s… Yeah.

Aviva: Yeah. I mean, I guess it depends on the kid. So if you know your kid says they’re skateboarding, but really they’re vaping and skateboarding or whatever, then that’s different. Or if they’re like, “What do you want to do? Play video games, hang out with your friends, or watch TV?” So obviously—

Andy: Hang out with friends.

Aviva: Right. Well, so then if that’s the case, then it’s, again… Like I have a kid, for example, who did Teen Talk Hotline. So Teen Talk Hotline, essentially, helps kids in crisis. So if you really like talking to people and being a friend, that’s a way that you can make an impact with that scope. It’s not like that’s necessarily a non-starter, it’s just how do you use that information to redirect them to something that will also help them build their future?

Andy: I love that X Factor, because it’s about the activity, but then it’s also about making it bigger than just the activity here. It’s more than just you. It’s getting other people involved and how you can use that activity as a vehicle to connect with other people in your community and beyond, and do something positive.

About Dr. Aviva Legatt

Dr. Aviva Legatt is the author of Get Real and Get In. She is an elite admissions expert and founder of Ivy Insight. She has been hailed by the New York Times, as a trustworthy expert on college admissions, and recognized as an expert in corporate culture and diversity as a faculty member for Coursera and at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Legatt has appeared in numerous news interviews and print articles and has a column in Forbes, writing about issues affecting higher education today. For the column, she’s had the honor of interviewing notables like Olympian Simone Biles, New York Times bestselling author Adam Grant, and Pitch Perfect producer, Deke Sharon.

A faculty member in Organizational Dynamics at the University of Pennsylvania and at The Wharton School, her courses on diversity and teamwork have reached thousands of learners and have been recognized by Poets & Quants as a “Best Business Course.”

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