Dr. Aviva Legatt, Founder of VivED Consulting, completed her doctoral degree at Penn in higher education. She is a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania in Organizational Dynamics. As a college admissions consultant, she has helped many international applicants with their college and graduate applications.
MBA Crystal Ball : What questions should applicants ask themselves before starting the college application process to ensure they are embarking on the right path?
Dr. Legatt :
- What do I love to do in my spare time?
- What is the best way to do more of this activity in order to expand on my interests?
Elite and Ivy League colleges are looking for students who have deeply impacted their school, community, or surroundings. The best way to make an impact is to go deep in 1-2 endeavors as opposed to gathering a laundry list of extracurricular activities. You’re better off conducting academic research, starting a business, or launching a new club.
Contrast this with most students, who play it safe – they show up weekly to numerous club meetings, attend a couple of conferences, and don’t come out with much life experience.
Diving deeply into 1-2 activities will give you concrete and measurable ways to make an impact and provide you with opportunities to succeed (and sometimes to fail – which believe it or not, looks good on your application).
To choose a major, students should ask:
What topics (e.g. politics, projects, philosophies, artistic pursuits) spark my interest every time they are mentioned?
High schools vary in their ability to expose students to majors and careers—for example, some high schools have engineering or business offerings while others do not.
Summer pre-college programs can provide a wonderful way for students to gain exposure to academic subjects they don’t have access to at their high school, or to deepen their interest in one or more academic subjects. An experience like a summer program gives students stronger insight and concrete experience to make a strong case when it comes time to apply to college.
In addition, living on a college campus can support the transition to greater independence give students an idea of the elements of a campus environment that are most/least appealing.
MBA Crystal Ball : What are the essential elements of a competitive US college application?
Dr. Legatt :
To prepare for Ivy League and elite institutions, students should aim to take the most difficult course load that they can manage. For STEM fields and business, it is important to advance in mathematics; AP Calculus BC (or its equivalent) is the bare minimum level to attain by senior year.
It’s critical to plan your course schedule in advance to assure you have enough time to meet this requirement. Many students will choose to take extra courses over the summer—depending on your situation, however, this may not advantageous to your case for admission.
You’re better off maximizing what’s available at your high school than adding on extra courses outside of your high school.
SAT or ACT plus SAT II subject tests are required, or at least highly recommended, for most elite and Ivy League institutions. TOEFL/IELTS scores are critical for international students (106+ for top-tier colleges, even if 100 is minimum).
Students should plan to take 2-3 SAT subject tests and time the test-taking with high school course taking. For example, if a student takes physics in his sophomore year, he can take the Physics SAT II after sophomore year. I recommend picking up an SAT II prep book at the beginning of your high school course so you can follow the relevant topics within the SAT II book and pick up extra material from your instructor if need be.
For SAT/ACT, take a diagnostic test for each and see which test you like better (I use like loosely—these tests are not fun!). Even though it’s more expensive, I recommend a tutor over a class because you can maximize your time getting help in the areas where you need improvement. I didn’t have a tutor in high school and raised my own score by 100 points through daily practice studying with a book, so this is always a good option if you can commit to it!
It is advantageous to track your participation in extracurricular activities as they happen – as opposed to trying to pull up details from memory a couple of years later. You can use a Google doc or sheet to easily track your progress.
While it’s not required for all college applications, it’s helpful for you to put together a resume to explain more about your role and impact (beyond the short character limit within Common App ). The resume also allows admissions officers an opportunity to get further explanation about activities that they find especially fascinating and allows you a chance to let your experiences shine.
On the resume format, I coach my students according to the philosophy of Wharton’s MBA program: Resume bullets should demonstrate: X–>Y.
“X” represents the action that you took and showcases your skills (e.g., leadership, research skills, project management).
“Y” explains the result that occurred and showcases the value you added (e.g., what resulted and how it benefited the organization/club, to whom did you present your work and what was the feedback, if your work were implemented what would be the expected result.).
Think about a regression line. “X” is the explanatory variable and “Y” is the response variable. It is the relationship between the two that makes a bullet point impactful.
MCB : Why is it important to build personal connections and relationships with professors, college admissions officers, and alumni? When and how can applicants start the process?
Dr. Legatt : Interacting with people at the college provides an opportunity for you the applicant to build awareness about who you are and what you have to offer the world. When college admissions officers and others at the college know who you are, they’re going to be interested in you. They’re going to learn about your values, and assess if YOU can offer a benefit to them by attending their college/university.
Students can be part of shaping that conversation by reaching out professors, college admissions officers, and alumni. If students can talk clearly about what they do and why they’ll do it, they’ll have the opportunity to earn the trust and praise of college admissions officers.
I would recommend starting this process in the sophomore or junior year, depending on the occasion to interact with someone from the college.
For example, at a college tour, school-based college fair, or alumni speaker event in your local community. You can send an email introducing yourself first in order to break the ice when you approach one of these people in person.
If you’re visiting campus, you should aim to set up a meeting ahead of your visit day and come up with questions in advance (that cannot be easily answered by going to the website).
MCB : What are the admission officers trying to gauge from reading the college essays?
Dr. Legatt: From the personal statement (the main college essay), college admissions officers want to learn more about your character and life experience. Avoid making the personal statement be a brag sheet or a retelling of your resume, though you can choose to talk about an extracurricular activity that was especially meaningful to you. Regardless of what situation you choose to write about, the purpose of the personal statement is to zoom in on one aspect of your character through a story or creative writing piece.
When choosing a topic, be cautious about selecting a story that dwells too much on sadness. You can choose to write about something difficult, such as overcoming adversity (I once helped a student who faced drug abuse and death in his immediate family and others battling chronic illness), BUT you must make sure you spend enough airtime on how you overcame (or what you learned) from this adversity.
As I tell my students, typical Americans (and therefore American admissions officers) love a “Hollywood” ending to any story – you always want to put a positive spin on a difficult situation.
This positive spin can be something you learned or something you did as a result of the adversity.
The purpose of the “Why School” essay is to make an emotional but logically persuasive case for the college. This means that you want to combine the following elements:
1) Any interactions you’ve had with the college, its alumni, or admissions officers as evidence and inspiration of your desire to attend.
2) Demonstrated experience within your intended field of study as evidence of your fit to enter these majors.
For example, don’t apply to a particular academic major without a concrete idea of why you have the skills and experience necessary to succeed in this program of study. A passionate desire without related experience won’t convince admissions officers of your case.
I see a lot of students mistake desire to attend as evidence of a convincing argument. You can absolutely demonstrate your desires and passions, but these passions should align with your knowledge and experience related to the field.
Make sure you prepare for your intended field of study ahead of time so that you have plenty of examples to share in your “why school” essays (and on your resume too!).
Read these interviews with other leading consultants:
– Q&A with Linda Abraham | Founder – Accepted.com
– Q&A with Graham Richmond | Founder – Clear Admit
– Q&A with Paul Bodine | Founder – PBC / Admitify
– Q&A with Stacy Blackman | Founder – SBC