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Posted at 09:44 AM ET, 10/03/2011

A new college admissions bible

There are countless books that aim to help students successfully apply to the college or university of their dreams, some offering better advice than others. Here is a new book jam-packed with information on every aspect of the admissions process, co-authored by someone who should know what she is talking about: Robin Mamlet, former admissions director at Stanford University and Swarthmore College.

College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step , ” does what the title promises, in an accessible format that taps the knowledge and experience of admissions directors and others involved in the process. It is written for students and parents from different backgrounds: those applying to the most highly selective schools, and those looking to stay near their homes; families with financial need and those without; kids who are the first in their family to attend college.

Mamlet, who was a highly regarded admissions dean, and co-author Christine VanDeVelde, a journalist and writer, bust every myth about what colleges are really looking for (including that a student must be well-rounded or exceptionally good at one thing to get into college). They advise students on how to fill out their applications (including what not to write in their essays, such as anything that resembles bragging), explain how to apply for financial aid, and much more.

And they pepper the book with information that is helpful — and sometimes just plain fun.

A box titled “The Groucho Marx Syndrome” reminds readers of his famous quote, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member,” and then explains the difference between selectivity and quality--or how to know whether a particular school is a good fit for a specific student.

“The best educational and social experience awaits you at the school that is the best fit for you — not the school where it’s hardest to get in,” the box says. “FYI, Groucho had only an elementary school education, so he never had to come up with application list.”

VanDeVelde said she wanted to write a comprehensive admissions book because she couldn’t find one when her daughter was applying.

“There were books on essays and books on testing, and there were a lot of books that purported to have what publishers say is the ‘secret sauce.’ If you do these 10 things you will get in,” she said. “So I basically wrote the book that I wished I’d had.”

She was also drawn to the project because of Mamlet’s experience, noting that nobody of Mamlet’s stature in the field had written such a comprehensive admissions book.

I recently spoke with both authors and asked them about what they learned that could help students and their families during the admissions process. Here are excerpts from the interviews:

Q) What is the one thing you wanted parents to know the most?

Robin Mamlet: Across the board, no matter what the audience, I want people to understand that information is power and the more information you have about the process, which is very complex, the better off you are. For example, look at the number of families who would qualify for need-based financial aid but who rule themselves out by not applying for it. It’s really a national tragedy.

Christine VanDeVelde: The American Council on Education reported in 2006 that 1.8 million students who would have qualified for federal financial aid did not apply. They think they won’t qualify, and they also may find the process intimidating.

Q) How much do SAT and ACT scores count in admissions?

Robin Mamlet: I feel that there is concern about tests and about outside activities that is out of proportion to how much it counts. Not that they don’t count, but they don’t count as much as people think they do.

Q) What’s the most common application mistake that students make?

Robin Mamlet: There are three things. One is sort of being hijacked by the frenzy. If students could keep their eye on the prize and look for colleges that fit, they’d be better off. Another mistake is that students sometimes present a distorted image of themselves because they think that’s what the colleges want. And third, overapplying. When students apply to 20 schools, they can’t do all of the applications well.

Q) What’s the right number?

Robin Mamlet: We say eight to 12, or eight to 10.

Q) Should students take time to visit schools?

Robin Mamlet: Some people can’t afford it, but if they can, I’d say yes. I know I wouldn’t let my daughter go to the college she was in love with until she had spent the night, but you don’t take the time to do that before you are admitted everywhere.

Q) What was the most surprising or counterintuitive thing you learned researching the book?

Christine VanDeVelde: Two things struck me in researching this book and working with Robin. Number one was how the face of college admissions will change. In the near future, a large percentage of students applying to four-year colleges will be the first in their family to attend. They are often the most needy in terms of information. They may go to schools where there is not very good counseling, and there is a tremendous need for information there. I did not realize how many of these students were in the pipeline.

Another thing ... I think a lot of times parents get all wound up with what extracurricular activities their child has and how high their test scores are ... when in fact the overriding consideration are the classes their child takes and the grades they get. That was the biggest revelation.

Q) Regarding the SAT and the ACT, where do you come down on test prep? Is it useful? How much?

Christine VanDeVelde: We’re not testing experts, so we researched and where we came down on it was that the single largest factor is familiarity with the test. Most students don’t need a coach or a class. . . but some may benefit. Among them are under-resourced students who may have gaps in their subject knowledge because their school did not have a rigorous academic program. Students with learning differences or testing anxieties may benefit from test practice.

Because familiarity is part of the equation, you can get one of those test prep books and take practices tests under timed conditions. If you are a parent who doesn’t want to be a test proctor and has the luxury of being able to afford test prep, you can go that way.

Q) Do college interviews really matter?

Christine VanDeVelde: It depends upon the college. We say this a lot in the book... Check the Web site of each college to which you are applying for information about what it wants. Look to see whether an interview matters.

If you are applying to a big college where most classes are going to be large lecture halls, interviews may not be offered or matter much. If you are going to a small liberal arts school and they offer an interview, it will matter more. They are going to want to know how a student relates to an adult teacher. Our advice is that if offered an interview, a student should take it . . . And they should dress as if they are going to dinner with their grandparents. The biggest faux pax comes in inappropriate dress for both sexes. Spaghetti straps, buttons that pop open. For boys a rumpled T-shirt.... If you look in the mirror and you think you look good, change your clothes. This is not a date. It should be dinner or lunch with the grandparents.

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By  |  09:44 AM ET, 10/03/2011

Categories:  College Admissions

 
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