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Let’s Talk About College Planning

Daren Worcester
Feb 7, 2022
23 minutes
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Get Real and Get In book cover

#admissionchat episode seven welcomes Dr. Aviva Legatt, author of Get Real and Get In: How to Get Into the College of Your Dreams by Being Your Authentic Self. Dr. Legatt shares her story of the college application process and advice from her book to help families looking ahead to the college application process.

Questions discussed, include:

  • When should families start having college planning discussions?
  • What is the "impressiveness paradox" and how can it hinder college applications?
  • From your personal experience, what are the potential health consequences of putting too much pressure on getting into the school of your dreams?
  • What factors should students consider when evaluating the best college for them?
  • What experiences can families take from the private school application process to help them in the college application process?

Listen to the episode above, ask your smart speaker to play #admissionchat, or subscribe on your favorite podcast platform: Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pandora, Spotify, Stitcher.


Daren Worcester: Welcome to Admission Chat, let's talk about college planning.

[Intro music]

Daren Worcester: Greetings, I'm Daren Worcester and in this episode, we're talking to Dr. Aviva Legatt, author of Get Real and Get In: How To Get Into The College of Your Dreams by Being Your Authentic Self and host of the College Admission's Real Talk Podcast. Aviva, welcome to the Admission Chat Podcast, thank you very much for joining us.

Aviva Legatt: Thank you Daren, It's great to be here.

Daren Worcester: So, why don't we start just by having you tell us a little bit about your career, your background and what led you to write, Get Real and Get In.

Aviva Legatt: Thank you for that. So, again, I'm Dr. Aviva Legatt and I am a college admissions consultant today. Many people come into this field in all different ways, I came into it in somewhat of a non-traditional way. My high school experience actually inspired my career as a college admissions consultant. So, I was a stressed out kid in high school and I had trouble figuring out what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. I didn't have parents who could throw resources at me to get that kind of support that I needed, so I was sort of left to my own devices on the process. And I ended up going down a bit of a research rabbit hole and really persisting through this process in a very enthusiastic way, shall we say, but also a very stressed out way.

So, I was really focused on getting into NYU but right before applications were due, I got pneumonia, which I don't recommend, but it was because of all the stress and pressure I put myself under. So, while I was fortunate to get into NYU, what I took away from applying to the college process is that, it was a chance for me to figure out, who I was and what I wanted on the journey. Even though, it would've been great to have support, not having support really forced me to get real within myself and really understand what I needed and try to seek that out in other places.

Once I got to NYU, I decided I wanted to do college admissions as a career. So, I had been a music business major at NYU but I got very excited about school activities and getting involved on campus. So, that's what brought me down to Penn and Wharton, where I got a master's and doctorate in the field of higher education. And I worked, most recently, in my full-time role, as senior associate director of admissions, where I served on freshman and transfer admissions committee, oversaw pre-college programs and academic initiatives. Then when I was finishing up my doctoral program, I had a fork in the road, could have stayed at my job or tried something else, so I decided to do that. And it's been almost eight years since I've been out of full-time work at Penn and it's been a wonderful journey, helping students and families from all over the world, writing for Forbes, teaching from time to time at the university and most recently, publishing my book.

Daren Worcester: Excellent, thank you, that's great. So, when we first started about having you on the #admissionchat podcast, my initial thought was, wow, most of our families are deep in the process of applying to private schools right now, this might just be a little bit too close to the bone to then say, okay, now think about applying to college—I think they'll need a breather. And your response was, you hear from families with kids of all ages, even in elementary school and that sort of stuff. So, I'm kind of wondering, from your perspective, when do you think it's healthy for parents to start having these discussions with their children about planning for college and thinking about course selection and all that sort of stuff?

Aviva Legatt: That's such a good question. So, it's such an individual question per family and there are a lot of factors that families might think about when they're thinking about how to encourage their children or if they should encourage their children to go to college. For a family that knows that their child will want to go to college, it's a good time to think more explicitly about it starting in sixth, seventh, eighth grade, when you're looking at course selection. So, one of the biggest course decisions for students and families, especially those that want to go into business or STEM, is taking math and advancing in math ahead of high school. So, students who are probably on track for STEM or a business career will want to take math at a higher level. Now, of course, you may not know what your child will do when they grow up.

However, if you think they might want to go in one of those directions or they're demonstrating a great inclination in math, it's a good idea to have them advance in math as much as possible. And if they seem really strong in math and they can go even higher than... it's not a bad idea to give children some extra enrichment in mathematics. In terms of explicit college talk, that's a really hard thing. I think that families who value college may... if both parents went to college, they may have degrees on the wall, that's kind of creating awareness around college. If you have friends and family members who speak fondly of college, that's all a way to create a college going culture in your household and your child may also benefit from any college going culture that may exist in your community as well.

Daren Worcester: That's great. Now, you mentioned earlier your own personal experience and, sort of, how it can be unhealthy if you put too much pressure on planning for college and that sort of stuff. As a parent, what advice do you have to, kind of, walk that fine line between giving encouragement and helping them understand the possibilities and the different avenues that are open to their children and, kind of, pushing too much so that there's undue stress and pressure on their children?

Aviva Legatt: That's a great question. And I'm a parent now, however, admittedly, my kids are a lot younger than teens. So, I am speaking as a parent but not as a parent of teens and I know that it's a little bit different. But what I see, as a role of a parent from being one and also from working with a lot of parents of teens is that, the best role that a parent can take in this process is the role of facilitator. So, as the parent, it is natural to feel pressure to want your kids to achieve in a certain way or succeed in a certain way. But if you project an image of success onto them, they may or may not adapt that same image for themselves. They may adapt it to appease you or to make you happy but in the end, it may not actually line up.

It will catch up, eventually. The misalignment will catch up eventually, even if they go down the road that you're hoping that they take. So, my advice as a parent and as somebody who sees parents is that, the most effective students in this process are those whose parents play a facilitative role, so they can provide resources, they can link students up with resources but really, it's about encouraging your child to ask the questions and to have your child take ownership of their process, knowing that they have your support. So, unlike in my case, my parents didn't get involved enough in my process but you can get involved more but you don't have to be so involved that their college process ends up being your college process.

Daren Worcester: Yeah. That's a great point, I love that. At the heart of your book is the message of getting real with one's self and I think that's, kind of, what you're starting to allude to here. And when it comes to college planning, you write about the impressiveness paradox. Can you describe what that is and how it can actually hinder someone's application?

Aviva Legatt: Absolutely. So, the impressiveness paradox essentially says that, when you, the student, are putting forth your narrative, there is a way to go too much over the top where you are not being authentic to yourself and that inauthenticity is clear when someone is reading your file. So if you, as I say in my book, claim to saved every honeybee in the world but let's say you've never been involved in any, kind of, honeybee activity, there's nothing to demonstrate that mission, then it kind of falls a little shallow and a little short. So, whatever mission or vision you have for your life, certainly make sure to put that forward on the application but also make sure that there are concrete experiences that back up your positioning around whatever your mission is to go to college.

Daren Worcester: Yeah. That's great. We hear that from the K–12 admission folks so much, that they just want to have an authentic conversation and this notion they hear too often of students trying to build brands and that sort of thing, that don't necessarily match up with who the student are. So, essentially, you're saying, it's really more important to just be yourself, correct?

Aviva Legatt: Absolutely. I think that there is certainly a branding element of the college application, because whoever's reading your application is going to be rating it in a hot minute. So, you can't say so much about yourself that whatever the person's reading doesn't take anything away from it but you can't be so big in your words that your actions don't back it up. So, it's finding that theme or that thread that will help someone who doesn't know you get to know you and really understand what value you can bring to that college that you're seeking admission for. Because, ultimately, whatever it is you're writing about, it can be authentic but it may not be relevant to your audience.

So, for example, I mean, this is kind of extreme example, but if you write up about a breakup with a romantic partner, as your college essay it's like, I'm glad you got that off your chest but that's not really appropriate topic for this exercise. The personal statement is really an essay that students should write, that's designed to demonstrate their character and what they would contribute to a future community. So, there is a marketing element to it but marketing can be authentic or it can be inauthentic.

Daren Worcester: So, basically, if what I'm hearing is really to, kind of, drill down to the point and find that one angle where you're matching your goals and aspirations with what the university provides and why you see them as a good fit, would that be...

Aviva Legatt: Definitely. And in the book, in Get Real and Get In, I have a framework that walks students. And this book is really geared towards students, my book is really designed to help students figure out who they are and what they want on their journey to college. So, it's designed to help them think about how to actually find out, what is this university all about and how do I fit there? Versus crafting a narrative that really doesn't have any alignment with what this university stands for.

Daren Worcester: Perfect. You also write about encouraging applicants to rethink the notion of their dream college. There's so many students out there that just see this one university or this one path before them and think that's what they have to do. And you're write that, there's no such thing as a best college, only a best college for you. And you go on to say, this part's my favorite, college admissions is not sports, you don't win college admissions like you do a track meet. What are some of the factors that you encourage students to think about when evaluating what the best colleges for them actually are?

Aviva Legatt: That's such a great question. So, what I always encourage students to do, particularly through my organization, Ivy Insight, is encourage students to look for their college admissions X Factor, as I call it, which is definitely a marketing term. That stands for experience, expertise and exponential impact. So, essentially, it's all about finding out what you're interested in, what you can be really good at, your expertise and then, how you can use what you're really good at to make a difference for other people. So, you can't really figure out what college is best for you until you figure out a little bit more about your interests and that you're using those interests, ideally, in a way to help others. So, for most people, it is more than feasible to build expertise in something, whether that's through writing a research paper or starting a blog, writing for a school newspaper.

There's so many ways to build expertise, according to what the student's interests are. And then, the key to choosing a college is really thinking about, what would the ideal academic and extracurricular pathway look like for me when I go to college? And then, what colleges match my interest really well? So, along with the framework I have, what I encourage students to do is actually reach out to people at colleges they think they might be interested in, to get some more subjective insight about how that college might fit their interests. So, if I'm a student and I'm really interested in basketball, and I know that's not academic subject but let's say I love basketball and I reach out to a student who is on the club basketball team or who's on the college's basketball team. That conversation may give me more insight than any information session or campus tour I could take, because I'm speaking with somebody who is living out a part of the experience that I hope to live when I am at this college.

More relevant to the college essays, I would recommend seeking out a college professor in a topic that you think you might want to study. And you can approach these professors, a lot of professors are open to hearing from students, if you make a small ask and you ask for a time limited, ask a 10 minute phone call or if you're... We're living in a world, hopefully, where campus visits can happen again more regularly, if you're going to be on campus one day and you want to sit in on their class, you can ask for that as well. So, there's a lot of ways you can connect in with universities in ways that the admissions office isn't going to tell you about that actually give you a better insight into what the campus life is than any tour would give.

Daren Worcester: That's great advice. Now, if I'm a high school student, I'm probably a little introverted or I was, at least, and the idea of reaching out to college professors probably makes me a little nervous. How would you suggest that they go about, should they do it through the admissions office? Should they look up email addresses on the school website and just email the professor directly? What do you think their best path is?

Aviva Legatt: So, I would say, for introverted or not, I know there's a lot of shy people out there and the idea isn't really to connect with the professor just to say, hey, I'm a candidate, but ideally, you're doing something that's adding value to that professor. So, if you're working on, what I call, the college admission X Factor experience or expertise for your exponential impact, there might be something that you're doing that could relate to something that they're doing. Or maybe you look up an article of theirs on Google Scholar and you read it and you just share that you really enjoyed it and mention that you're going to be on campus and you'd love the chance to say, hello. Or you have a couple of questions about whatever they've written about or something that they can answer, related to something you're working on.

So, the idea is not just to pitch these people blindly but ideally, you're forming a connection just like you would form a connection with a friend or a teacher or somebody who you haven't met for the first time. It's always a little scary when you first do it but if you go in with positive intent to... and no attach to the outcome of what this connection will bring, then you'll actually get a lot of value out of even the exercise of reaching out, even if nobody ever responds.

Daren Worcester: Excellent, thank you. Let's circle back around to expectations. You write in the book that, our paths aren't necessarily straight or what we expect them to be. You offer the story of Henry Louis Gates Jr. as an example, what did you find inspirational about Henry's story and why'd you want to include it in the book?

Aviva Legatt: What I really appreciated about Henry's story, he's a professor at Harvard and he has a show on PBS called Finding Your Roots. He's an all around Renaissance man, a public intellectual. He writes a lot about ancestry and one of the things that I loved about Henry's story was that his estimable aunt, as he called her, I believe she was actually a great, great, great grandmother, she was enslaved and learning about how this woman, who was a slave, was written up in the paper really inspired him with his interest in ancestry and genealogy and he ended up taking that as his career. And so, what I loved about his story was, there was this authentic fashion that he developed from this article and he really pursued that. He didn't allow any specific expectations to drive where he went with his career.

At the same time, Henry was very driven in terms of where he wanted to go to college at the time. So, if you read through the book you'll see that, he's a black man and he was at a predominantly white private school at Exeter. And he left Exeter because he was homesick and then, he regretted the decision because back in those days, applying to Ivy League from Exeter was pretty easy for those kids and he, sort of, ruined his shot at the Ivy league by leaving. But then, he went to a couple institutions, he ended up transferring because that was really important to him. He grew up in the time of the civil rights when black students who were looking to be educated wanted to go to these predominantly white institutions, that was very important at the time. And so, he really took a non-traditional path to get there but he got to where he wanted to be in order to achieve the influence that he hoped to achieve.

Daren Worcester: That's great. With Henry's story and a few others I noticed in the book, you really, kind of, point out or make it clear that, if somebody encounters a closed door or things don't work out the way they want to, I think you say in the book that, it's a no for right now but not necessarily a no for your goal or your aspirations as a whole. Is there more that you'd like to add to that?

Aviva Legatt: Yeah. I think in these times, especially, it's really easy to give up on what we want and it's really easy to just throw up our hands and try to forget about the things that we really like. But I would encourage everyone listening that, if you have a dream, if you have something that you like to do, we should find a way to pursue that, even if COVID is hindering you. Other things COVID related are hitting you that are really difficult to deal with. There is always a way to get to what you want and what you need, it may not look exactly as you thought but I would not give up on whatever you want to do. And I see a lot of students and parents get very discouraged, especially these times, on what they can do to make the most out of the high school experience.

And the good news about these times we're living in is that, we have technology and there's so many opportunities that students can connect to, so many support systems that students can connect to, in the these times. I'll call out one of my favorites, which is The Conversationalist, so that's a platform for gen Z students. It's a free platform where students can talk about issues, so both world issues and then personal issues as well and it's a really great hub of connection. Is it the same as in-person? No. But we still do have ways to connect with people, to grow, to learn, to be supported. So, I would encourage people to, if they think they're getting a no or they can't get to things that they want to get to, that to find that other pathway is always possible.

Daren Worcester: That's great advice, thank you. It seems like, as I go through the book and I listen to you talk today, I almost want to just cross out every time you say, college or universities and substitute private schools or independent schools, because it seems like there's a lot of parallels between the two processes and ultimately, the goals that students and families are trying to achieve through these institutions. What experiences do you think that families can take away from the private school application process, that's going to help them in the long run when they go through the college application process?

Aviva Legatt: Absolutely. Thank you for asking that. So, I think the wisdom in the book applies to private school application processes as well. This book is really... it's not about the check boxes of the college processes, this is not about what to write on your essay or where to apply or how to get into your dream school, this book is about finding the right path for you. And the path, we all have different paths and those paths take turns at all different stages of our lives. So, for students and parents thinking about their private school journey, ideally, you're looking for a private school that will support your child's learning and development, that will support them in growing up as a whole person.

Even as a mom of young kids, my son, I had to change his school because his school wasn't working for him. And likewise, if you're seeking a private school, it likely means that you're seeing a gap in something that you're not getting at your public school or maybe there was another school that your child was attending that wasn't working for them. The best thing that we can do as parents is make sure that our children are supported in their learning and growth and development when they're outside of our homes. And so, your seeking out these private schools is really all about helping your child to develop into the person that they're meant to be.

Daren Worcester: Excellent, thank you. So, very much appreciate you joining us today on #admissionchat. This has been very insightful and inspirational, I'm sure for many folks. As we wrap up here, do you have any final words of wisdom or food for thought for our families?

Aviva Legatt: Thank you. I just want to emphasize, again, that these are really challenging times. What I'm seeing among the youth these days is that, they're having trouble getting motivated, they're having trouble completing their work. And as parents, we're all struggling in our own ways as well. So, I would encourage you, if you're a parent, to look out for yourself, to look out for signs of challenging your child. And if you do see that your child is struggling, please get them the support they need, whether it's medical support or coaching support. Whatever your child needs to do their best in this time, look out for that and make sure they're getting what they need as much as they can. And then, on a lighter note, I want to invite you to connect with me at ivyinsight.com. If you want to check out my book, it's at getrealandgetin.com. It's available with St. Martin's Press and at any major retailer and appreciate you considering picking up a copy and taking a look at our site.

Daren Worcester: That's wonderful. Again, the book is Get Real and Get In: How To Get Into The College of Your Dreams by Being Your Authentic Self. My 13 year old's going to find a copy on his bookshelf pretty soon. So, definitely encourage other families to take a look at it, I found it really insightful and very much appreciate you taking time, not just to do this work but to join us today as well. So, thank you again, Aviva.

Aviva Legatt: Thank you so much, Daren.

Daren Worcester: All right, take care. And for everyone listening, thank you for joining this Admission Chat. Please look for another episode soon. And for more insight into the private school application process, visit Admission.org and check out our Admission Academy live presentation series, featuring insight from school admission leaders. Until next time, take care everyone.

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