Interview with Christine VanDeVelde and Robin Mamlet, Authors of ‘College Admission From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step’

I’ve read my fair share of college admissions books. Why? Well, because there are many knowledgeable people in this world, and I would be a narcissist to imagine I couldn’t learn from them. In some cases, I’ll take tidbits of information; in others, I’ll embrace the message as a whole. One of the books that deserve that holistic acceptance is Christine VanDeVelde’s and Robin Mamlet’s College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step-by-Step.

This book lives up to its title because it truly provides a solid walk-through of the college admissions process. I think every parent and student facing the application process should pick up a copy of this book, EVEN IF the family intends to hire admissions consultants, such as All-in-One Academics. It makes no sense to come to the table uneducated or ill-prepared. You need to know what’s facing you, and you need a reliable reference book to keep on your desk, in your briefcase, or by your bed.

We approached Ms. VanDeVelde and Ms. Mamlet with some pretty specific questions for this post because they’ve fielded every generic inquiry ten times over (if not a hundred). We wanted real, nitty-gritty information, stuff that parents and students don’t even realize they need to ask until it’s too late to make meaningful changes.

In reading this, be prepared to sit down and take your time because these ladies provided far more than cursory responses. They gave serious thought to each aspect of the questions, and we can’t thank them enough. You should really get the book, if you haven’t already! Buy it here!

1. In your book, you discuss the importance of taking a rigorous curriculum, and we’ve definitely seen evidence that many students are heeding your advice. However, we’ve also seen – and we’re curious to hear if you’ve seen it, as well – a new trend: the development of easy, parallel science and math classes that help less motivated students fill a transcript with seemingly challenging courses. For instance, “Introductory Calculus” appears as a fourth year math option, or “Conceptual Physics” as a substitute for physics, or “Marine Biology” as an upper-level life science. We have also seen high school counselors advise students that college admissions committees do not recognize a difference between these courses and their traditional counterparts. What do you think?

It depends on the college. Any college that takes the time to look in detail at the transcript and has access to the school profile will be able to discern the difference between “introductory calculus” and Calculus A/B or B/C; likewise “conceptual physics” and honors or AP physics. And most colleges will do so.

When admission offices read applications, they usually read “in context”— with an awareness and understanding of the school a student attends and how that influences a student’s courses and transcript. They read applications from the same school year after year, and often visit those schools and talk with the college counselors and students there.

If they are unable to visit the schools, they use the information from the School Report and the high school profile. The School Report includes information about curriculum, the number of students attending four- year colleges, and average ACT and SAT scores, as well as a counselor recommendation that rates the rigor of a student’s coursework and academic achievement. Some schools also provide the college with a profile that describes the curriculum, student body characteristics such as size and ethnicity, class ranking policies, GPA ranges, awards, and even grade distributions for the class in every offered subject. Ultimately, if an admission officer still feels she doesn’t have enough information she may call the high school for further details.

Students and parents are often surprised to learn the lengths to which colleges go to understand the educational backgrounds of their applicants. High school education is vastly uneven across the country, and therefore colleges take into account disparities in course offerings, grade calculation, academic rigor, and competitiveness of the student body.

So, for example, an admission officer may know that a high school requires four years of physical education — resulting in a lower GPA since P.E. is  not an honors course — or which social studies teacher gives only one or two A’s every year. The courses you describe here such as “Introductory Calculus” as a fourth year math option can serve a valuable purpose, but they do not in any way substitute for the advanced courses and most colleges know this.

Students should remember that they are being evaluated to enter a learning community. First and foremost, what the colleges want to know about them is what they are like as learners. It’s important for students to take a strong academic course load and challenge themselves academically throughout high school.  So colleges pay attention to these distinctions and endeavor to never lose sight of the complex details of the young people whose lives are being assessed.

2. As you know, the Internet version of the Common Application has facilitated the application process and given students an envelope-free method of casting their lots with more schools than ever before, upping the numbers of applications colleges receive across the board. Consequently, admit rate has declined, making college admissions seem dramatically more competitive and, therefore, heightening the frenzy among parents and students. We’re not sure that the new numbers necessarily represent a radical change in selectivity… How do you see it?

Competition at the very most selective colleges and universities has in fact intensified – for a whole variety of reasons, the Common Application being just one of them. For the vast majority of selective colleges, however, it is not dramatically more competitive to get in than it was three years ago. Check the admit rate of each college or university you are applying to. You want to know your chances of getting in rather than how many applications a college has relative to seats in the class. (In our book, we discuss extensively how to understand where you fit in a college’s profile in order to gauge your admissibility.)

Overemphasizing aspects such as competition creates unnecessary pressure and anxiety. Students and families should keep their eye on the ball and try hard to resist becoming hijacked by the scare stories that appear all around them.

Here are some facts:

  • In UCLA’s most recent Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) annual survey of first-year students at four-year   colleges and universities, 79 percent reported being accepted to their “first-choice” college. 
  • According to NACAC’s 2011 State of College Admission, 69 percent of students enroll in colleges that accept 50 percent or more of their applicants. 
  • Only 25 percent of students submitted 7 or more applications, again according to NACAC’s 2011 State of College Admission.

Don’t confuse competition and selectivity with quality or fit. The place that is best for a student may not be the place that is the hardest to get into. The best educational and social experience awaits you at the school that is the best fit for you. And, in the end, it doesn’t matter where you go as much as what you do when you get there.

 3. Finally, we’d like to ask you to discuss your view of high school sports, which take up multiple hours each week, often to the detriment of grades and the exclusion of other meaningful activities. In many cases, those students dedicate their summers to playing in sports camps and traveling to tournaments, even if they are on a B-team. Students maintain that level of involvement because parents are under the impression that competitive college applicants need to play four years of a sport in order to show commitment. Do you believe that student-athletes who have no real chance of playing in college should survey the landscape and consider if there are more productive channels for their time and energy?

There are few aspects of applying to college that abound more in myth, rumor, and urban legend than the subject of extracurricular activities. There is no one activity — or list of activities — that will guarantee admission to college. Playing a sport in and of itself is no more valuable than any other activity unless the student will play for the college to which they are applying.

Colleges look at students’ extracurricular activities to help them put together a picture of who they are and what is important to them, as well as what the student will contribute once on campus. Some students will make that contribution through sports and others through any number of activities and dimensions.

In our book we address the wide range of extracurricular activities that is valued:  the arts, community service, hobbies, school clubs and organizations, intellectual pursuits,  jobs and work experience — and sports, whether or not a student plans to continue their involvement in college. There is no formula for how students should spend their time. They should simply follow their own interests and passions, figure out what activities they enjoy and then pursue them with commitment and gusto. That is what is important.

Huge thanks for Christine and Robin for taking the time to put together these thoughtful, informative answers to our questions – we hope you’ve enjoyed this post and that you’ll check out their book!

– Jessica