Almanac

Schools - December 7, 2011

Breaking open college admission process

VanDeVelde discovers it's more logical, sane, positive than expected

by Jeff Carr

Speaking with Portola Valley writer Christine VanDeVelde, who co-authored a new book on the college admission process, is comforting and reassuring. She has gathered dozens of experts to share elusive insights such as these:

• "More than three-quarters of students are accepted by their first-choice college."

• "Colleges look for the great basketball player and the star scientist, but they're also looking for a kid who makes the dorm a nice place to live."

Such insights are common fare in "College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step," a 400-page tome co-authored by Ms. VanDeVelde and Robin Mamlet, Stanford's former admissions dean.

"College Admission" attempts to infuse a calming dose of reality into a process Ms. VanDeVelde said is unnecessarily fraught with misinformation and anxiety. She knows how many get-me-into-Harvard books are on the shelves, perpetuating and playing off of the angst.

The plan, therefore, wasn't to reproduce them. The plan was to go in a different direction by tapping into the perspective of a group rarely consulted for such books: the people who actually make admission decisions. Ms. Mamlet says she alone has made more than 100,000.

Her credentials are outlined on the book's cover: former dean of admissions at Stanford, Swarthmore, and Sarah Lawrence. Ms. VanDeVelde is billed more simply as a journalist and parent. She has written on higher education and other topics for USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and others, but it was her role as a parent that prompted her to take action.

"I started out writing the book I wanted to have when my daughter was going through the process," she said.

Her daughter Roark, a 2008 Castilleja graduate, is now in her senior year at Vanderbilt University. In the book, Ms. VanDeVelde directs her calming, positive brand of insight at parents, as well.

As the subtitle says, it covers each step of the journey, from application to acceptance.

Ms. VanDeVelde grew up in Sterling, in northwestern Illinois. After majoring in journalism and political theory at Boston University, she returned to Chicago, where she entered a management training program at a bank. Just like today, journalism jobs were hard to come by then, she said, but she gained real-world business exposure working with the assets of high-value, hard-to-categorize clients such as Muhammad Ali and Ted Turner.

After marrying, she followed her husband and his tech-sector job to Menlo Park in 1987, and she became a full-time parent soon thereafter.

The family settled in Portola Valley in the mid-1990s.

She had been writing on the side since college, but once her daughter left home, she began looking to get back into the business full-time.

She vented to Ms. Mamlet, whom she had befriended through interviews as a journalist, that she hadn't seen any truly honest, useful admissions resources during her daughter Roark's process.

Ms. Mamlet responded that she had already been thinking of putting her years of inside insight down on paper. Soon thereafter, the pair began work on a book proposal.

Through interviews with more than 50 deans of admission, the two debunk numerous unforgiving myths, like the one that says a prestigious high school and a breadth of extracurricular activities are vital.

Likewise, the deans said they can easily spot applications that are "overpackaged," or padded with accolades and activities pursued simply for the sake of the application, rather than a student's true interests. That generally doesn't reflect well, Ms. VanDeVelde said. Good grades, challenging classes and authenticity do.

The authors also devoted significant space to the oft-overlooked aspect of the application process that Ms. VanDeVelde said should be the most important: helping students decide which institution is actually the best individual fit. She insisted that the media and stressed parents inflate not only the perceived requirements for getting into the most selective schools, but the importance of attending those schools.

The book contains a section, complete with a lengthy introspective questionnaire, aimed at helping students determine where they'll actually be happiest and most likely to succeed. Still, Ms. VanDeVelde said, it takes an act of will to throw out prestige as a criterion.

"It's not where you go — it's what you do when you get there," she said. Indeed, the book cites a landmark study demonstrating that students who are capable of getting into a Stanford or a Princeton are equally successful in life no matter where they ultimately enroll.

Ms. VanDeVelde said she now spends most of her time on the book's website, which provides timely advice and tools for applicants. In the near future, she said she hopes to form partnerships to get copies of "College Admission" into the hands of under-resourced students, such as those with special circumstances and those without access to guidance counselors.

"People operate better with the truth," she said.

• Visit collegeadmissionbook.com for more information.

• Jeff Carr, the author of this story, has a bachelor's degree from Utah State University and a master's from Stanford. He is well-versed with the college-admission process. He has worked on university staffs and consulted students on essays and strategies.

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