What’s your angle? Straight Talk from college admissions counselors

New York Daily News

By Jackie Lupo
January 22, 2010

Imagine you’re a high school junior whose life is built around rowing. You get up every morning at 5 o’clock to practice with the crew team, then it’s back to the boathouse after school for another three hours on the water. On the weekends, your crew practices or maybe there’s a race. In the winter, you train on machines every day.

You’ve been doing this for three years, and that’s pretty much all you have time for. But college recruiters have already been courting you, so you guess it doesn’t matter that your grades are just fair. All goes well until later that spring, when your boat is accidentally rammed by another school’s boat during a race. You have serious knee injuries, requiring surgery and a long recovery period. Rowing is going to be out for at least the summer, probably next fall, too. The recruiters have disappeared, and college applications are due in a few months. Now what?

The scenario described here is probably familiar to any parent with a child involved in high-level competitive athletics. The prospect of being recruited by college coaches leads many high school students to put all their eggs in one basket when it comes to choosing their activities in high school. This is a significant turnaround from the prevailing wisdom of a generation ago, when high school students were advised to be “well-rounded” and have a resume balanced among academics, sports, the arts and volunteer work. High schoolers today are often urged to specialize, while many often find themselves on the other end of the spectrum by overextending themselves just to have done it all.

So what is the right thing for all teens?
Carol Gill, president of Carol Gill Associates in Dobbs Ferry, has been a college counselor for over 25 years, and she has seen a big change in the prevailing wisdom about what colleges are looking for.

“It used to be colleges wanted a well-rounded student”, said Gill. “Now, they want a well-rounded class. They would like the freshman class to be composed of ‘angular’ students: musicians, athletes, volunteers. The new watchword is colleges are looking for students who are an inch wide and a mile deep. They’re looking for students to exhibit a passion, whether it be academic or personal.”

“Angular” is a word used by many college counselors interviewed for this article. What exactly is an angular student? It’s someone who has devoted year of time and energy to an activity they really care about. What kind of activity? It could be anything at all. What’s important is that the students should demonstrate a commitment to something, work hard at it, and, as a result, have that interest or expertise to offer as a potential member of a college community.

But while the emphasis on “angularity” is realistic for students who are clearly stars in a given area- the champion gymnast, the science talent search winner, the flutist who gave a recital at Carnegie Hall, the published poet- it may not make sense for kids who aren’t stars, and who aren’t sure what, if anything, they’re passionate about.

“If they don’t have a passion, they don’t have a passion,” said Peter Newman of Greenwich Education and Prep. While Newman said that he thought colleges might tend to favor specialized people with genuine, long-term accomplishments, “It’s hard to create a passion. I don’t like to package kids; I think it generally shows through, but not every child is going to have a passion, and not every child is going to get into Harvard. I try and find colleges that are appropriate to their interests, academically, socially, and geographically. Most kids are not stars, and what we do for kids who are not stars is to make sure they’re in the appropriate classes and find institutions that will challenge them.”

Newman stressed that academics trump everything else, except for kids who are truly accomplished in some extracurricular area.

“Clearly, grades are the most important factor,” he said. “Grades are far and away the most important thing on their application, followed by standardized test scores, especially if they are not a star.”

This doesn’t mean that extracurricular and sports are not of value for most college applicants. They key is to choose wisely and to start strategizing early.

“What I tell kids is if colleges only admitted leaders, they’d have a huge problem,” said Katherine Cohen, the founder of IvyWise, a college counseling service in Manhattan. “There always has to be a balance between leaders and kids who are great team members and great collaborators. It’s a myth that everybody has to be a leader.”

Cohen said that the key to impressing college admissions officers is to make the most of what you are interested in: “The heart of what we do is to help students get to know who they are. One hundred percent of students know what they like and don’t like. We know that kids are doing things with their time. So the question is, where do you naturally gravitate? Then, be more impactful with these interests.”

Cohen suggested that if a student is into golf, but may not be good enough to be recruited, that doesn’t mean he has to abandon golf. Instead, she said, the student could build other interests around golf.

“Maybe you’re starting an inner city golf league for students who can’t afford to join a golf club,” Cohen said. “Or you’re writing about golf for the local paper or running a charity tournament.”

Most counselors like to meet students when they first enter high school so they can help them choose their activities carefully.

“Students have to be reflecting about this before and during ninth grade,” said Cohen, who said that it’s all too common for freshmen to arrive at high school, see the different clubs and activities available to them, and say, “This looks great, that looks great, I’ll sign up for everything!”

You have to approach your high school career with more thoughtfulness, Cohen said.

“There are kids who have a lot of interests, and we have to sit down and edit. What do you really enjoy doing? How do you want to leave your mark in high school? Anyone can find their true interests and make an impact with them.”

Cohen advises students “not to look like you’re hustling at the end of high school.” Signing up for community service for the first time when you’re in the 12th grade would not go over too well with admissions officers, said Cohen. She also advised against being a “serial joiner,” what she defined as “someone who joins different clubs year after year and drops out of those clubs year after year.” And as far as clubs are concerned, there are clubs that count and clubs that don’t. Participation in a club that meets once a week for an hour won’t be likely to impress admissions officers.

Sports is a commitment that should be made carefully. By the time a student reaches 10th grade, it should be pretty clear whether he or she has star potential.

“Sports are very tough”, said Cohen. “If you want to be at the level that you’re recruitable, you have to spend all your time.” Since there’s always the possibility of being sidelined by an injury, she advised either doing other things related to the sport, or cultivating some other, unrelated interest.

“You never know what can happen in life,” she said. “Make sure your grades are good and you’re doing at least one other thing. Have a fallback plan.”

Cohen said it might not be a good idea for students who are not at the recruitable level to maintain three varsity sports, since they are extremely time-consuming.

“Maybe you should think about doing something revolves around your other interests,” she said.