Don't Stalk the Admissions Officer: How to Survive the College Admissions Process Without Losing Your Mind


The college admissions process is:

A) Similar to gallbladder surgery without anesthesia

B) Worse than watching American Idol auditions without earplugs

C) Soul-destroying, ego-crushing, and life-sucking

D) Actually kind of funny when you think about it

E) All of the above

There's no denying it: Applying to ...

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Don't Stalk the Admissions Officer: How to Survive the College Admissions Process without Losing Your Mind

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The college admissions process is:

A) Similar to gallbladder surgery without anesthesia

B) Worse than watching American Idol auditions without earplugs

C) Soul-destroying, ego-crushing, and life-sucking

D) Actually kind of funny when you think about it

E) All of the above

There's no denying it: Applying to college is a grueling journey just shy of cruel and unusual punishment. But that doesn't mean you can't laugh along the way. If college is on your horizon, Don't Stalk the Admissions Officer shows you how to ace the tricky application process-while maintaining your sense of humor and sanity. Former pre-admissions counselor Risa Lewak empowers you to craft a killer essay, choose between the SAT and ACT, score stellar recommendations, nail the interview, handle overly involved parents, and more. You'll also learn how to navigate crucial post-application issues, like financial aid, rejection, and deciding whether to take a year off. Packed with insider tips, helpful suggestions, and laugh-out-loud anecdotes, this savvy handbook gives you the know-how and confidence to conquer this stressful rite of passage . . . and minimize nervous breakdowns.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[it] will make other college prep books jealous of their smarter, cooler sister.”
—USA Today College: The Blog, 9/17/10

“a playful new book about the college search...that yielded some good, fresh advice.”
—Jay Mathews,’s “Admissions 101” blog

“An insightful, entertaining, and fun read. The anecdotes and quizzes help make the college admissions process a little less stressful.”
—Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of and

“In this refreshing guide, Risa Lewak offers some great advice wrapped up in the humor of it all; the perfect antidote to the insanity.”
—Marilee Jones, former dean of admissions at MIT

“This well-paced read provides sane, reasonable ways for applicants to communicate effectively, remain authentic, and work with their advocates.”
—Bruce Poch, dean of admissions at Pomona College

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781580080606
  • Publisher: Ten Speed Press
  • Publication date: 7/13/2010
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 1,412,342
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

A former pre-admissions counselor and recruiter at Hunter College, RISA LEWAK, MSEd, leads workshops to help prospective college students and their parents minimize the stress of the application process. She is an alumni interviewer for the University of Pennsylvania, a frequent speaker at high schools and college fairs, and a regular contributor to popular college prep websites, including and
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Read an Excerpt

Don't Stalk the Admissions Officer

How to Survive the College Admissions Process without Losing Your Mind
By Risa Lewak

Ten Speed Press

Copyright © 2010 Risa Lewak
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781580080606

The following question won’t affect your GPA:

Q: Who’s happier: the overdriven, AP-inundated American high school student, or the Dayak teenager from Borneo who throws rocks at his own head during initiation rites?

A)      It depends on where the Borneo kid is applying.
B)      Is rock throwing weighted?
C)      Ask me after November 1st.
D)      What’s wrong with throwing rocks at yourself?
If you answered A, then you need to chill out about the application process because you’re a wee bit paranoid about your competition. If you answered B, then check with your guidance counselor, because chances are rock throwing is not offered as a course. If you answered C, then you’re probably locked in your room right now calculating how many more points you need to raise your SAT score to get in early decision. If you answered D, then your parents should take you in for psychological testing.
You’ve spent too many nights praying that colleges will think that the summer you fed Cocoapuffs to Buddhist monks will compensate for the 0.00005839 drop in your GPA after AP Physics junior year. Your social life has gotten so bad that you’re thinking about asking your SAT tutor to the prom. You can’t even have normal fantasies anymore—your guidance counselor keeps showing up in a black leather bathing suit, gently rubbing your transcript with hot oil.
“Who are you, anyway?” you’re asking. “I have a calculus exam tomorrow.” Before you go back to Multivariable Calculus (which was actually the real cause of World War I), let me shed a little light on who I am. Basically, I am someone who feels really sorry for you—not because you’re probably going to fail that Calc exam tomorrow—but because you are applying to college. Other than natural childbirth, waterboarding, and staring directly at Donald Trump’s hair, very few life experiences are as painful as what you’re going through right now.
I myself was once a grade-obsessed, AP-driven, SAT-defined student who rarely left the house. I spent my senior year dialing (on speed dial, of course) the University of Pennsylvania’s admissions office and cajoling some poor sucker who worked the phones into answering questions like, “Has my application been read yet? I sent it priority mail. The stamp had an eagle on it—I heard the dean of admissions really likes birds. When’s his birthday again?”
During that nightmare-inducing period before I got my thick envelope from Penn, I gained ten pounds (the extra chin looked swell in my senior photo), developed an obsessive tendency to write a “U” on Penn tennis balls, and began to sweat constantly. All that anxiety, angst, and armpit stains—was it worth it? Of course not. But when you’re in the midst of applying to college, there is very little anyone can say or do to put things in perspective. I know for a fact that the following platitudes won’t even come close to lessening your anxiety:
Life is a lot bigger than applying to college
Wherever you go, you’ll be happy
There are a million good schools out there
Many CEOs of Fortune 500 companies went to
average or below-average schools
Don’t stress; it all works out in the end
You don’t need a college degree to join the Mafia
I know, there are 2.6 million kids applying to college in this country and the competition is more intense now than ever before. I also understand that your parents are probably just as worried about the application process as you are. The choices are overwhelming, the application is confusing, and, let’s be honest, you’re waiting for an elderly relative to keel over so that the $200,000 price tag becomes less daunting.
It’s easy to plunge into the depths of the hell that is college admissions (it’s the unofficial tenth circle), but in truth, it’s possible to put things in perspective and adopt a healthy attitude toward applying. It’s even possible to get more out of high school than you think you can. And the more you can enjoy high school, the smaller your therapy bills will be later in life.
Part one
Enjoy High School Now, Avoid Therapy Later
High school is a time of anxiety, growth, and embarrassing breakouts. In recent years, it has also become a time of enrolling in intensive Flemish language courses, becoming a nationally ranked tennis player, defusing landmines in Africa during summer break, and maintaining straight A’s—preferably by sophomore year. However, the truth is, it’s unhealthy to look at high school as a boot camp for college; it’s much better to devote those years to enjoying high school. By the time you’ve finished this section, you’ll be springing out of bed at 6:00 a.m. eager to get to class and counting down the days until September during summer vacations.
Overachiever and Loser Have the Same Latin Root
(This is something you may not have learned in Latin or Greek.) So, you’re the poster child of overachievement: the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, captain of the tennis team, esteemed Mathlete, member of Model Congress and Model UN, vice president of the French Club, tutor for underprivileged kids, award-winning cymbal player, and founder of JASA (Just Another Student Association). All this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an accomplished person. It does mean you’re going to run out of space on the activities grid on your application.
Extracurricular Overload
Many high school students make the mistake of thinking that the more extracurricular activities they have on their college application, the more impressed colleges will be. But before you run off to your biweekly ping pong club meeting (even you know that one’s lame), stop and ask yourself whether you actually enjoy all these activities you’re pursuing. High school is a unique time in your life to explore your interests and figure out what kind of activities, hobbies, and academic subjects truly appeal to you. If you dedicate your entire high school career to getting into college, you’re going to squander four years of precious time running from meeting to meeting in a grim, joyless effort to appear “well rounded.” Plus, you’ll miss a lot of Saturday morning cartoons.
Let’s be honest here: not many people join the environmental club because of a burning desire to fight human-induced climate change. The following chart outlines the alleged reason why you sign up for a particular club, and the deep, dark actual reason you joined.
Extracurricular Activity   
Drama Club
French Club
Environmental Awareness Club
Community Service       
Ostensible Reason for Joining    
You live and breathe to act.
You’re eager to develop language skills, which can become a lifelong asset.
You think it’s vital to leave our children a better planet.
You want to contribute to your class’s legacy.
You want to serve the underprivileged and improve your community.
You think unraveling incomprehensible, pointless math problems is fun.
Real Reason for Joining
Talent is not required.
You couldn’t find another way to get a free trip to Paris.
The extent of your responsibility is reminding people to turn off the lights.
The school paper wouldn’t take you.
You’re hoping that underprivileged kid you’re tutoring will wash your car.
You think unraveling incomprehensible, pointless math problems is fun.
If you don’t really care about what you’re doing, the admissions officers are going to know it. You can try all you want to pretend that working on the school paper means everything to you, but if you dread going to meetings and you write articles like “Studies Show Student Journalists Have High Suicide Rate,” then your commitment to that activity will be seriously in question. You’re forced to do enough things in high school; don’t force yourself to attend meetings about things that don’t really call out to you. You’ll be doing plenty of that when you eventually get a real job.
If you’re in a club that truly interests you, your commitment and dedication to that club will naturally shine through. Let’s look at some specific tips for conveying your genuine passion.
Being Passionate About Your Passions
In the college admissions world, it’s not enough to have passions—one must be passionate about those passions. Admissions officers never tire of emphasizing how important it is for students to be passionate—about anything. It doesn’t matter if you like playing classical guitar or picking up dog excrement from the sidewalk. As long as you have passions and express how passionate you are about them, then you’ll get a gold star in the passion department.
So remember that simply liking or enjoying an activity doesn’t cut it anymore. If you’re not zealously passionate about it, it doesn’t count. There is a difference, however, between normal, run-of-the-mill passions, like playing baseball, and “we recommend intense psychotherapy” passions, like amassing a roadkill collection. Make sure your passions are within the scope of normality, and you should be fine. The following passions are not acceptable (at least on a college application).
Collecting the entire line of American Girl dolls
Throwing tea parties with imaginary friends
Anything that has to do with a boy band
Identity theft
The only way to come across as truly genuine about your activities and interests is to be truly genuine. You can’t fake real enthusiasm. When you’re writing about your passions in the essay or discussing them in the college interview, talk about how your participation in a particular activity enhances your life. Whether it’s whale watching or bowling, it’s easy to elaborate on something you truly love doing. If you’re forcing yourself to love something, your “passion” will come across as contrived. So do what you really love—and remember that you can drop it right after you get your acceptance letter.
So how can you express your genuine passions? There are many ways, some more effective than others, as this chart demonstrates.
Good Approach
Write the essay about something you are passionate about.
Discuss your passions in the college interview.
Encourage your teacher to discuss your passions in the recommendation letter.
Be passionate about what you truly care about it and let that come through naturally.
Bad Approach
Write the essay about something someone else was passionate about (otherwise known as plagiarizing).
Mime your passions in the college interview.
Encourage your teacher to pretend you have passions (like speaking fluent Mandarin and amassing an international cheese collection) in the recommendation letter.
Buy an eccentric tweed coat and aviator sunglasses in the hope
that this will make you look like
an interesting, passionate person.
Do You Know What Your “Mosquito Populations and Arboviral Vectors Associated with Equines“
Intel Project Means?
One tried-and-true proof of a student’s passion is, of course, entering a prestigious academic competition. Among the many precollege science competitions, the Intel Science Talent Search (STS) is the country’s oldest and most elite. Winners of the Intel go on to the nation’s top colleges and universities, and they often have an uncanny ability to alienate everyone they meet at a frat party.
It’s easy to be in awe of students who churn out this kind of research while you’re still trying to figure out the difference between males and females. Don’t, however, overlook one small fact: most of the Intel
contestants work with an established professor who
has spent years and years making strides in groundbreaking areas of research that nobody cares about. Sure, the show-offs with projects like “Mosquito populations and arboviral vectors associated with equines” can seem intimidating. However, chances are that no one, including the founder of MAA (Making America Arboviral), knows what this means.
Taking on a project like the Intel Science Talent Search is fantastic—as long as you know what you’re talking about. But if you conduct any sort of research or enter a competition solely in an attempt to make yourself look good, it will backfire. Admissions officers will ask you about your research—usually by having an appropriate academic staff member from the college query you. So if you don’t have a genuine interest in arboviral vectors, you better bone up quickly because the arboviral vector department will be getting in touch soon.
Being a Leader—Does This Mean You Can Smack People Who Don’t Listen?
Admissions officers repeat ad nauseam how much they want students who are “leaders.” “We want to see evidence that the student has taken charge of something and can communicate effectively,” says an admissions officer from a prestigious state college in California. What does that mean, exactly? Would being the president of the debate club or vice president of the wind ensemble cut it? Or would teenage dictators of South American countries have a better shot?
Colleges’ desire for students with experience in leadership roles has caused a lot of the extracurricular mania among America’s high school students. Students vie for any “leadership role” to stay competitive in an admissions pool where other applicants are presenting themselves as accomplished, skilled leaders. But if everyone is a leader, then who are the followers? Why can’t colleges boldly say, “Since most leaders are overrated, we’re giving preference to faithful, dedicated followers”?
If you have a natural propensity for leadership and enjoy taking charge, then by all means, lead away. However, if you tend to follow the herd, then don’t force yourself to be a leader. Wouldn’t you rather be a genuine follower than a superficial, disingenuous leader? If being a follower allows you to participate in activities you enjoy and sleep more than three hours a night, know that you’re doing yourself a service. Admissions officers prefer applicants who actually have fun doing something—even if that means you’re not an officer or editor-in-chief or supreme ruler of the universe. As a former Cornell admissions officer says, “I was always more impressed with the students behind the scenes who loved what they were doing than designated leaders who were padding their resumes.” There is nothing wrong with being a mere member of a club or cheering on the sidelines for your school team—those are important functions. Plus, leaders do need people to boss around and occasionally abuse, so you might come in handy.
Too Many AP Courses Can Cause Hives
“I wish my high school offered fewer AP classes,” says Jenn, a junior from a private high school in New Jersey. “It would be nice to have a breather once in a while.” From AP Physics to AP Lunch, the number of AP courses that are available in high school is staggering. AP classes were designed to provide students with a chance to engage in college-level coursework. The original theory was that since courses like calculus and microeconomics were already so much fun, why not take them to the next level and make them even more challenging and intense—and then top off the experience with a grueling, gut-wrenching exam in May?
AP courses do have their benefits. For starters, they go beyond the standard curriculum and elevate students’ subject mastery to a new level. They offer students the opportunity to gain college credit if they receive a certain score on the exam, which could help them graduate early and save money. And last but not least, AP courses enhance a student’s transcript, showing academic initiative and ambition. 


Excerpted from Don't Stalk the Admissions Officer by Risa Lewak Copyright © 2010 by Risa Lewak. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction viii

Part 1 Enjoy High School Now, Avoid Therapy Later 1

Chapter 1 Overachiever and Loser Have the Same Latin Root 2

Chapter 2 Why Spend the Summer Meditating with Monks when you Could be Working on your Tan? 17

Part 2 Hot Sweats, Cold Sweats, and Difficulty Breathing-Either you're Applying to College or you Have Malaria 21

Chapter 3 Finding the Right Fit: Why College Isn't a Pair of Levis 22

Chapter 4 Guidance Counselors Must Have Done Something Very Bad in a Former Life 39

Chapter 5 The SAT Versus the ACT: Which is More Evil? 54

Chapter 6 Surviving the College Tour: Please God, Not Another Library 73

Chapter 7 When to Tell your Parents it's Time to Start Seeing Other Children 82

Chapter 8 The Art of Asking and/or Threatening Teachers for a Good Recommendation 96

Chapter 9 Writing the Essay: The Line Between Good and Bad is Thinner than you Think 106

Chapter 10 The College Interview: Fourteen Ways not to Screw it Up 126

Chapter 11 Things that Annoy Admissions Officers 136

Chapter 12 How to Pass the Time While you're Waiting to Hear 144

Part 3 The Envelope Arrives: Whatever Happens, Don't Take it Out on the Mailman 151

Chapter 13 Without Rejection, There'd be no Ben & Jerry's 152

Chapter 14 How to Choose the Right School (They All Look Good in Brochures) 161

Chapter 15 Paying for College without Getting Arrested 170

Chapter 16 Taking a Gap Year: Should you Put Off Renaissance Poetry to Explore Italy on a Vespa? 184

Epilogue Whether it's Fat or Thin, an Envelope will not Change your Life 191

Index 194

About the Author 198

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  • Posted September 5, 2010


    "The College Admissions process can be overwhelming. Here's some help:
    p.31-What to do when you have no idea where to apply
    p.80-After the College Tour and Info Session
    p.113-Write a strong essay that reflects you
    p.136-What Admission Officers Hate
    p.140- What Admission Officers Love
    p.162-How to Choose the Right School"

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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