The Truth About Getting In: A Top College Advisor Tells You Everything You Need to Know


It used to be that any college applicant with stellar SAT scores and a high grade point average was a shoo-in for the school of his or her choice. Not anymore. These days it takes a great application, too. The extracurricular activities or brag sheet, personal essay, and interview all weigh heavily in the acceptance process.

As a private college admissions counselor, Dr. Katherine Cohen has placed 75% of her clients into their top-choice college. Now, for the first time, she ...

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It used to be that any college applicant with stellar SAT scores and a high grade point average was a shoo-in for the school of his or her choice. Not anymore. These days it takes a great application, too. The extracurricular activities or brag sheet, personal essay, and interview all weigh heavily in the acceptance process.

As a private college admissions counselor, Dr. Katherine Cohen has placed 75% of her clients into their top-choice college. Now, for the first time, she offers her successful program in a book complete with worksheets, timelines, and checklists, to help students demystify the college admissions process and get into the school of their choice.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Learn what it takes to get into your school of choice from a certified admissions counselor. Get the inside scoop on what classes to take in high school, writing a winning essay, and acing the interview -- plus priceless tips and checklists on completing a sure-thing application.
Among the best books of its kind out there today.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786887477
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • Publication date: 4/3/2002
  • Pages: 252
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

A graduate of Brown University and Yale University, Katherine Cohen, Ph.D., founded her private counseling practice, IvyWise, in 1997. She holds a certification in college admissions counseling from UCLA. Dr. Cohen lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt


You've read the articles. You've heard the rumors in school. The flashy tell-all books recount the same thing — getting into college has become a high-stakes gamble. The coveted spots at the nation's most selective schools have become nearly impossible to obtain. Super-achieving high schooners and their status-conscious parents will do almost anything to ensure a letter of admission from an Ivy League school, turning the once carefree years of high school into college admissions boot camp. Now more than ever, the nation's prestigious universities are able to hand pick their students — even admitting many early, before the legions of normal high school students get a chance to apply. I wish I could say it weren't, but the hype is true.

Why? Why this sudden pandemonium over postsecondary education in America? Why this sense that if you don't get into one of the nation's top colleges, your high school years will have been a waste? Why the pressure, the stress, the worry, and the cutthroat competition? First of all, it has to do with numbers. We are in the midst of a post baby boom, which is supposed to last until 2008. The US. Department of Education estimates that the number of high school graduates will rise to a record 3.1 million by the end of the decade, an increase of 12 percent over today. The number of high school seniors taking the SAT I has been rapidly increasing over the years as well. In 2000, 2.2 million students took the SAT I — a huge increase over the 1.3 million who took the test in 1999. But it also has to do with economic shifts in our country. The 1990s witnessed an unparalleled boom in the American economy. Despite the slight economic downturn at the beginning of the twenty-first century, most families still find themselves with more money for college fees and tuition than ever before. Accordingly, colleges' endowments have swelled and many schools are now able to offer financial aid to students who could not otherwise afford college.

Culturally speaking, this swelling generation of high school students born after 1982 is very unlike its more skeptical predecessors, Generation X. According to Neil Howe and William Strauss, the "Millennials," as they call them, were born into a period of unparalleled economic and social stability, with parents whose ability to focus on providing their children with a busy, well-balanced life was unmatched by any previous parental generation. If you are reading this book now in preparation for college applications, then you are probably a Millennial. According to Howe and Strauss, you were most likely the product of a soccer mom and "sensitive" dad; your "Baby on Board" childhood during the Clinton boom years has given you an innate optimism; and the Columbine massacre was the awareness-raising event of your grade-school years. Now, of course, global terrorism and the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks may be the defining moment of your young adulthood. Howe and Strauss believe this unique combination of historical events thrusts your generation into, to paraphrase FDR, "a rendezvous with destiny."

You are also the Internet generation, having officially replaced the "After-School Special" generation. You are more adept at using computer technology than your predecessors. With websites and e-mail, you have immediate access to more information than students did just five years ago. As a result, the number of online services devoted to college admissions is now staggering. You can research colleges and visit them online. At websites like (which acquired, you can even fill out college application information, have it adjusted to fit the formats of hundreds of different college applications, and send it off — all with the touch of a button.

Although the applicant pool is growing, acquiring more resources, and becoming better informed the number of spots at the nation's top colleges remains the same, creating a feeling of scarcity and fierce competition. And as competition grows, so does the pressure to perform. The college admissions process has unfortunately become one of the most stressful times in a young student's life, both physically and psychologically draining. And it's no walk in the park for parents, either. Frustrated at their inability to control the entire college admissions process, overwhelmed by the impending financial burden of a college tuition, and emotionally drained from the prospect of their children's departure from the family nest, parents today are just as stressed as their children when it comes to applying for college. I have met mothers and fathers who felt personally rejected when their child was denied admission to the college of their choice.

So what can you do?

To begin with, relax. Take a deep breath and remember that the most rewarding things in life are never a breeze. It might help to think of the college admissions process as a sport. Would you suddenly decide to run a marathon without training for months, even years, beforehand? Would you attempt to run a marathon if you were more gifted at the 100-yard dash? Surprisingly, when it comes to college admissions, many students do just that. They head blindly into the application process without the proper tools, strategies, or training. They base their college choices on the prestige and selectivity of a small number of schools without adequately researching what they want out of their postsecondary education. Finally, they make a series of mistakes on their admissions applications simply because they don't know how to separate the truths from the many college admissions myths.

My point is this: to get into the college of your choice, you must be performing at an optimal level when it comes to the college application. To do so, you need to begin training early on. You need a clear strategy, a bit of self-discipline, and a ton of good old-fashioned determination. But you also need someone who can separate the myths from the truths, someone who knows. That's where this book comes in. It is my mission to get you and your application into tip-top shape, to put you on the right track toward college admission, and to give you a leg up on the competition. That is why I have devoted the last fifteen years of my life to studying and working in all aspects of higher education.

That is also why I wrote this book: to provide you and your family with "the truth about getting in."

I am Katherine Cohen, independent college counselor, founder and president of IvyWise. Although no one person can guarantee admission to one of the nation's top schools, reading this book and following its exercises and tips will help you produce the best application possible. It will guide you through the complex issues facing today's college applicants, offering invaluable insights and trade secrets culled from my many years of experience on both sides of the college admissions process. I received my B.A. from Brown University, and an M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. from Yale University. I have taught SAT I courses and private tutorials. I have taught at Yale, where I also acted as a student advisor and read for the university's Undergraduate Office of Admissions. And I am currently an alumna interviewer for Brown University. In the course of my experience, I have evaluated and recommended hundreds of applications.

It is this background that has made my private practice so successful. With my personal experience at two Ivy League institutions, I am uniquely qualified to offer unparalleled advice on admissions to the top schools in the nation. But I don't stop there. Certainly, the Ivies aren't meant for everyone and not everyone is meant for the Ivies. With this in mind I pride myself on finding "the right fit" for my students. For some, that means a small liberal arts college like Amherst or Wesleyan, for others it means a large state school like Berkeley or Michigan. No two colleges are alike and no two applicants have the same needs. More than referring to a particular destination then, the name IvyWise suggests a state of mind. If you are "wise" to what the most selective schools want, then you are wise to what any school in the country wants.

Of course, the college admissions process is not a science. Finding the right college and getting yourself in are highly subjective experiences. Working intimately with this book, you will gain a wealth of knowledge about the college admissions process, but, more important, you will also gain a wealth of knowledge about yourself. You will come to understand what you want from your education, what you want from the world, and where you wish to go in your life. The exercises and tips in the following pages encourage you to believe in yourself both academically and personally, to believe you deserve the best education possible, to believe you will ultimately go wherever your hard work and dedication take you.

Because that's the first truth about getting into college: when it comes to the application, colleges want to discover you — so get to know yourself first.

I remember when I was applying to college. I had very little guidance. In fact, I can barely remember the name of my high school college counselor. I attended a very selective all-girls' school where my busy schedule of advanced placement (AP) classes and my unweighted 3.99 GPA only qualified me for eighth in a class of ninety. During a summer program at Andover, I visited Brown University and immediately fell in love. Unfortunately, my college counselor told me there was no way I would get in. Today, I understand that she was basing her decision on purely objective factors: there were two other young women above me in class rank who wanted to go to Brown and they would certainly be accepted before me. But the counselor never once looked at me as a unique human being with extracurricular interests that might make me a more interesting candidate. She didn't see, for instance, that my time spent with the American Field Service in Argentina, my photography portfolio, my extensive dance experience, or my employment might give me an edge over the slightly better-ranked students in my class. She didn't stop to consider my self-motivation, my commitment to community service, or my strong desire to attend Brown.

The day I got into Brown Early Action was one of the proudest days of my life. It was a testament to my commitment, as well as a strong expression of my independence. As rewarding as it was, however, I was acutely aware of the many students who lacked my self-motivation, students who fell through the cracks because they weren't pushed in the right direction or given the right tools. That is how IvyWise eventually came into being. This is why I am so eager to share my knowledge with you.

There are a lot of college resources out there. Believe me, I know. The intense competition that made college admissions such a high-stakes gamble in the 1990s has also made college admissions a big business. These days you can find all sorts of materials to help you get into the college of your choice: college admissions counselors both in and outside of school, test preparation courses and tutors, websites that offer online advice to help you write great essays, CD-ROMs that match you with the right colleges, not to mention the many books like this one. Personally, I don't believe that any one counselor, course, or book can get you into the college of your choice. Ultimately, only you can get yourself in. Even money can't "buy" admission. In 1998, for instance, a student whose father had donated $10 million to New York University was flat-out rejected. NYU kept the cash. I do believe, however, that you, the student, must be both educated and clear about what you have to offer a prospective college, what you want from your college education, which colleges best suit your needs, and how to get through the college admissions process without missing a step.

That is the goal of this book: to serve as an instigator, motivator, and coach. To challenge you to challenge yourself. It is a practical manual to college admissions, a source of insider knowledge and truths of the trade that will maximize your chances of getting into the selective school of your choice. It urges you to take your education into your own hands and be active in the college admissions process. Most important, it sifts through the dubious myths and questionable advice contained in other college admissions materials and gives you a clear picture of the truth about getting in.

So go ahead, make this book a part of your life. Scribble notes all over it. Photocopy its exercises and tips. Don't be afraid to get your hands dirty. And if the going gets tough, just picture yourself stepping under that ivy-covered archway onto the college campus of your dreams. That's it. That's what it's all about. A little hard work now, and you're already there.

*Endnotes were omitted

Copyright (c) 2002 Katherine Cohen, Ph.D.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi
Introduction xiii
1. The Admissions Application: An Overview
Myths and Truths 2
General Requirements for the Application 3
Academic Record: Your High School Transcript 6
Grade Improvement Strategies 12
Personal Record 15
Summary 16
Insider Tips 17
2. Planning for College
Myths and Truths 20
Making the Most of Your Time 21
When Should I Apply? 28
The Truth About Applying Early 31
Beware of Senioritis 35
Summary 37
Insider Tips 37
3. College Resources
Myths and Truths 40
Getting Started 40
Using Your High School College Counselor 40
The Inside Scoop on Private Counselors 43
Helpful Resources 44
Summary 53
Insider Tips 54
4. Choosing Your Colleges
Myths and Truths 56
Choosing Your Colleges 56
Requesting Information from Colleges 61
The Secret to a Balanced Portfolio 63
Beyond the Ivies: Finding the Perfect Fit 65
Summary 66
Insider Tips 66
5. Preparing to Apply
Myths and Truths 68
Preparing to Apply 69
Imagining You're There 70
College Visits 72
Summary 82
Insider Tips 82
6. Selling Yourself
Myths and Truths 84
Selling Yourself 84
Who Are You? 85
The Brag Sheet 89
Sample Brag Sheets 99
Summary 112
Insider Tips 112
7. Taking the Tests
Myths and Truths 114
College Entrance Exams 115
Fee Waivers 122
Registration Procedure 122
Keeping Track 123
Note on Test Scores 124
Summary 127
Insider Tips 127
8. Writing an Outstanding Essay
Myths and Truths 130
Essay Writing 131
Essay Topics 131
Sample Questions 134
Brainstorming Strategies 135
Guidelines for Writing an Outstanding College Essay 138
Sample Essays 140
Summary 179
Insider Tips 179
9. Getting Glowing Letters of Recommendation
Myths and Truths 182
Letters of Recommendation 183
Help Your Teachers 183
Notes for Teachers and Counselors 185
Sample Teacher Recommendations 186
Sample College Counselor Letters 190
Sample Employer Recommendation 194
Summary 195
Insider Tips 195
10. Acing the Interview
Myths and Truths 198
The Interview Itself 199
Interviewing Guidelines 201
Preparing for the Interview 203
Concluding the Interview 208
Summary 209
Insider Tips 210
11. Securing Financial Aid
Myths and Truths 212
Financial Aid for College 213
Understanding College Costs 213
Determining Your Financial Resources for College 215
How Do I Apply? 218
Composition of Financial Aid Package 220
Beware of Scholarship Scams 221
Worldwide Web Resources for Financial Aid and Scholarships 223
Glossary of Financial Terms 224
Summary 225
Insider Tips 225
12. Applying for College Checklist
Myths and Truths 228
Applying for College Checklist 229
College Tracker 231
13. Special Issues in College Admissions
Myths and Truths 234
Student-Athletes and the NCAA 235
Students with Learning Disabilities/Differences or Medical Conditions 239
Legacy Students 240
Minority Students 241
Student Artists 241
Wait-Listed Students 242
Transfer Students 243
Taking a Year Off 243
Summary 244
Insider Tips 244
Forty Elite U.S. Colleges and Universities 248
Glossary of Terms 249
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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 28, 2003

    covers a lot of stuff

    This book was helpful but focused too much on getting into an Ivy league. Also, there was not that much information on how to decide where to go once you get into to more than one school. But there are great sample essays and interview tips.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 24, 2002

    The Truth About This Book!

    I really thought this book was so helpful! i now know what im looking for in a college, how to get in to the college i want to, how to plan for it and how to pay for it. It answered all of my questions about getting into college! KUDOS to Ms. Kohen!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2002

    Tells it like it is and more!

    As a parent of an 11th grader, this is a great read for a wealth of information that is presented candidly and without 'fluff'. It confirmed what we (as parents) suspected were the 'expectations' it was great to hand it to our child to see it in 'black and white' and not have to be nagging parents. That in itself was worth the purchase!!! The author provided a section of websites on all college-search topics. The site we found most valuable was one that offered videotapes of the student tours for almost all college campuses across the USA and even some outside the country!!! It's the perfect economical and convenient way of dwindling down the list of potential schools to apply to. Highly recommended.

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