The competition for admissions to the most elite colleges in America (think Ivy League, US News top 10) is fiercer than ever.
That’s because top colleges provide the best academic opportunities. Resources. Career opportunities. Pathways to elite grad schools. Student and alumni communities (where you’ll forge lifelong connections, friendships, potentially even meet your spouse). Not to mention, you’ll have a powerful brand associated with you for life.
How can students and parents without special connections distinguish themselves amidst a sea of qualified applicants?
This week, I chat again with my friend Shirag Shemmassian, a college admissions expert who has coached thousands of students to successful admission at elite colleges, about the mindsets and accomplishments you really need to win admission to the most elite colleges.
- Biggest myths and misconceptions when it comes to getting into elite colleges
- What elite college admissions committees are looking for, and how to differentiate yourself
- What level/degree of accomplishment you need to get in
- What students (and parents) can do well ahead of the application year to distinguish themselves, and how far in advance to do it
- How lower / middle income / rural / etc students with access to fewer opportunities can still differentiate themselves compellingly
- Why your “message” and the way you deliver it is just as important as your actual accomplishments
- The mindset students should have when writing their college essays
- How to pick an essay topic and write it compellingly (even if you’re not a great writer)
- Who should write your recommendation letters, and how to build genuine relationships with recommenders that blossom into great letters
- The qualities that make a stand-out recommendation letter
Did you attend (or send your kid to) an elite college? What do you think principally contributed to your / their admissions success? What would you have done differently if you could do it over? Let me know by leaving a comment when you’re done.
NOTE: Apologies in advance we had some audio problems in the second half of the interview, so some parts may sound choppy. However, all key points should still be clear. I’ve also cleaned up the transcript (at the link above) to fill in missing words / phrases, so check that out if you’re struggling to understand any key points.
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Links mentioned in this episode:
- Shirag’s guide to getting into top colleges
- Shirag’s successful college essay examples
- Shirag’s tips on writing the common app essay
- How to attend any college for free, with Shirag Shemmassian, PhD (HYW039)
- HYW private Facebook community
Read this episode as a post:
Andrew Chen 01:23
My guest today is Dr. Shirag Shemmassian.
Shirag is a college admissions expert and founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting, a college and graduate school admissions consultancy.
His company has coached thousands of students to successful admission at the most elite colleges in the country. Think Ivy League and U.S. News Top 10.
He is a graduate of Cornell University and received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from UCLA.
And he’s been featured in The Washington Post, U.S. News, and NBC, among other publications.
Shirag, thanks so much for joining us today to share insights and wisdom with our parents and students about how to win admission to elite universities. Very excited to be talking with you about this!
Shirag Shemmassian 01:56
It’s great to be back, Andrew. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Andrew Chen 02:00
We did a really insightful interview not too long ago about how to win college scholarships so that you can attend school for free. But briefly, for folks who may not have caught that up, just to orient themselves, how did you get into the business of university admissions consulting?
Shirag Shemmassian 02:18
Organically, honestly. I went to a high school, Andrew, where we had very little college admissions support. I grew up in L.A. and I went to a very small Armenian school.
Success there was essentially defined as you get into UCLA, which is a terrific school. I love UCLA. Don’t get me wrong.
But I always wanted something different and I set out to learn what it takes to get into Ivy Leagues and other top 10’s and so on.
I had a lot of success on the college admissions side back when I was a senior in high school. I don’t want to date myself too much.
But along the way, people just kept asking me questions. “How did you get into such and such school? How did you get so many scholarships?”
So I started helping people who were coming to me, and they started having a lot of success.
And it snowballed from there. Word of mouth increased, and all this good stuff. And over the years, people just kept coming.
After some time, it just grew to a place where I was like, “There’s something here, and I think I can support more people.”
That’s basically the genesis of it. I certainly didn’t go into helping people thinking it would become a certain business or anything of that sort.
But as soon as we were having a lot of success, I loved doing this work. It’s such a meaningful thing to help students achieve their academic and career goals.
And here I am today chatting with you.
Andrew Chen 03:43
Awesome. So let me just dive right in here and get to the heart of it.
Most colleges are not that competitive to get into. It’s only at the top national universities that the competition really heats up.
And with the Ivy League or U.S. News top 10 to 15 universities, or national liberal arts colleges like Amherst or Williams, then the competition gets severe.
What are the biggest myths and misconceptions that folks may have when it comes to applying for and winning admission to top colleges?
Let’s say we’re just focusing on undergrad here.
Shirag Shemmassian 04:17
First off, that’s such a salient point, Andrew, about how there’s thousands of colleges in this country and perhaps the majority of them have over 50% acceptance rates. So in America, it’s not hard for most people to get into a college.
The question is how do you get to certain colleges that are considered to be “elite” or at the top?
And these schools have tiny acceptance rates, oftentimes below 10%, even below 5% at some of the most elite schools. At that stage, at that level, it stops being so much about just grades and test scores where a lot of people focus, but these other factors as well.
That segues really nicely into one of the first myths, which is, so long as you get great grades and great test scores, you’re set.
Especially at the elite schools, most of the applicants will have incredible grades and incredible test scores. So these colleges at the top can fill their entire student body with students who get near perfect test scores probably several times over.
If a school has a freshman class of 2000-3000 students, if they pick the whole other set of 2000-3000 students, they can probably still get a pool comprising students with near perfect scores. That’s how competitive it is.
I think of grades and test scores as a necessary but not sufficient piece of the admissions puzzle. You have to have high grades and test scores, but it doesn’t just stop there.
Which then begs the question, “If it’s necessary but not sufficient, how do you get over that hump?”
And this is really where these other factors that are heavily related with your extracurricular activities as well as your personal statements and recommendation letters, etc., that’s really how you differentiate yourself from the applicant pool.
If an admissions committee member sees two applications from students with essentially the same stats, they’re going to differentiate those students based on their extracurricular profile and recommendation letters and personal statements and things of that nature.
So it’s really the case that you have to develop an extracurricular profile that is very distinct from the rest of the applicant pool.
There’s a big myth that you should have to be a jack of all trades or you have to be “well-rounded,” join all of these different clubs and be the president of the club, and things of this nature, which used to work 20 years ago, certainly 30 years ago.
But as people caught on and everyone was joining club after club after club and the résumés stacking and activities stacking, colleges wisened up to this and they said, “I can’t differentiate these students anymore, so I want to admit students who have achieved at an extremely high level in one or two areas.”
Some people call it a spike. Other people call it a specialty and essentially went really deep into those areas.
That’s a huge factor in elite admissions.
Andrew Chen 07:36
It’s interesting that you mentioned that admissions committees are not any longer really looking for well-rounded students, even though they are actively trying to assemble a well-rounded class.
And they’d rather have a class that consists of students who are very high-achieving that are each the best or near the top of their field. Maybe it’s award-winning writers or nationally recognized science prodigies, Olympic athletes, critically acclaimed musicians, math wizards or whatever.
Even if those students are not individually well-rounded, they’d rather have those students more than your traditional well-rounded students who took a lot of AP classes, joined a bunch of clubs, did volunteer work at the hospital, played the piano.
They want to admit these specialists who have this cohesive, integrated academic/extracurricular story that’s built around one or two core interests or passions that are built up over many years rather than students who splinter their time in different directions.
So I was curious if you could comment a little bit on what you have seen in terms of this trend, maybe even in your own consulting practice.
What are the markers for how an admissions committee is actually looking for differentiation in an applicant?
Shirag Shemmassian 08:58
I’m really excited to talk about examples. I actually want to take a step back and talk about certain myths related to what you just mentioned.
It is true that the highest tier schools look for students who are truly exceptional. The Stanfords and Harvards of the world do have people who are Olympians or science prodigies or the next Mozart or whatever the case might be.
However, not everyone who attends those schools is exceptional at that level.
The reason I bring this up is because a lot of students and parents look at these examples of truly elite students in their areas and arguably edge cases, and they think, “I’ll never be like them.”
“I know I’m smart. I’m not the next Einstein. I’m not Michael Phelps.”
“I’m not any of these highly exceptional people in whatever field I’ve chosen.” So they think, “I’m not going to get in anywhere.”
Or they might say, “I’m also not a legacy. I don’t have connections. I don’t have the hookup” or whatever it is that they’re thinking.
I bring that up because I want to encourage students and parents alike to think, “How can I elevate my extracurricular profile so that whatever niche I chose, I can be viewed as a student of that caliber?”
I think it’s easy for us to look at Olympians or national science award winners because those are clear achievements. They’re tangible.
In some ways, they’re like stats. When you get a 1580 on the SAT, that’s quantifiable. Going to the Olympics is a clear achievement.
Sometimes in your chosen area, if there isn’t some clear distinction like that, you think it wasn’t as special.
Sometimes parents ask me, “Can a ‘normal’ kid like mine who is not an Olympian also get into these schools?”
And the answer is yes. The question is how do you make that happen?
Essentially, you have to get very strict about how you use your time.
Most students will go to high school, they’ll look around, and they’ll think, “There’s this opportunity. There’s that opportunity.”
“Susan is doing this. Chen is doing that. Priya is doing this other thing.”
“I feel like I’m falling behind if I don’t follow suit.”
Or they’ll say, “So and so got into Yale. What did they do?”
They basically will work backwards and try to recreate the same exact profile. But that’s not how this works.
There are two questions every student needs to solve when they’re going for this. Actually, there are two categories within these extracurricular specs.
Number one is the highest level achievement in your craft. That’s the math whiz, science prodigy, Olympian category, the absolute best of the best in some competitive space.
The risk in that is it’s the point-whatever percent of students in that space will end up achieving at that level. We don’t remember as much the students who are even in the 97th or 98th percentile.
A good test for this is if I ask somebody, “Who is the best basketball player of all time?” and they’ll say Michael Jordan or Lebron James, depending on what generation you are. There is that difference.
If I said, “Who’s the second best?” they might say the other person they just didn’t name. And the third.
If I said, “Who’s the seventh best?” now they’re like, “I’ve got to think about it.” You don’t ascribe the same level of specialness to that.
So the risk in joining some very crowded competitive space is it’s very hard to become the Michael Jordan or Megan Rapinoe or whatever the case might be.
So then there is this other category of “If I’m not at that level, if I’m not the next Mozart, how do I approach this?”
Two questions to ask yourself. Number one is “What community or population do I want to serve?” Number two is “What problem do I want to solve?”
When we think about examples, a lot of these examples are born of students who achieved things with very clear focus because they went out to solve a problem.
For instance, there might be a student who says, “I want to help work on food insecurity for people in the inner city because I know there are food deserts and there aren’t great supermarkets with fresh produce nearby or a bunch of fast food options” or whatever.
I have seen students who have set up an urban farm in the inner city. They’ll set up a network of urban farms and they’ll plant nutritious food and they’ll teach people how to cook it.
They’ll recruit physicians to give talks on proper nutrition and how to balance your diet and all these kinds of things, and really collaborate with communities.
Or there might be a student who has a personal health difficulty. Maybe they can’t see so well or they have a very rare condition and doctors aren’t sure how they’re going to treat it. There might be some experimental things, but they start fiddling with different ways to solve this issue.
I recently heard of students who had developed a patent or had received a patent for this kind of thing. And in retrospect, we think, “Well, that person is like the Olympian. It’s just in another niche.”
But it’s not like they started with some extraordinary head start. They just had a problem and they really focused on solving that problem for themselves and for the community of people who shared the same problem.
So these are just some examples. And we can go on and on about it, but it always boils down to “Who do you want to serve? What problem do you want to solve?”
If you get really focused about that and set aside all these low yield, easy-to-participate-in activities, you can have tremendous success.
Andrew Chen 15:31
So if you reached that insight early in life (what community you want to serve, what problem you want to solve), you have arguably just a longer runway to start developing the evidence and track record of results.
That sounds like really the crucial element to a successful application, maybe even the most important factor, at least at the elite level.
So you have this head start. You can clock your 10,000 hours on it earlier and faster. And that’s almost certainly going to propel you farther than a student who discovers their passion only in their 20s or later in life.
How would you advise a student who honestly and genuinely just doesn’t know what they’re interested in yet or what they want to do yet? Maybe they just haven’t found their thing and aren’t ready to devote themselves to just one or two things to the exclusion of all else.
Because it’s hard for anyone, let alone a young teenager, to really know what they might be distinctive at or even world-class at, even if it’s in a more niched area, and where their talents might be.
So I would love to get your thoughts on that.
Shirag Shemmassian 16:46
Another important thing to note here is these schools that are so competitive and reserved for students with exceptional achievements, the word “exceptional” is very important. They are the exceptions.
When people are like, “I can’t achieve at that level,” well, these schools are looking for those students. So we have to think about how to do it.
Because if you put in your head that “I’m not at that level. I won’t be at that level,” you won’t try.
And then it will be like, “See? I knew it this whole time. It’s reserved for other people who aren’t like me.”
But going directly to your point, I think one of the most dangerous things when it comes to college admissions (and I hear this from parents and students alike) is that they first have to find their passion before they start doing things. So dangerous.
People might be surprised when they listen to this. “Why is finding your passion dangerous?”
Because it’s not like you wake up one day and a light bulb goes off and you’re like, “Aha, passion!”
“I know it now. I will devote the next four years of high school and the next 40 years of my life to this thing, because I was walking on the street and it finally hit me.”
And at the same time, we oftentimes look at people’s achievements and we think that we need to get there really quickly or that that’s how it’s done.
You started a podcast. I’ve started this organization. We weren’t where we are now from Day 1.
We see other people and the position we hope to be at some point, but it’s not an overnight kind of thing.
So to think like “I need to discover my passion. And once I have my passion in two months, I’ll be golden.”
“I’ll have it all figured out. I’ll have the patent. I’ll have the whatever.”
It’s not that way. You have to decide whom you want to serve and what issues you want to work on, and begin. You have to begin.
Because you might have thought initially, “I’m working on this urban farm,” going back to that example, “and I thought what I really wanted to do was to plant these fruit and vegetable gardens all over the city, do this nutrition course, and all that kind of stuff.”
“But then while studying which plants grow on which environments, I got really into botany, so I actually ended up reaching out to a local university professor. And by the time I was done with high school, I first authored three papers on botany.”
If the student had said, “I’m just going to wait until it hits me,” botany may have never hit them.
So you have to make an educated guess based on the information you have at the moment you’re making the decision, and then go for it.
And if you start something, you’re not married to it. If you’re like, “I’m going to go volunteer at the local nursing home because I’m interested in working with the elderly population and making sure that they have more social connection,” go.
And if you realize after putting some time into it that it’s actually not what you’re interested in, that’s okay.
But not trying because you’re like, “I don’t know if I want to devote four years to the nursing home,” then you’re not really going to get anywhere.
So make the best guess based on the information you have at that moment, and pivot as needed.
It’s not that different from a startup company where you have to start with what your hunch is and see how things go, and maybe you reach certain forks in the road and take different directions.
Andrew Chen 20:32
At the risk of sounding too obvious, what are the kinds of things that a student can do that they can just reflect on for themselves that would be likely to indicate an emerging interest or curiosity?
How can a student do this self-evaluation when they’re at the moment of decision?
Shirag Shemmassian 20:57
What do they spend their time on when they’re bored or when they have the time? Who do they like spending time with?
What do they like to read about? What do they think about? What subjects do they most enjoy in school?
If they were asked to volunteer and they had a choice in their community, which one did they choose and why?
It’s a big misconception that there are certain activities and certain arenas that are “serious” enough whereas others aren’t.
For instance, the number of times, Andrew, I’ve heard, “She likes playing video games, but I’m trying to think of something she could do for extracurriculars.”
I’m like, “How good is she at video games? Does she like to code video games?”
“Are there internship opportunities available to her? Is she an e-game expert or something like that?”
In other words, it’s dangerous to downplay an interest because you don’t think that’s a serious enough one.
If a parent has a student who is a budding science prodigy, they’ll usually be like, “Yeah, pursue it,” because they can see there are awards, there are contests, there are all these kinds of things.
But then if he likes to draw, because it’s harder to get involved in certain competitions on the national level, they downplay it.
But then I always ask students, “What about drawing do you like?” “Well, it allows me to really escape.”
“Who do you think needs an escape?” “Well, I feel like there are people in hospice care for whom I want to help improve quality of life.”
“Okay. How can we take this interest and take it to local hospice and then make sure that it’s improving quality of life?”
“Is this a weekly thing that you begin doing?” And then you go and you see, “Yeah, it is something that I really enjoy.”
Now you go to the second one in your community, and the third one. Now you recruit your friends from high school and you start a whole network. You start in different cities, and so on.
Now, if someone had said, “I like art because I just want to produce the best art possible,” you would go down a different path versus if you like the calming effect of it. Or maybe you like working with kids with disabilities or something like that.
So ask yourself always, “What about this do I like?” and that will take you in a million different directions. Ask yourself at every stage.
Andrew Chen 23:44
Have you ever seen students where the interest just leads to a dead end?
Shirag Shemmassian 23:51
No. It might lead them to a dead end, but that doesn’t mean that it’s an objective dead end, like there are no possibilities.
In other words, just because you feel stuck doesn’t mean you are.
Andrew Chen 24:07
That’s good insight.
College applications, they really only or most predominantly look at your high school record onward. But by the time students actually start high school, the differences in accomplishment are already becoming apparent, so everyone is coming in at different trajectories and velocities, even at 13 or 14 years old.
I was just curious, in what you just said, how far in advance in terms of years are the really distinguished and competitive students or the students who are on that track starting to develop the kind of interests that look like they may blossom into eventually a compelling application profile?
At least in your observation, what have you seen in terms of students you come across?
And I want to caveat that this might sound like it’s bordering on parental or childrearing advice, but I’m just curious about your perspective here since you’ve seen a lot of different profiles. You’ve seen a bit of how those students were brought up, who was successful, who wasn’t, and probably have some pattern recognition on this by now.
Shirag Shemmassian 25:13
Just for me to clarify the question so I don’t misstep here, it’s essentially what qualities I’ve seen in a student or what qualities I’ve seen in the fostering of that interest?
Andrew Chen 25:24
How far in advance do you start to see these interests developing?
Shirag Shemmassian 25:29
It’s all over the map.
I’ll have students who will reach out, and parents will say, “Ever since, I’m an engineer, Mom is an engineer. And they just love building things. And they love math. They’ve always loved math.”
This is what they want to do. They want to go into aeronautics, or whatever the case might be.
They’ll have this clear interest in a certain area. There are students like that.
There are other students who come to me in 10th grade and they say, “I’ve been doing these different things. I’m not yet sure.”
“I have some of these interests, but it hasn’t been developing over a decade, over 15 years.”
For those students, you just have to meet students wherever they’re at.
One of the patterns I’ve observed among students who achieve at a really high level in these areas is just encouragement from students, from teachers, from mentors like me. In other words, not shooting down.
How many times, Andrew, have we thought of ideas or have we seen people share ideas, and for others, their immediate response is why something won’t work, why something isn’t good enough?
And people mean well, to be clear. It’s not like people are trying to crush these students’ spirits by saying whatever. But because they oftentimes don’t see what the end goal is or they don’t see it as a “serious” enough thing, they won’t promote it.
And I think that every student has something that they can promote, even if it’s not an interest.
Let’s say it’s not an interest where it’s like they love botany or they love mechanical engineering or they love art. Maybe if they have this tremendous quality about them, like they can relate to anybody, you can use those powers for a lot of good.
Maybe you start a pen pal network or something like that. Or you’re big in volunteering with kids with disabilities and you do a Big Brother/Big Sister program in parts of town that don’t have them.
Or during this COVID season of life when we’re recording this, maybe there are students who don’t have access to the same digital technologies that you have to be successful, so you help take old electronics and deliver it to these people. Because all you want to do is help, and you want to improve connectedness.
Or maybe one big problem that schools haven’t solved during this time is recess.
It’s like the little things where it’s like we’re thinking about “How do we do math on Zoom? How do we do this? How do we do that?”
Well, what about people’s connections with their friends?
So there’s always going to be something you can solve by the qualities that you have, but you have to get clear on the communities you want to serve. Without that, honestly, you’re floating.
One idea is as good as the other. Nothing will ever stick. You can always swipe right.
Andrew Chen 28:41
I like the analogy.
Shirag Shemmassian 28:41
Or left. I don’t know. One of those swipes.
Andrew Chen 28:46
For the parents, what are things that they could do to be more encouraging?
I just think about a lot of immigrant parents. They might, for whatever reason, more instinctively “shoot something down,” like “You like posting YouTube videos and building your Instagram account. Do something for real.”
How would you advise parents and folks who are in a position to encourage students to do that? What are mindsets or actions they can take?
Shirag Shemmassian 29:26
You said immigrant parents, right? Certainly my parents are immigrants.
If there was YouTube back then and I was like, “Dad, Mom, I’m going to start a YouTube channel,” they’ll be like, “Okay. No, you’re not going to do that.”
They would have shot that down, for sure.
So just because we don’t know (I say “we” as in anyone who is unaware of how to take something to a high level and achieve at a high level) doesn’t mean it’s a silly idea.
If you’re the type of parent who likes quantifiable things, who wants to know how good their child’s achievement is or how strong their child’s achievement is, start reading about it.
If your child says, “I want to build this YouTube channel. I really feel like I can teach x, y, and z,” the parent, it’s your job to learn how someone can leverage those things.
The obvious is you can grow to a bunch of followers and you can start getting ad revenue and all this kind of stuff. But it might also lead to other opportunities.
Maybe you produce certain educational videos and now school districts are using them, or whatever the case might be. And think about doing metrics: followers, revenue that you might then use to start a charity, or whatever the case might be.
In other words, it’s not like the avenue is what makes or breaks an activity.
An overused example. Let’s say I played music for people at a nursing home. A classic, old school, low level example.
Parents would say, “Oh, wow. They’re giving back. They’re devoted to service.”
If that same student made videos and they reached people, sometimes parents would think, “Oh, it’s just like a YouTube video.” They almost devaluate because it’s a video.
But if they’re taking that again and they’re growing it and reaching more people, it’s solving the same issue which is building entertainment and relaxation and those things for people who could really benefit from it.
And then maybe those resources that you get, now you start purchasing supplies for communities in need, and it just has this downstream effect.
Or maybe you connect with a larger musician or a musician who has more followers, and you do a collaboration with them. And all of a sudden, now you’re building a network of musicians that you know online and you’ve connected and you’ve turned it into something big.
Maybe you put together an online course for people who want to start learning how to play guitar. You take that and then you have art programs at schools.
You see how the impact you want to make can be very much related to things you like to do?
The medium doesn’t matter. It’s just an avenue.
YouTube isn’t the activity. It’s the means through which you pursue it.
I think that’s a huge mindset that I’d like to see in parents: to not push aside an activity just because you have a bias against the medium.
My parents think it’s weird probably that I blog. They’re like, “What is that? How do you actually use this to reach people?”
Andrew Chen 32:52
That’s really good advice there.
Like you observed earlier, when you’re doing something that has quantifiable achievement milestones, like math or science whiz or Olympic athlete, etc., the markers are clear.
But some of these other things where you’re basically developing your own accomplishments, what are the markers of the level of accomplishment or achievement that you have seen will tend to stand out and get the attention of an admissions committee and be a real differentiator?
If you could describe the markers, that would be helpful.
Shirag Shemmassian 33:30
Such a tough question, because you’re asking “What level do I have to reach in my niche for it to be considered impressive?”
Is that the question?
Andrew Chen 33:43
Shirag Shemmassian 33:47
And by the way, please feel free to clarify if I’m going off in the wrong direction.
But this goes back to the earlier point where let’s say we did this channel about teaching guitar. What level do you have to reach for that to be equivalent to being an Olympian?
In other words, it’s very hard to say with certainty.
I’ll give you one good metric. It’s a very subjective metric, but I think it works.
If you have to ask yourself, “How the heck did he do that?” you’ve made it.
Super non-objective. Super not reliable. But it’s the failed simulation effect.
There’s a professor named Cal Newport who has a great book, “How to Be a High School Superstar.” I recommend parents who are interested in college planning and extracurricular planning.
Essentially it says, “If I can walk myself through the steps of how this student achieved this thing, then it’s not that impressive. But if I can’t recreate a path in my head and I’m stumped? Impressive.”
“How the heck did he or how the heck did she do that?” If you reach that level, great.
Now, the thing is because those things are hard to think through, a lot of times, parents and students don’t know how to begin. They’re like, “How do you achieve something at that level?”
So they just throw their hands up and say, “My kid is not like that, so I’m not going to do it.”
But that’s the time where you have to begin and do these pivots because as you get into it and you develop your skills and you develop your achievements, it would be harder and harder to realize how that occurred or how to replicate that success.
Andrew Chen 35:53
I think I caught most of that. It was a little bit choppy, but I think I caught most of that.
And I think the takeaway here is that if you can reasonably look at that student and say, “How the heck did they achieve that?” you’ve got good things going on there.
But if it seems obvious for how to recreate that result, then maybe less impressive.
Shirag Shemmassian 36:20
Andrew Chen 36:26
Someone born in a well-to-do family or in a large city will probably have more opportunity than someone who grew up poor, even middle class, small town, to academic programs, extracurricular opportunities and just resources.
If you’re from a small town, you probably don’t have the kind of gravity well of opportunities. If you grew up poor, you also probably don’t have the same opportunities as somebody who grew up well-to-do.
And I know college admission committees try to take this into account by making sure that students who had access actually took advantage of the opportunities. And likewise, they give a bit of a boost to students who didn’t.
But doing that in a fair way is still subjective. So I was curious to get your thoughts on if you were a student who grew up lower income or from a small town with materially fewer opportunities, what are things that you can do proactively to overcome that?
And how can these students develop their interests and show promise so they have the best chance of demonstrating their potential despite any life constraints they may have had?
Shirag Shemmassian 37:32
Every student is judged within their own context, meaning (to use this stereotype) someone who grew up in New York City, in a wealthy family, who has all sorts of different opportunities, versus someone who grew up in rural Louisiana, who doesn’t come from a very wealthy family.
Their access, their opportunities, their resources are different.
You can’t have a one-to-one comparison. It’s not an apples to apples comparison.
Maybe they didn’t go to a school that has the same number of AP courses offered. Or people in their community don’t get SAT prep. Or maybe there are no elite summer programs at the local universities because there is no local university.
And you have your parents’ business that you work at over the summer, so you don’t go to Brown and do science research or something like that.
So you’re going to be judged within your own context.
Let’s say you are the student who lives in Louisiana and your parents own a painting business. They paint houses.
And it’s difficult because they don’t know how to navigate online marketing, so you help set up their Yelp page, or you get them on Google Maps and then you start using [inaudible] or something like that. And you help keep your parents’ business afloat.
That can be just as impressive for a student to revive a business as it is to go into these pay-for-play types of summer programs and achieve at a high level.
But then on top of that, it’s all about how you leverage that experience and how you communicate that experience that helps you stand out. Two people can have the same experience, but the way one writes about an experience can make all the difference.
Let’s say now there’s a kid in rural Louisiana who has the painting business, and there’s a student in Northern California, in a rural part of the state, also helped run their parents’ house painting business.
But then one of them just wrote exceptional materials for their essays.
And they both have solid grades and good rec letters.
Now one of them just writes an exceptional essay about this. They’re going to have an advantage over that other student.
So it’s not only what you do with the situation you’re in, but also how you communicate it.
If you put together the greatest thing on earth but no one knows about it, or you’re not great at marketing it or making it known, you’re not going to reach the same heights as you otherwise would.
Andrew Chen 40:44
That’s a really good segue. And I wanted to ask a little bit about your thoughts on writing the essay or personal statement.
What is the mindset that students should have when it comes to writing their personal statement?
Do you have any practical advice for how to pick a personal statement topic, write it in a compelling way, even if you’re not a great writer inherently, and the kind of themes or self-reflection that might make for a compelling essay?
Shirag Shemmassian 41:07
Let’s first talk about what you shouldn’t do, which is, just recite your resume.
What’s the most unique thing on this list? What does no one else have?
And then all of a sudden, you realize, “I don’t know whether it’s unique enough.”
It’s not a uniqueness competition. It’s not about choosing a topic that no one else will have ever written about.
Think about all the people who apply to college every year, Andrew. Probably all the topics have been taken.
Everyone has written about a grandparent. Everyone has written about their extracurricular, etc.
So if you’re in competition about uniqueness, it would be silly to write about your toenails or something crazy like that.
It’s not a uniqueness competition, so you have to get away from that thinking: “What’s the most unique?”
You also have to get away from reading example after example after example and think, “If I read enough examples, I’ll know what to do.” That’s also not the case.
What you have to do is back up and say, “What is it that I want the admissions committee to know about me? What qualities do I want them to walk away having read this essay?”
“And then which of my personal or extracurricular/professional experiences have best shown that?”
And that’s when you not only start getting into these interesting topics, but delivering them in a compelling way.
Let’s say the deliberateness with which you walk your dog every morning. I know it sounds like a silly example. I’m just giving an oddball example to talk about it.
But maybe there’s a certain time you wake up every day. There’s a certain treat you give them.
And then there’s a certain leash you put on them, why you chose that leash when you’re debating other leashes at that time.
And why you take them on a certain path, or why you mix up the paths because there was a science article you once read to help you with your cognitive development, and you always take different routes or something like that.
Basically, you start describing your methodical nature or how you use an evidence base for making certain decisions, even ones that are seemingly mundane.
So now it’s not an essay about dog walking. It’s an essay about you through the lens of dog walking.
One of the big errors people make when they read an essay like that is they think, “I want an essay like that. I want something as unique as dog walking.”
You missed the point if that’s how you’re thinking.
A few years ago, I’m not sure if you remember this, Andrew, the Costco essay. Are you aware of this essay?
I want to say about three admissions cycles ago, some student wrote a very creative Costco essay. It was about their experience going through Costco and what they see in the different aisles and how those items and the way they go through Costco reflects who they are.
So many parents started calling me up and saying, “Can you help my kid write an essay like the Costco essay?”
I’m like, “It’s not about Costco.” We remember that because it’s out there.
You can write a great essay about Costco. I can write a terrible essay about Costco. It’s like missing the forest from the trees.
Always think about “What is it I want to communicate?”
If that student says, “I want to communicate how methodical I am and how I approach everything in life deliberately.” Sometimes to a fault because that adds richness to who you are as a person and shows humility and how you’re self-aware.
But then you think, “What are examples?”
“I was really obsessive about figuring out my dog walking routine in the morning.”
Great essay because it’s all about being methodical.
I hope that helps clarify. This is a topic I can talk about for hours and hours, but I hope that’s a useful nugget.
Andrew Chen 45:19
Yeah. I think it’s a helpful framework.
It sounds like figure out the message you want to convey and then the actual examples that may not superficially be related to that, but they can be analogized in that way to demonstrate the qualities you want to communicate.
I know we’re running up here on time, but I just want to touch briefly on recommendation letters.
What are your thoughts on who the right kinds of faculty or other people who should be writing your letters? And what are the qualities that make for a standout recommendation letter?
And if you could be very specific in terms of the types of phrasing or wording, quantitative data points, even the comparisons that faculty make?
What are the markers of a terrific recommendation letter, and who should they come from?
Shirag Shemmassian 46:08
Number one, don’t just go for people who are the highest-ranking. Go for people who know you really well, really like you, and have seen your achievement.
Now, a lot of schools will say, “We want two teacher letters and then you can get a third letter.”
If you’re picking teachers, people try to game this. It should be from this department.
Yeah, of course, if you’re applying for a science major, you should probably have one of the two be a science teacher or something like that.
Obviously, meet their requirements. Make sure it aligns with your extracurricular background or your academic background.
But beyond that, don’t go for the biggest name necessarily. If your uncle knows a senator, it doesn’t mean they should be writing your rec letter if they don’t know you very well.
Going back to this idea, I think, when we talk about extracurriculars, when we talk about essays, when we talk about rec letters, think about what it is you want them to corroborate or what it is you want them to reinforce about.
If you’re going with this theme of being methodical, is there someone in your life, whether your science teacher or someone who observed you achieve at a high level extracurricularly or in sports or something like that, who can talk about your methodical nature and how that helped you achieve things?
And how they saw that you seemed stubborn at times, but then when you broke through, there was a method to this.
“This student is just one of those students who will just work at it until they figure it out. They will experiment. They will pivot.”
“They will do whatever it takes to figure it out.”
So it goes back to the qualities. And you want those people to touch on similar qualities to the ones you’re saying about yourself.
The example I give here, Andrew, if I walk into a party (it’s weird to say that right now with social distancing), but during normal times, I walk into a party and I say, “Hi, I’m Shirag.”
“I’m really cool. You’re going to love to get to know me.”
Everyone is going to think, “This guy is such a weirdo.”
Versus if you get along with people, you build good relationships, and other people say, “Man, he’s really cool.” That’s going to resonate with people a lot more than if you say it about yourself.
In your essays, you don’t necessarily want to say “I’m methodical.” You have to demonstrate it. This is the “show, don’t tell” piece.
With a rec letter, they can call you methodical. They can call you cool.
So when requesting a rec letter, you might want to say, “Hi, Mr. Yang. Hope you’re doing well.”
“As you know, I’m applying to colleges in the next few months. I am wondering if you would feel comfortable writing a strong letter of recommendation.”
“I would especially value a letter from you because I think you can uniquely speak to x, y, and z, for instance, that time we worked on a, b, and c together.”
“I am working on my personal statement and my supplemental essays right now. I would love to send you a draft when they’re ready, just so you can see what message I’m intending to send, if that’s something you would be open to.”
“Regardless of what you decide, I’m so grateful that you considered this.”
An email like that.
Andrew Chen 49:27
One last question to wrap up. What are concrete actions students can take to cultivate the kind of faculty relationships that can result in great recommendation letters in a genuine way, not a transactional way?
Shirag Shemmassian 49:41
Be a person. I don’t know if that’s cheesy, Andrew. You can check me on that.
But essentially, don’t just do things because they look good for a college.
I think this is true for extracurriculars. This is true for rec letters, essays.
Don’t be like, “I’m just going to do the thing that will look the best.”
Then it’s very transactional, like you only reach out to them when you need something. You only talk to them when you’re in their class or something like that.
Check in on them. See how they’re doing. Stop by recess.
Say hi after school. Say, “How was your weekend?” or “What are you doing this weekend?”
Be a person. Show interest in people, because people who like you are far more likely to say wonderful things about you.
And don’t wait until you’re two months out when you need something to ask. Build relationships with your teachers ahead of time, with your counselor ahead of time.
Keep them posted on what you’re doing. Maybe you took something in ninth grade, but then there was something you guys talked about once after school and you started doing it over the summer.
You come back in 10th grade and you say, “Mrs. Robinson, I did this thing and I just wanted to share with you because we had talked about it.”
And just keep them posted on how things are going in your life. Ask about them. Be a human being.
It’s cheesy but age-old advice.
Andrew Chen 51:01
No, I think that’s great advice. And I think the key there is follow up and keep them apprised of your progress and status so that they remain invested in you.
Shirag Shemmassian 51:09
Andrew Chen 51:10
All right, Shirag. Thanks so much. I really enjoyed our chat.
Again, as always, where can listeners find out more about you, your work, your consulting services?
Shirag Shemmassian 51:18
The site, shemmassianconsulting.com.
I can send you our 100 plus-page guide on college admissions that really covers most of what you need to know in terms of extracurriculars, the timeline, rec letters, essays, and all this stuff.
I think that will be really valuable for folks to have access to that, just to get more of this framework for how to proceed. I think that would be a really good starting place.
But people are also always welcome to email [email protected] and we’ll reply ASAP.
Andrew Chen 51:47
All right. Thanks so much. We’ll definitely link to those in the show notes.
I’ll grab the 100-page guide from you, and I’ll definitely post the link to that as well.
Thanks so much again for everything. I really enjoyed our chat. And best of luck.
Shirag Shemmassian 51:56
Likewise. Take care, Andrew. See you.
Andrew Chen 51:58
Cheers. Take care.