‘Get Real and Get In’

Admissions expert discusses her new book, which argues that students need to trust their own instincts.

August 2, 2021

Aviva Legatt is convinced that students have it in themselves to get into good colleges, where “good” is defined not by prestige, but by fit. The founder of Ivy Insight, a private counseling service, Legatt writes that she believes in students. The result is Get Real and Get In: How to Get Into the College of Your Dreams by Being Your Authentic Self (St. Martin’s Griffin). Legatt answered questions about her book via email.

Q: Every year more and more books are published on admissions. What was your goal with your book, in a crowded market?

A: My goal with this book is to transform the ways in which students view their college admissions journey -- from a series of box-checking and hoop-jumping exercises to the belief that this college admissions journey can be transformative and empowering.

Preparing to go to college, and embarking on the college application process, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be intentional about figuring out who you are and what you want. Despite the stress I experienced as a high school kid (including a bout of pneumonia right before applications were due), this is ultimately what the journey was about for me. Since the college application process can be deeply personal, I wanted to capture college journey stories from the thought leaders interviewed in the book … People’s college stories can be deeply personal, and they are rarely publicly discussed. I want students to see themselves in these leaders so that they don’t feel so alone in facing the difficulties related to this important milestone -- and that through the generations, this milestone can be transformational. Those who make the best of the college journey (and other parts of their development) are setting themselves up for lifelong success.

In addition, it was important to me that this book be practical and current, which is why I included reflection exercises that students can use to figure out who they are and what they want, and [shared] practical wisdom that students can use to cut through the noise of the college application process.

Q: In the book, you offer suggestions that aren’t standard -- like reading a university’s strategic plan. Why would a student do that?

A: Students may have very practical reasons to narrow a school list: cost, geography, size and feasibility of getting in. But once you’ve done the pragmatic work of narrowing your options, remember that it’s not about finding the “best” college -- it’s about finding the best college for you.

Reading a university’s strategic plan is a way to help students learn about an institution’s values and priorities and if they match up with their own. This document announces an intention to support that plan with resources and, most important for you, with students who can take advantage of those resources. Some college presidents may be looking to enhance community engagement, while others may be looking to advance global opportunities. Ultimately, college admissions offices will look to support the president’s vision by seeking out students who fit with some of these stated priorities. Students can see how their interests match with the university’s stated intentions and use that as a way to narrow down their list as well as to understand fit.

Q: You talk about “breaking the family mold.” Why is this important?

A: Students are exposed to all kinds of messages -- from their family, community and the media -- about who they should be and what they should want. The chapter about breaking the family mold shows that while your family is often [on] your side and wants the best for you, sometimes what they expect from you and what you want for yourself are two different things. Know the difference.

Q: What kinds of things will students find when they trust their gut, as one of your chapters suggests?

A: When students are choosing how to spend their time, the gut is a key ally in making wise choices that are intrinsically motivated. Coincidentally, the ways in which students demonstrate intrinsic motivation make them attractive college candidates. If you want to get admissions officers to pay attention to you, don’t tell them about all the wonderful things you will do in the future once they let you into their school: show them all the ways you are making an impact now. After all, if you aren’t making any impact in your communities now, why should they believe you will do so once you have graduated? Admissions officers want to see the evidence of your impact where you already are. So show them. Trust your gut as you create experiences that will increase your visibility and impact. Then your application can’t help but stand out.

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Q: You suggest that students limit social media when they are in the admissions process. Why? And do students listen to this advice?

A: This bet of limiting social media use is backed by science: in two studies surveying over 500,000 teens, teens with higher usage of social media were more likely to report mental health issues. Students who spent more time engaged in sports and other face-to-face interactions with peers reported fewer mental health difficulties.

It makes sense. If you’re feeling down and spend an hour scrolling Instagram, how do [you] feel afterward? Probably even worse -- everyone’s lives, no matter how they actually are, appear perfect on Instagram. When you compare yourself to the perfect images you find online, your sadness becomes even more pronounced. On the flip side, what if you’re super happy about something? Go to social media and stay a little too long -- you’ll find someone who has something even better than you. Suddenly the thing you were happy about doesn’t look so great; you lose your appreciation for where you are right now.

Sometimes social media can be a good thing -- to connect with friends, to be entertained. And from a college admissions standpoint, students can demonstrate interest by engaging with colleges’ social media pages. That said, too much of a good thing (social media) can be harmful, and parents should be mindful of this potential for harm when setting ground rules about screen time.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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