Playing and Winning the College Admissions Game

As any parent who has recently been through it knows, getting a child into a good college is a lot more complicated than it used to be. With the help of local advisors, parents and students, we offer a few tools to help navigate that sometimes complicated and often stressful college admission road … and a few alternative paths to consider.

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  • Written by
    Judith A.

Illustration by Lee White


  No need to convince Carolyn Niman of Rolling Hills Estate that getting kids into college is stressful. She has one daughter who has already graduated from college and another daughter, Lauren, who is now a freshman at Washington University—a teaching and research college in St. Louis.  

She should be an old hand at the college admissions process, but Carolyn admits that it doesn’t get that much easier the more you tackle the sometimes overwhelming job. It can be a conundrum whether to use high school college counselors or rely on professional counselors.

“Lauren used both the College and Career Center at her high school, plus the services of a professional counselor. The counselors proved to be a great resource of information,” Carolyn says. “She also found Naviance website to be an extremely helpful search tool for a college match up.”

In Lauren’s case, since she was applying to a number of private colleges, most required supplemental applications to the Common Application. So the professional college counselor was called in to help guide her through the process. Carolyn says, “As a parent, I wanted to maintain a positive relationship with my daughter and felt it best for a third party to help reduce the stress.”




If, upon reflecting on your own college experience, it seems harder to get into colleges these days, indeed it is. “More students are applying to more colleges, so the number of applications is increasing, while the number of spots are staying the same,” explains Paula Friedman, a college and career advisor at The Academic Match.

She says this results in the admit rate decline, particularly for “hot” colleges like those ranked in the top 25 to 50 by U.S. News & World Report. She says the average number of colleges that her students typically apply to is 13 to 15. “Five years ago, the average number of colleges was typically 10 and sometimes fewer,” she notes.

According to Milly Roseman, co-founder of Growing Minds Academic Achievement Centers, parents should be thinking about their child’s college plan well in advance. “Preparation for college begins in high school. Start early thinking about college admissions once the parents and student decide that college is the right path,” says Milly.

Specifically, she says parents need to think about what classes their student needs to take, how to build their portfolio, what sports and extracurricular activities to participate in, and how to ensure their child is developing the right skills to be successful at college.

“Not everybody is set up to do all AP classes,” says Milly. “For me, the whole plan has to be with real goals. Our firm helps to identify students’ skills and refine the process.”

Its not unusual for parents to begin casual visits to colleges early in high school to get a sense of large, small, urban, suburban and liberal arts institutions versus major research universities. Lauren started touring college campuses at age 13 with the family when her older sister began her college search.

“She seriously focused on visits the summer before her junior year in high school and toured close to 40,” says Carolyn. “The tours and school visits made her realize she belonged at a small university or liberal arts college.”




With grade inflation, the high number of applicants and the supersized resumes of today’s overachieving and often privately tutored teens, getting into a well-known college can be a challenge. Aside from standardized test scores, academic achievements, recommendations and GPAs, many parents wonder how to get their child to stand out in such a crowded, accomplished field.

Milly advises students to strive to be “an outstanding applicant from a holistic point of view.” Paula agrees.

“A student will have strong test scores, excellent teacher recommendations and excel in at least one extracurricular activity, such as athletics, music, performing arts, fine arts, student government, debate, mock trial, Eagle Scouts/Girl Scouts or employment throughout the student’s high school career,” advises Paula.

Everyone we spoke to echoed this opinion. College admissions officers today tend to look at more than numbers—digging deeper for clues to what kind of person the applicant is.

Carol I. Bernstein, director of college counseling for Chadwick School in Palos Verdes Peninsula, says colleges and universities are looking for students who will thrive academically as well as participate in campus life. “Highly selective schools aren’t looking for students who will burn out or crash emotionally on their campuses. They want to know what—beyond the grades and test scores—will students be able to bring to their institution.”

As Carol explains, college counselors at Chadwick instruct students early on to be engaged in their community. They encourage the student not to try to do it all but instead focus on a couple of activities where they can really shine and show valuable accomplishments.

About college applications, she recommends that students apply to eight to 10 schools and make sure that their college list is well-balanced—meaning it should include the categories of “likely,” “possible” and “reach” colleges. And since Chadwick is a college prep institution, it is assumed that 99% of the student body is going on to a four-year college experience.




One thing that makes the process a bit easier today is the Common Application, honored by 500 colleges and universities. There are also other common applications, including the Universal College Application. Plus the University of California application is used by all schools in the UC system.

Accuracy and grammar are important when it comes to submitting the student essay. Some of the more common mistakes are not reading or following directions, being late sending in your essay, exceeding the maximum word count and not fully answering the essay question. Another common slip-up: lazy proofreading.

Students should be willing to be completely honest, organized, accurate and concise, and they should pay attention to the instructions (don’t go over word count or character count). A parent, counselor or hired expert should carefully proofread applications.


Determining which college or university to choose can be a difficult choice, sometimes made more difficult by tuition. Sometimes a local junior college is the appropriate answer.

Milly believes in the concept of a reality check. “I am brutally honest,” she insists. “There are those students who both underestimate and overestimate themselves. I look at their transcripts, community service, etc., and sometimes there is a child that will underestimate an award.”

Students and parents should also take finances into consideration during the school selection process. “In the end, choosing a college is a family decision,” adds Miley. “A lot of families don’t want their student to incur college loan debt. I listen to the student, read between the lines—as ours is a relationship of honesty, and what may appear to be good for one student may not be for another.”

Also consider whether a four-year college is truly the best choice for a student. Often students aren’t developed enough to know exactly where they’re headed or what they want out of life.

Paula says sometimes it comes down to recognizing that a student is not mature enough (academically, socially, emotionally, developmentally) to attend a four-year university after high school. These students, she says, would be better served attending a community college for two years and then transferring to a four-year university.

“My older son, Dan, attended Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) immediately after graduating from high school,” shares Paula. “It was the right path for him and for many of his SBCC classmates, who also transferred to a four-year college to complete their undergraduate education.”




Sometimes a student may need a year or two to grow academically or experience the world before settling into college life. This happened to Victor Alvarez of Hawthorne, a recent graduate of Vistamar School—a private, college preparatory high school in

Manhattan Beach. Accepted to prestigious Brown University, he chose to defer his admission for a full year.

“I’ve always heard students encouraged to live life and experience the world before diving into greater education and the working life,” Victor recounts. “I wanted to take the time I have now to continue pursuing my love for Muay Thai and travel to Italy, a place I’ve always wanted to visit.”

During his senior year in high school, Victor had a difficult time coming up with a range of “like” and “reach” schools until he spoke with his high school counselor, who took the time to uncover his personality and where he saw himself in the future. He applied to 14 schools and was accepted at 11. The last school he heard from was Brown University.

“I got to visit and do overnight stays at my final three colleges that included USC, Amherst College and Brown,” explained Alvarez. “That helped—to see the schools myself, meet other students and get the feel of the school. I found more of what I liked at Brown.”

Unclear about his major and minor in college, Victor says one of the reasons he chose Brown is because he will have two years to take interesting subjects to discover his real calling. “My gap year has helped me find a love for photography, writing and possibly business,” he says. “I’m thinking about courses that’ll help me run my own business someday.”

Victor says he’s happy he deferred his admission to Brown, as the gap year has been eye-opening for him. He thought that working for the year would give him an excellent idea of what it’s like to earn minimum wage, which he felt would encourage him to stay in college.

“All I’ve done until this point is work, but the travel starts in about two weeks—and I already feel like I’ve grown so much,” he shares.

Carolyn Niman suggests that higher education is an academic and personal growth experience, and the selection of a college or university needs to be the correct fit. “It’s like wearing a pair of jeans. The expensive, designer pair might get you more attention, but ultimately the pair that fits well, looks the best on you and gives you the most confidence is the best choice. It really is less about the label.”


Do’s and Don’ts

Tips from The Academic Match advisor Paula Friedman

  • Explore schools that match the student’s unique academic, social and financial needs.
  • Work on a road map to ensure all college application deadlines are met.
  • Put thought into and follow up on getting letters of recommendation from counselors, teachers, community leaders, etc.
  • Make sure you fully understand the different admissions options such as early decision, early action and single choice early action.
  • If you feel overwhelmed, consider hiring a professional to help with a comprehensive plan for completing applications and essays and meeting deadlines.
  • Whether postponed acceptance, deferral or waitlist, make sure to follow up with the school accordingly.



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