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69: Three Surprising Reasons Students Don't Get into Top Colleges

The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast podcast.

June 26

For many students, getting into a highly competitive college drives most decisions about where to spend their time and energy. But what if some of these decisions actually hurt their chances of getting in? My guest Shirag Shemmassian, who helps students get admitted to highly selective colleges, shares the three mistakes students make when trying to make themselves stand out in the application process, and what they should be doing instead.

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This is Jennifer Gonzalez welcoming you to Episode 69 of the Cult of Pedagogy podcast. In this episode, we're going to talk about three surprising mistakes students make when trying to get into college and what they should be doing. Instead, I know a lot of you teach high school and middle school, and for many of your students and their families, getting into a good college is a top priority. It turns out that some of the conventional wisdom on how to get into those colleges is inaccurate. In other words, doing the things most people tell you to do in order to get into a highly competitive college might not actually help you at all. What's worse, a lot of those things can be incredibly time consuming, energy draining and expensive. My guest Today, Chirac Shamus Ian has had plenty of experience with college applications. He attended Cornell University in U. C.

L. A. Himself. Spent some time is an admissions interview at Cornell and now, through Shamus Ian Academic Consulting. He teaches students and their families how to achieve college admission success. Over the years, Chirac has learned what factors really make colleges take notice and what he has to share here might surprise you if your students are actively or even passively thinking about what they need to do to be accepted by the college of their choice. My hope is that you'll share this episode with them and their parents for myself. As a parent of a delightful trio of pre teens, I was relieved and excited to hear shrugs, advice. I feel like I have a much better understanding of the direction we should be heading in over the next six or seven years. I also hope teachers will listen so you can share these insights with your overscheduled stressed out students. Before we start, I'm gonna take a moment to tell you about my brand new technology course for teachers called Jump Start.

I designed this online course, especially for teachers who want to take a more thoughtful approach to using technology in the classroom. The course is built around 10 processes thes air, not specific tools, but ways to use technology that can have a big impact on student learning. For each module we start by studying the process and how you can apply it in your classroom, then we do a hands on project that gives you practice using that process with one tool. By the time you're done with all 10 modules, you'll not only have a great new set of tech skills, you'll have a solid, smart method for integrating tech in a way that supports riel learning in your classroom toe. Learn more, visit teacher's guide to tech dot com and click on the course. I'd also like to thank you so much for the reviews you've left for this podcast on iTunes. These really helped show other educators what kind of value they might be able to find here. If you think other teachers should be listening but haven't left a review yet,

I would really appreciate it if you take a few minutes today head overto iTunes and tell me what you like about the show. Thank you so much. Now let's get some insights about college admissions from Chirac. Shamus Ian. I would like to welcome Chirac Shamus Ian to the program.

Who is Shirag Shemmassian ?

He helps high school students get into top colleges like Princeton, Stanford, MIT, etc. He received his undergraduate degree from Cornell and his PhD from UCLA. Shirag is also a licensed clinical psychologist. He grew up with Tourette Syndrome, which has helped inform his work now.

Thanks for having me, Jennifer.


Thank you. Um, why don't you go ahead and tell us a little bit about what you d'oh


S O. I help high achieving high school students get into America's top colleges. So schools like Princeton, Stanford, M I T U c, Berkeley, et cetera.


I got it. And what did you do before you were doing


this work before I was doing so? I've been doing this work for a number of years. It's been nine plus years now. Um, but simultaneously, I was in school the first part of it. So I got my undergrad degree from Cornell University, and I got my PhD in clinical psychology from U C L A. So I am a licensed clinical psychologist,


okay. And you also served as an admissions interviewer at Cornell?


Yes. So I served as, ah, alumni interviewer for a number of years,


okay? And so that's informing the work that you're doing now. You've had some experience in seeing how kids actually get into. He's difficult colleges to get into.


Oh, absolutely. Yeah. So just, you know, my personal experience, going through high stakes admissions multiple times and then helping many, many students through the years. And then, you know, being an admissions interviewer gives you that behind the scenes look as well,


Okay. And there's also one more detail about you personally about your own challenges that if you don't mind, I'd love for you to share because I think that that's just something that makes you unique and may also lead other people to ah to consult with you.


Oh, sure, yeah. So I I grew up with Tourette's syndrome, so I was diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome around eight or nine years old. So I was exhibiting a lot of facial tics, and there was so much stigma associated with that not only in my school and community, but also in my family. You know, not really understanding what that would mean for me or maybe having lower expectations because of it or, ah, teachers and administrators, not believing that I had this sort of thing and thinking it's a bad habit or I'm making it up. So it was definitely difficult growing up in addition to all the social pressures, but actually on the college admission side, it's It's been a real blessing because it's put a lot of my accomplishments into context and, you know,

it sort of led me toe clinical psychology as well and helping people with mental health conditions and actually on the college admission side, supporting students with disabilities navigate. You know, the college admissions process, because in a lot of ways, it is more difficult for


them. Right. Okay, so So you've got a lot of knowledge about pretty much any student getting into college. But you you also could be very helpful to students who were struggling with disabilities to I just wanna make sure that people listening know that.


Yeah, absolutely. You know, a lot of students with disabilities to have, you know, I p's or accommodations or psych assessment reports and things like that. And I can certainly understand and help students navigate the process, given all that information.

What is the current situation of students trying to get into their most desired college ?

Parents and students don't know where to go for high-quality information or how to really stand out. Ultimately, students all start to follow the same advice and just look like one another on applications.

So let's talk a little bit. About what? What problem you are are attacking here. What what's the current situation with families and students trying to get into their most desired college?


Sure. Um, so there's a lot of information out there, right? And, you know, first of all, parents and students don't really know where to go for high quality information. There, there especially unsure about how to stand out. So it seems like everyone around them is doing everything right. So right enrolling in the most difficult class is trying to get the highest standardized test scores. But you know, beyond that, they're not really sure how to stand out. Should they join every club or activity. And then,

you know, you can Peru's websites to find this information, But a lot of it seems to be the same. And, you know, if you go talkto the high school counselor A. They have limited time and be with the limited time. A lot of the same canned advice seems to go around. So at the end of the day, what ends up happening is students are all hearing the same advice. They're following the same advice. So they, of course, end up looking like every other applicant. So in a lot of ways, what they thought they should do is actually contributing in large part to them not standing out.


So the advice is actually being counterproductive?


Yes, in many ways,


okay. And so what you're gonna be sharing with us today are three mistakes that that applicants make and families make thinking that they're helping themselves get into college, but that are actually not helping at all. And what what they should be doing instead? Yes. Great. Okay, So what's the 1st 1


So the first mistake is enrolling in every difficult course that their high school offers. Okay, so the reason why students make this mistake and parents encouraged us a CZ well, is there's a lot of pressure to keep up with the Joneses. Right? So if Joseph see Sally enrolled in every difficult class, uh, you know, he's gonna feel pressure to enroll in every difficult class to write and write its. And this advice is, you know, rooted in a good place, right? Because, you know, top schools are looking for students who challenged themselves academically. And,

of course, you know, the more AP classes or honors classes you enroll yourself in, the more it's going to seem like you challenged yourself. So it makes sense, right? The reason it's a mistake, however, is that it takes up way too much time from activities that can actually help students stand out. Okay. And what I mean by this is what actually differentiates top applicants from the field is not necessarily what they do inside the classroom, but what they do outside of the classroom, right? So if you're ah, you have to always think about If you're in admissions person out of top schools. So say you're applying to Yale for admissions.

And the person on that admissions committee sees Aton of applications, mostly from students who are incredibly high achieving. So they have perfect or near perfect grades. They have perfect or near perfect as a T score. So if you're that person, how could you differentiate among these candidates? You just like close your eyes and put your fingers on on a few names and admit now that's not the way it works, right? So they're really looking for, Ah, the superstars outside of the classroom. Now, if you've enrolled in too many AP or honors courses and difficult things like that, it takes away a lot of time, Uh, that you would otherwise be able to devote to extracurricular activities, right?


Yeah, this is I mean, that's that really is. It's sort of surprising, but I bet a lot of people listening to this I could really relate to it because of the amount of time that the school work is taking their thinking. And how is my daughter supposed to be also doing all these other things? And so your advice is don't necessarily take every single


course, right, So and and I'm not saying just to be clear, and you suggested this is, well, Jennifer. So students who want to get into top schools should certainly take challenging courses in high school. But they shouldn't necessarily take all of them, right? So if there are five AP courses being offered, um, by their school for that grade year than maybe take three on And if you you know, if you feel like it's a subject, you're especially strong and you could take four because the 4th 1 isn't as difficult. But the goal is not to think too much about the number of them, but to make sure that you leave time to pursue other things. And when I say leave time to pursue other things,

it's not just for the sake of college admissions like, because, you know, these are very important years for anybody, right? And so we want teenagers to be teenagers and to pursue things that there actually interested in. And, you know, the more time they have to do that, the deeper and deeper they go, the more fulfilled they are and all that good stuff


right And really that I mean, that kind of time spent pursuing a passion in developing another skill. It seems like that would inform their choice of college, too. And they're in their choice of program.


Oh, absolutely. Because a lot of families just go on the U. S news list and they say, Well, these are the top 20 or the top 30 schools, and how do you pick amongst those? Right? Because Princeton's not the same as Yale. U. C L. A is not the same as UC Berkeley, and each school has things that they specialize in and programs that cater to students interests. So you know, when you when you really develop this unique extracurricular profile and and sort of develop your interests and understand the type of person you are, then you're better able to understand the schools that are quote unquote, the right fit that we spend so much came out.

Do admissions officers take into consideration a student's "fit" at an institution ?

Yes, definitely. There are many ways to demonstrate fit, which begins well before the application process. Students should go on school tours that they are interested in, attend any events a school hosts in their in local communities, be engaged in a school's social media pages, etc.

Do do admissions officers taken to effect. I know that, like if I'm applying for a job or to grad school, for example, it seems like it makes a difference if I can explain to them why I am interested in then show show that I have done my research about their special offerings. Does that make a difference with undergrad admissions as well?


Absolutely. So this is, You know, the word fit gets thrown around all the time. And that's definitely true with grad school. Definitely true with employment. But it's also true with high school, right? So there are many ways to demonstrate fit, and it actually starts before the application. Jennifer. So students who are looking to get into very competitive schools if you're in the area, definitely, definitely go on the school tour, unofficial one. Keep in touch with admissions advisors and all that. I encourage all my students to do to do that sort of thing because,

say, you live in Boston and you never visited Harvard And you you tell them on their application that it's been your dream school for 10 years. Would they believe you? Unlikely, right? Yeah. Similarly, you know, every school has instagram accounts or really top schools, like go around to various like major cities in the U. S. And and so if they're in the area, definitely seek them out. All of those things go in tow your folder. So it actually starts way before the application. But on the application,

If you can point out, you know it's not about like, this is who I am or this is who you are. It's about demonstrating fit. So it's like, I'll give an example. So it's like, Wow, I you know, I have a passion for the environment and keeping things screen and oh, my gosh, what a coincidence your school has. Ah, you know, this program that's really focused on sustainability, all that good stuff.

We should be friends. That's basically what they're looking for. And it's so clear to them like, Oh, my gosh, not only is this a good student, but they'd be a great student here.


Here? Yeah. Excellent. Okay. Are we ready to move to mistake

Should students do whatever it takes to maximize ACT and SAT scores ?

Students feel pressure to make the highest scores possible. This is a mistake because colleges reject students with high scores every year. Over-focusing on standardized tests takes away time from building a unique extracurricular profile.

number two? Let's do it. Okay, So the second mistake a lot of families make is doing whatever it takes to maximized a C t and s A T scores. Right? So gasp. Um, the reason students make this mistake is similar to the 1st 1 In a lot of ways, it's feeling like they need perfect scores to get into top colleges. Right. So I need to do the hardest thing. I need to be the academically most high achieving students now. Why it's a mistake. Uh, so college is actually reject many students each year with top scores right on this and then related Thio sort of. The the first mistake that students make is focusing or over focusing on standardized tests again takes away time from what truly matters, which is building that unique extracurricular profile to stand out.

And so now the question becomes, Well, what should my child do instead? So if it's not, you know, try to get a 1600 it's It's really test to study very hard for 3 to 6 months or, you know, semester. Take the A, C, T or S A T, and you could do it a few times 2 to 3 times and targeted score between the 25th and 75th percentiles of admitted applicants at your desired schools.


Okay, got it. I did not see that admitted applicants part when I read that 25th and seventh, I was thinking of applicants in general, not admitted ones, I thought, Why would you want to be in the 25th percentile? A lot more sense now Yeah,


yeah. So? So, you know, if you visit any school's website, you can look at, ah, a class profile and they will very clearly have the data there. So the 25th to 75% of admitted applicants as 80 schools, for example, say they're 14 80 toe 15 40 right? That's the range that you should aim for and anything above that is a bonus. Because, like I said, there are many students who get above the 75th percentile who don't get in and with any middle 50th percentile. Of course, 25% of students who get in are above those numbers.

25% of students are below those numbers, right? And so it's important to remember that, like, you know, it's not a bunch of 1600 scorers who are going to Ivy League and UC schools and other top schools like that.


So if it if the students submits an application and it's a perfect esoteric a C T score, it is a 4.5 g p. A. And there's not much there on the extracurricular front. Is that pretty much an automatic? No,


its heart. It's hard to say automatic on it comes to the admissions process,


right? Right.


It's not looking good, Okay, because you know, there's gonna be someone else with similar stats who did have that extra curricular profile, and so and so a lot of people struggle with this. It's because, well, I did everything right. I felt like I did all the right things and I still didn't get in. But it's not the right things that you think you have to do. It's thinking from the admissions committee's perspective, so yes, academically, super high. Achieving you deserve all of the credit for that. But from their perspective, it's like,

Well, I have students who have that academic profile and they're like the Michael Jordan in their field or whatever, right? Right, like it's an easier decision for them.


Yeah, I think it's definitely time for us to move to mistake number three. You're talking about Michael Jordan now, and I know where you're headed. So what is? What's the third mistake that that students make


right? So with the 1st 2 we talked about how it's very important toe open up time to pursue extracurricular activities. Now, parents don't really know how to go about this students as well. So the big mistake they make is joining as many clubs and teams as possible and trying to pursue leadership positions in each one. Right? And this is the sort of classic advice that gets thrown around because people think that colleges want to admit quote unquote well rounded students, right? And the the air is that colleges are actually looking for student bodies that are collectively well rounded, right? So comprising a bunch of specialists who together are an incredibly well rounded and diverse student body. But they're not looking for students who do do a little bit of a lot of things, right? So if you if you pursuits a eight extra curricular activities, right, you're part of four clubs, two teams and you volunteer outside of school in two different places.

Now say you have 16 hours a week to devote two extra crackers and you're doing those eight things. Of course I'm oversimplifying here. You can on Lee devote two hours to each one of those, so you're not going to get very deep. There isn't going to be anything that really differentiates your extracurricular performance versus another candidate, right, right So it ends up with the student doing a little bit of a lot of things, looking like a lot of other candidates and all of that. So colleges really want to admit those specialists. So the Michael Jordan's like we said of their respective areas.


Do you? Do you see a lot of applicants where it's just a laundry list of activities


all the time? Yeah, all the time.


And so there's no better way to just be a sheep in thin the herd than to have that exact same thing. Just I'm in this club in this club. In this company, I played five sports and it did all these things. That's just really going to make you generic, too. Admissions people?


Yeah, I mean, a it's it's a lot of stuff. So it's like, Well, you know, where do you hang your hat right? What do you sort of use as that differentiator? And then on top of that, it just, you know, it's hard to. It's hard to say that this student is a specialist in any given one of these things, but then it also has like collateral effects on essays, right? So the student who becomes really a specialist in a certain area or really skilled in certain area. Their essays are no brainers like what they're going to write about.

And not only is it much easier to choose the topic, but it's so much easier to go super deep into that topic, right to talk about, you know, insights they gain that they couldn't have otherwise if they only devoted a little bit of time to them. So it makes a lot of the process easier and, frankly, weaken. We can spend a lot of time talking about how to do this, because a lot of parents, you know, upon hearing this like the Michael Jordan is they'll have the they'll have the reaction of, Well, my child's not as like, doesn't have that it factor or they're not special in that way or they were or as Mozart, so like, how do I do this right? And we could spend some time talking about that, too, if you'd like,


Yeah, a little bit. Let's because that probably is a thought. The even That's just the name Michael Jordan was probably terrifying some people to think Well, my kid doesn't have that kind of talent. So, yeah, talk a little bit about how they become specialists in their area.


Yes. So it starts very small, right? And it starts with things that your student is interested in. So whether it's art or sports or science or hiking or it doesn't really matter, right. But it's. But it's just making sure that the student has time to pursue it and whatever they're interested in to just try it, right? So if the student is interested in art, right, so they might start out with just, you know, doing their own artwork, maybe teaching other students in their community, too, to paint.

Maybe it's students from, ah, low income school that don't have resource is or access toe our classes and things like that. So you know you can you can see what your student demonstrates interest in and take that step. So you're exploring at the beginning, and the next step will be to maybe start documenting all this stuff and maybe related to it, right? And so now you're sort of blogging about the work that you're doing with the students, what your students drew today, Uh, maybe some of the like feedback you're getting and things like that. And now you know, as you're going through this process, of course, like that school is like, very happy to have you and may sort of refer you to another school or maybe the local school district.

And you put together a much like bigger event or a bigger class. And perhaps you invite media attention to that, right? And so now you've been featured on the media, and maybe you start developed being relationships with local artists. Now, if you live in certain areas, those local artists may be very famous artists or artists with connections and things like that. And all of a sudden you're you're doing joint work with a well known artists and things like that. Now, over the years, when you do little by little and you take tiny step after tiny step, you end up looking like a prodigy,


right? Yep.


Even even though you're not, you know you're not necessarily Picasso or anything. But when you take these incremental steps and start making connections in the community and start getting attention and all this kind of stuff, by the time you apply right, you look like a Michael Jordan


all right, because you spent so many years really building on those initial interests


absolutely end. And it brings up another important point. Two of Like Which activity standout versus which ones that don't and there is. Ah, there's sort of an easy way to figure this out. And it goes to Cal Newport, who's, ah, who's a professor and also an author. And he talks a lot about education and all of that. But he talks about the failed simulation effect. So the failed stimulation effect is accomplishments that are hard to explain can be much more impressive than accomplishments that are simply hard to do, right. So if a student you know, spends a lot of time on, you know, with a certain club or on sports.

But it's it's really easy to wrap your head around how they did it, then it's not going to look as impressive as something that's very hard to explain. So, for example, say there is a student who's, you know, a very gifted basketball player, and they devote a ton of time to it, and they put in, you know, hours upon hours upon hours across all four years and, you know, it's like, Well, this is my shtick, right?

This is what I'm really interested in and good at now on a college application. When an admissions committee person sees that, they're gonna say, Oh, great, like they're really committed to that sport. But it's easy for them to think about how the student made it happen, right? They joined the team. They went all the practices. Maybe they practiced over the summer and throw the year. So it's like, Okay, that's very clear versus the other student We discussed the artist, right? Who is hanging out with these like famous artists and getting media attention and doing joint work and stuff like that.

If I just said that to you on the application, you're going to say What What? How did you make that happen? Yeah, and so if it's hard to explain it, it automatically seems more impressive,


right? The first student just worked his way through an already existing paradigm, and the 2nd 1 sort of created her hold her own brand new thing that didn't even exist. There was no pathway there. She she created that


exactly right. And so you know, and Maybe the basketball player becomes the team captain. So it's like, Well, I have all these leadership skills because I'm the team captain, et cetera. But with the second student, they don't even have to talk about how they're a leader, because the admissions person will already feel that about them. So any time the admissions committee member can start complimenting you, you know, on on your own behalf, then then that's much more impressive, right? So a student who, you know, had that unique art extra Kruger profile they're going toe clearly have demonstrated a Cuban e impact. They're goingto have demonstrated their leadership skills. They're goingto have demonstrated that specialty. They don't even have to say it because it'll just lose through every piece of their application.


Right? Right. Well, I really I hope that this is something of a relief to some families, you know who are just scrambling to pack everything in. And, um, I don't know, as a as a parent of three kids who are gonna all be in college in 10 years, This This gives me a very different way of looking at it too. So I, uh, I appreciate it. Um tell tell us a little bit more about, um, your online college prep program that you offer to families who want to go deeper with this.


Sure, Yeah, so we work with, uh, a lot of families one on one. But we also have ah on online college prep program that teaches families the exact steps they need to take each semester of high school to help their kids achieve college and missing success, right, even if they feel there's nothing special about them, even if they're confused about where to start. So it's semester by semester, right? So we teach families freshman year fall. What should you be focusing on freshman year spring sophomore fall sophomore spring, et cetera, with, you know, must among timelines.

Because, you know, when you're sort of looking at this college admissions process, it sometimes feels like you're at the bottom of a mountain and you're staring at this, like impossible to climb peak and it's overwhelming or you're sort of drowning in this information. So it's like, let's take a breath. Let's think about what I need to do today and worry about the the other stuff at the right time, versus sort of feeling like you have to tackle everything at once. And that leads to this, you know, trying to grab at everything, but sort of looking like everybody else.


Right? How can people learn more about this and find you online?


Sure. So my website, which I'm sure you'll link to Shamus an academic consulting. But folks who listen to this I would guide them to another link. That's Shamus on consulting dot com slash secrets on dhe There they can receive a short guide containing my top 10 steps to stand out and, you know, get into top colleges. And so it compares what most students do. Um, you know, the folks that end up looking like everybody else versus what stand out applicants do. And there are clear contrasts in multiple spaces in the college admissions world between what most students are doing versus those superstars.


Okay. And I will definitely put a link to that in my show notes so people can can go on grab that free guide that free Yeah, for you got of secrets, that thinking Thank you so much. Shrug. For all of this information,


it was such a pleasure. Thank you for having me, Jennifer


Appreciate it. For links to all the resource is mentioned in this episode, visit cult of pedagogy dot com. Click on podcast and find Episode 69 to get weekly updates on all my newest blawg posts, podcast episodes and products signed up for my mailing list at cult of pedagogy dot com slash subscribe Thanks so much for listening and have a great day. This podcast is a proud member of the education podcast network.

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