Aiming for college? Being smart is valued. Being decent is impressive.

Former Ivy League admissions officer offers guidance to applicants hoping to improve their odds
Students can do only so much about the college admissions process, but they can control what's in their college essay. (Shutterstock image)

Students can do only so much about the college admissions process, but they can control what's in their college essay. (Shutterstock image)

As an ambitious high school student, Becky Munsterer Sabky kept lacing up her soccer cleats long after the game lost its appeal because she thought it would enhance her college chances. She checked off the requisite boxes for admission to an elite campus — top grades, National Honor Society president, Junior Olympic alpine skier.

Yet, Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, her dream Ivy League school, rejected her, as did her second, third and fourth choices. Sabky enrolled in her fifth choice, Maine’s Colby College, which ended up preparing her well for the 16 years she worked in admissions at Dartmouth and her subsequent career as a writer.

Now living with her husband and two toddlers in Vermont, Sabky distilled her experiences as both the gatekeeper to a sought-after Ivy league campus and an applicant turned down by the school in a new book, “Valedictorians at the Gate: Standing Out, Getting In, and Staying Sane While Applying to College.” The book comes out Tuesday.

Becky Munsterer Sabky is the author of “Valedictorians at the Gate: Standing Out, Getting In, and Staying Sane While Applying to College.”  (Courtesy of Shawn Leamon)

Credit: Shawn Leamon

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Credit: Shawn Leamon

In a telephone interview from her home, Sabky talked about the two chief goals of her book. First, she wants students who apply to schools like Dartmouth, which admit 10% or fewer of their applicants, to understand the process. “College admissions is a business,” she says. And the business model is based on what’s best for the college, not the applicant. That means selecting students on the overall strengths, needs and statistics of their own existing applicant pool, she says.

“A college is not choosing Joe over you because he is more worthy, a better student or a better kid. There is something in his application that makes sense for the class,” she says.

Her second purpose and one to which she returns many times in her book: “What we want most of our kids, what matters to us most in raising our kids, is character.”

Sabky decided to write a book after a 2017 essay she wrote on an applicant who submitted a recommendation from the school custodian went viral. The custodian noted the young man was the only one who knew the names of every member of the janitorial staff, thanked them regularly for their labor and turned off lights in empty rooms. The student showed respect for every person at the school, regardless of position, said the custodian.

In reviewing 30,000 college applications, Sabky says she’d never before received a letter from a school custodian. She’s not suggesting students now rush out to befriend all the custodians and cafeteria servers in their school, but she is saying applicants ought to understand that while being smart is valued, being decent is impressive.

Too often, Sabky says, applicants spend too much time telling admissions offices what they’ve done, which is easily seen on applications, rather than who they are or their place in their community. Georgia Tech will know you attended Georgia Governor’s Honors Program or Duke TIP. They may not know you are the only person under 40 in your neighborhood who shows up for the annual holiday cookie exchange or that your internship at the aquarium taught you the most common question is where are the bathrooms.

Sabky says applicants ought to use the personal essay — where colleges can hear their authentic voice — to talk about what excites them, what moves them, what changed them. “There is no such thing as the great American college essay that is going to get you into college, but it is the one thing in the student’s control,” she says.

She advises, “Don’t write an essay about your grandmother, your soccer coach, or Hermione Granger. The ‘My Grandmother Is My Hero’ essay makes an admissions officer want to admit the applicant’s grandmother. Same goes for the essay about the soccer coach. And Hermione had her moment.“ The better topics, she says, would be “The Summer I Taught Grandma How to Use Chopsticks” or “The Art of Refereeing Toddler Soccer.”

In her own college essay, Sabky wrote about offshore fishing with her family and helping Cuban refugees who were in the water in inner tubes. The admissions office learned a lot about the heroic Cubans, but little about her, she says.

Thinking back on it now, Sabky says, “I loved letter writing. I wrote letters to people I had never met. I wrote letters to boy bands, to new people on the street. I loved being a writer even back then. I should have written an essay about how much I loved letter writing and how I learned about it on my own.”

She also urges students not to brush off the short answer question with a slapdash two lines, saying, “Give us as many angles to your holistic self as possible. There are many pieces to a college application, and you want as many pieces as possible to enhance the picture.” Use the opportunity to share specific details about your personality and character.

But be careful about careless revelations. Sabky was once faced with an applicant with many positives, including a heartfelt personal statement and strong recommendations. Yet his email address was “ibrakeforhotmoms.”

She realized he may have created that email back in middle school, but says, “The student’s email address was speaking to his character. And the fact that he, as a 17-year-old high school senior, sat down and typed this email address into his college application made me question his choices.” The applicant would not be braking for hot moms in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Sabky says most admissions offices lack the time to scour students’ social media but reserve the right to do so. As a result, she says, “I very much want students to clean up all that social media.”

In the end, chance contributes to who gets admitted to selective colleges, which campuses might need the geographic diversity of a student from South Georgia or North Dakota or someone who plays the tuba or shortstop. As happened to Sabky, many teens will not get into their dream school, but find success in their fifth choice, moving through the open gate rather than weeping outside the closed one.

“College admissions is not a prize,” says Sabky. “It is a steppingstone. I am not naive enough to say parents shouldn’t care about educating their children. And Ivy League schools open doors, but Colby College also opened doors. It is what you do with your education. High school is a building block to college, and college is a building block for what is next in your life.”