College Admissions Needs A Better Story
Brittany and her small team of essay experts serve clients locally throughout New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and seamlessly across the country and around the globe via email, phone, and video chat.
Until 2012, Brittany spent her professional career working in higher education, and held positions in admissions and student services at the University of Pennsylvania at Penn Law and The Wharton School; Princeton University (undergraduate) and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs; and the Johns Hopkins University-Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). She has also served on admissions committees with American Councils for International Education and International Research and Exchanges Board; as an invited speaker to numerous community programs; and as an alumni interviewer and admissions representative for the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Brittany is an active Executive Board member and Membership Director of the Penn GSE Education Alumni Association and an Associate member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association.
Brittany received her doctorate in higher education from the George Washington University in 2012. Prior, she attended the University of Pennsylvania for her master’s, and the University of Vermont for her bachelor’s degree—a degree she obtained in three years.
Download Giveaway: Your Story Library Giveaway
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Unknown: Welcome to the YouSchool podcast where we believe inside of everybody there is a great story waiting to be discovered and lived. This is the show where we guide you on your journey in discovering what your story can be. It's your life. Don't let anybody else write it.
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Scott Schimmel: Hey, everybody, this is your, your consummate host of the YouSchool podcast. This is Scott Schimmel. And we are in a theme for the next couple months talking about story and the idea that not only our lives in a story, but also it's through stories, that we see the world and interact with the world. And a lot of the work we do if YouSchool is helping people uncover and discover and understand their own story, and so on. I'm thrilled to have Brittany, on the podcast today. And Brittany, you don't know this, but I hardly ever actually introduce anybody in the show. I'd rather just hear from your perspective, like, not only Who are you and what are you doing in the world, but again, we're talking about stories. So the backstory, how did you get into your work and what what led you there? So first of all, and say thanks for taking time, especially on a late Friday afternoon, you're in New York, I'm in San Diego. So this is way later for you. So thanks for taking the time and introduce yourself to the audience.
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Well, thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to talk about my backstory. I'm a story person, I know you're a story person. So I'm excited to dig into it. But before I go into it, so I am a college admissions counselors own independent counselor, I'm based in Brooklyn, I've been doing this for about seven years. And my career story and my personal story are very much connected. So growing up, I was, I guess, kind of like a typical over achiever type student athlete. But as I got older, I sort of started to not fit into that typical, I guess, good student mold. I went to a number of different high schools, just trying to find something that was a good fit for me, my parents were really concerned wanted to find something that was a good fit for me. And I didn't have some great experiences early on, I was actually asked to leave school. And yeah, it was, it was a
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really nice way to say that
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it was a bad fit a lot about fit in college admissions. And I ended up back at my local public high school. And unfortunately, things went kind of downhill for me there. So by the time it came for me to apply to college, now my GPA wasn't great, wasn't horrible, hi, 2.8 million, seven, eight or nine range. There's some sees on there for sure. I decent test scores, though. But my high school counselor really didn't believe in me. I had had some disciplinary issues. Early in my my time in high school, you know, 10th grade, but both my parents had gone to college, both my parents are going to four year colleges, and they really thought that I should go to college. So that was something that they wanted me to do. And I wanted to go to college to I was really excited about going to college, but my high school counselor was not so excited about really applying Yeah, out of state, he thought really, I should just, if I was going to go anywhere, I should just apply it and maybe my state institution and probably keep my list at that. But you know, fast forward through that process. And I did get into college, I actually went to the University of Vermont. So I parents day, they were excited for me to get away. And I think that was a good thing. And my sort of journey in higher education kind of took off from there. So I went to the University of Pennsylvania for grad school, I went to George Washington University for my doctorate, and all of those degrees have actually been in education. And so in thinking about, you know, my career path and my career story, I always thought back to, you know, my experiences, and I just was really drawn to education, I was drawn to how education works, I was drawn to how education doesn't work for some people. And I, you know, did some exploring, and it wasn't on purpose that I got a job in admissions initially. But I really fell in love with it. And when I started to reflect back and really began to connect the dots, I felt like that was the perfect place for me to be. So I spent many years working in higher ed working in student affairs, working in admissions, you know, as the person that reads these application files. And then about seven years ago, I decided to switch sides and really get in a position where I can help families, you know, through this process, it's a tough process. It's not always a transparent process. And I really work with all different types of students. So students that go to Ivy League schools and students that have disciplinary records and 2.8 GPA, like me, and it's, it's just super rewarding to be able to look back on my journey, and help people have a more positive journey toward college and towards secondary education.
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By the way, I'm sorry to introduce you as a doctor. I will from now on Dr. Tell me more about why you shifted from admissions to doing work on your own.
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I think that there's a couple of reasons that I shifted. I kind of am a little I'm and I'm antsy. So the work environment itself, I think that anyone that's thinking about their career, that's something that you don't often think about early in your career, like, what type of work environment? Is it good for me to get up and leave the house every day, kind of do the nine to five thing and go to an office or something different. And I figured out pretty early on that that going to an office every day and sort of that that typical work schedule just wasn't the best for me. And I think the biggest factor was also I didn't like rejecting students, specifically.
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And there's a lot that goes on behind the scenes and admissions that I just thought was just really uncool and not fair. And I loved. There are certain parts of working in admissions that I loved, I loved working one on one with the candidates with the applicants. Yeah, like sort of get providing them information, helping them through the process. And I loved reading their applications. I loved reading their essays, I loved reading their stories. And as someone that enjoys writing, I and having worked in admissions, I had, you know, a couple people that would ask me, you know, friends of friends and family, friends, stuff like that, to look at their kids essays and to kind of give them some advice. And I just started to put two and two together and really thought deeply about the things that I enjoyed about the role. And then, you know, sort of stroke of luck, I met someone that was an independent counselor and really learned a lot about how what I was doing in admissions and just my really kind of deep knowledge about higher education and how it works. How I could translate that into a role as an independent counselor and took the plunge. And that was,
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yeah. Well, your your entire line of business has obviously been in the news a lot lately. This operation was it Varsity Blues, and this huge, like, takedown by the FBI of parents like, so maybe this is a week or two late, but what's your what's your What was your first reaction, when you're hearing the news come out about parents manipulating the entire system?
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This is a loaded question. My first thought my first thought was it sad.
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It's really sad. It's sad, because essentially, these parents are telling their children, you're not enough, you know, you're not good enough. And because of that, I'm going to do this for you. And you know, you can't do this on your own. And I think that's just a horrible, horrible message to send anyone and especially to send someone at such, you're formative age, so, so really just sadness. And frustration, I guess a little bit too, because on the other end there, there's parents on one end, and there's the schools, but then there's also kind of there were some some people in in my role involved. But those, those people aren't the majority. So the majority of people in my line of work are actually members of professional organizations, and they really love what they do. And they do things, you know, right. So it's sad, kind of on that front to to see sort of what we do put in a bad light.
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With the theme of story. I think, when I was watching the news and reading some of the news articles, I think the lens I was looking through, and having this I had the same reaction z like the cash, it's so sad, like, that's, that's crazy, it's come to that, or at least to several people, it's come to that, but the idea of manipulating the story about who you are. And in this case, its parents manipulate the story about who their kids are, in order for someone to like purchase a story. There's not to use too much like commodities language, but there's, there's something there about the story I have, this is not the story that's going to fit where I'm trying to get it to fit, you're not going to buy this story. So let's let's let's purchase another one. Let's create another one. I guess, I don't know what the question is in that, but what are your thoughts on that?
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So I think that, that this idea of creating a story, creating this certain persona, or whatever you want to call it, for the application, is a bad idea. It actually puts students at a disadvantage. So one of the ways that your story comes through and your application is in your essays. And so you don't get a ton of opportunities to really show admissions officers and your words, what matters most to you, and why who you are and what you're all about. And the stuff that they you can't glean from your resume, or your grades, or your test scores. If you don't present that authentic, true self that was behind the scenes look in the application, you're at a huge disadvantage. And, you know, back to sort of your, your question like what you're what you're talking about, like sort of creating that package. admissions officers, although there's no like, formal training on this, they are able to sense when a story is a manufactured story, or it's an authentic story. And it's just a vibe you can get. I mean, there are some kind of tale signs, like, you know, there are certain words that 17 year olds don't use, yeah. Or it just sounds like a 45 year old, wrote it. Or the story is just so ridiculous, you can't believe it. But it's, I think it's so much of that, that trying too hard type of story, or that when you sense a student is trying to tell you something that they think you want to hear that in and of itself is not being authentic, that means, you are trying to craft something, For what you think you know, who you think the reader is, or what they want to see. And hear
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And back when you were an admissions counselor for university, when you would get a sense, what, what did you do? Like, what's the typical response? If you're reading this story and think, man, this just doesn't smell right. sound right? It doesn't seem believable. What do you do with that?
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Well, there's no, like formal process for saying like, okay, we need to do some extended research on this first, or, but there are ways to kind of check the story, right? So one of the ways is looking at the other components of the application. So the letters of recommendation, for example, if the story of the students presenting, let's say, in the personal statement, like nothing kind of comes up to, you know, check that in those other letters, yeah, that is a red flag. And then the other, the other component might be not all schools have this, but the interview, so many schools do have this, this interview, and there's an interview report. And so if a student, you know, says they had this crazy thing happened in their life or something, and it never comes up in an interview, that would be like a pretty big red flag. I've also heard that admissions officers and the is rare. They can call high school guidance counselors and ask them questions. So that's why honesty is so important. Yeah. process, you just, you have to be honest, you have to be truthful. But even beyond that, like you should just be yourself because that's, you know, colleges don't admit. Half of this, colleges, don't they admit people, right? They admit people, they don't admit numbers, they don't know. They, they want to know the real you. There you are what you're all about. So I really try to get students to understand that it's okay. And it's actually to your benefit to be your unique self, whatever that is.
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Hmm. Well, it's it's interesting. My recently I at my mom's house, found my college essay that I wrote. My mom is like, if you know, there's hoarders you keep everything, she's like, the opposite of that. So it's like the one thing that made it through from my childhood, I don't know why, but there's this little file folder. And I opened it up. And there's my University of San Diego college application I read and I saw I read the essay. And I was so fascinated by it, and I started to read it. I'm like, Who wrote this? Like, literally, I don't, I don't remember, obviously, it was me. But it doesn't seem like me, because it nothing. This the tone didn't sound like me. I clearly wrote something that I thought I wanted someone else to think that this was impressive. And so I guess my question, and that is, there's so many students that I know and have known that when you when it comes to sitting down with them and saying, Hey, tell me your unique story. They just sort of blink at you. Like, what do you mean, there's nothing dramatic? I'm a normal kid who's gone to school and done well, and I played a sport like that's, that's it? So I guess my question is, how do you? How do you respond to that? And how do you help an average, I'm using air quotes here, average ordinary kid hasn't had anything dramatic happening in life, tell a story about themselves. Like what's the process you take them through?
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Yeah. So we actually do a pretty formal brainstorming process with the students that we work with. And it's not easy at all. And not for us, it's not easy for them.
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It's brainstorming. But the reason that we do it is because we believe, and I say we because I have a couple colleagues I work with, we believe that everyone has a story. We know everyone has a story. And sometimes it's hidden in plain sight. And sometimes you need to dig around for it. So we really get our students to dig around, you know, in, in their back stories in their lives. And often, that means getting them to think about the stuff that's hard to think about this stuff that might feel embarrassing, you know, getting them to, you know, be vulnerable, it might be getting them to talk about some failures that they've had, you know, things like that. And it's like I said, it's not, it's not always easy, they don't always like that process, because it is, you know, it makes you vulnerable, you you have to, you know, kind of get this stuff out there. But from my experience, when it comes to admissions essays, vulnerability is where it's at, like, I that's my goal. And if I can give anyone advice that has to think about where is approaching this college application process, and in thinking about, you know, the story that they're going to present in their personal statement, I would push you to think about the hard moments in your life, the embarrassing things, the stuff that you might not want to tell people that you might not feel comfortable talking. I think going to that place is where kind of the good stuff is. And it's not that admissions officers, will they do want to see your human right. That's nice, but they want to get a sense of like, your personal characteristics, like what have you been through? Like, how have you developed into the person that you are, you know, whether that's, you know, resilient, or funny, more loving, or whatever, you know, those traits that you really feel like make you you. That's what admissions officers want to know about. And so you're often not going to see that in some of the really typical essays, big sports win, or the first time you got to be or know something. Yeah, I mean, and those things, yes, they probably all have affected you in some way. But just going a little bit further, a little bit deeper, can be just so helpful.
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One of my best friends at a college, his first job was as an admissions counselor. And one day I said, What do you do all day? And he's like, I just read, read, read. And he's like, it is so boring. And the but I said, Well, does it ever do you ever read anything that's like crazy, like, Oh, yeah, every now and then. And then he's like, and then we all walk around the office and like, you gotta read this one. Totally tell you are there any of those that stick out to you that you can share in your, in your years of doing this, like an essay or something that you that just felt, I don't know, absurd, or ridiculous or just crazy?
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I don't have too many crazy, crazy ones. But I do have a number that I really like. And I think all the essays that I tend to really like, have theme. And the theme is they show students in their most vulnerable moments. Because to me, that's the craziest thing a 17 year old can do. Yeah, my mind is by putting themselves out there. That is what really, you know, sticks with me. And whether that is a really weighted topic, like maybe a student's sort of journey to being able to come out to his friends, his or her friends or his or her family. Or if it's something that's a little bit more lighthearted. I had an essay, for example, that a young woman wrote that was about the time she spent in her parents. You know, nail salon. Little, little tiny moment, like a sliver of of someone's life. Yeah, yeah, it was colorful, it was a colorful, sad. And that was a fun way to to remember it, but but I do just really think that the most memorable. And the essays that I really kind of hang on to are the ones where I feel a connection to the student, I'm almost like, I feel like they told me
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Unknown: There's nothing that's going to wake somebody up, like a well told story. Even better, stories that are vulnerable, real, and relevant. What stories can you share? we hear all the time from teachers and leaders don't really have any stories, interesting in my life to share, well, you're wrong, you just haven't taken the time yet to really think about it to really be called and reflect the stories from your life that would be meaningful and relevant to the people that you're trying to influence. Andthat's why we put together Your Story Library, it's a really simple tool, you can download, and start to remember stories from your life. Go to the show notes. Download your story library today and start working on remembering all the interesting, fascinating, vulnerable and real stories from your life. So you can influence others.
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Scott Schimmel: When given kind of the state of affairs these days, and it's it's not just that new scandal, you know, it's such as parents that are going to these extraordinary unethical places to get the kids into school. But there's, there's also around that a much broader conversation around the entire college prep college admissions process of the extraordinary stress and competition and getting worse and worse every year. And I know, for example, I was sharing with some people yesterday that when I got into college, it was it wasn't that hard. And even at USD, where I went to, this is not bragging, but there was a top academic scholarship now. And now there was my friend told me this I'd probably I might get in, but I definitely wouldn't get any scholarship extended to me. So it's, it's changed and and mental health is affected and students dealing with anxiety and rejection. And so I guess my question on that, what do you think is going to change? Or even on the flip side of that, if you could change something, what would it be?
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Brittany: I think well, how change? I guess I'll tackle first what might change? mean, I think possibly a lot could change and quite possibly very little could change. So like our system of higher education has been how it has been for a very long time.
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Scott Schimmel: Yeah.
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Brittany: And although I'm absolutely a glass half full type of person, I don't think we're going to see anything change soon on, like, the college end of things. Right. So from the top down, yeah. However, I do think something that will change is something that has to change, because of the sort of way college admissions is going. So not everyone can get in to top 25 schools, even the top 50 schools. Students and parents need to widen their college knowledge, they need to think outside of the box more, they need to learn about different schools, new schools, schools that they don't know. And they need to do this because not everyone can go to the same schools, you can have an amazing academic experience social experience, at so many colleges and universities, you just need to open your mind to those schools. Yeah, research them. And you need to look beyond the brand names that are those everyday names that we know, the college admissions landscape now requires it. And to me, that's actually a good thing. I've always tried to push students to think outside of the box a little bit and not necessarily kind of follow the crowd. And I think that one change that we will see, because of how competitive college admissions is getting is that students will start to do that. And we will start to hear more about schools that we don't know a lot about, and that students might not know a lot about, those schools will get more popular. And hopefully, there won't be this just laser focus on this super small set of colleges. I go on lots of college tours, I have colleagues that I know that have worked at different colleges, universities, there are so many amazing colleges in the US and abroad that there is just no need to be going crazy over 5, 10, 15, 25 schools, our students can get an amazing education at an so many other different colleges and universities, just the stress is not it's just not it's not worth it anymore. It's just not.
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Scott Schimmel: Well, maybe this is putting the letting the cat out of the bag a little bit. But Brittany and I put together as speaking to the audience now- we put together the past few months, a new digital course called your real college essay course. And we're really intending that, that students that don't have access to a high school counselor on a campus when a lot of high schools have a 450 to 750 Kids assigned to each counselor. So how are you ever going to get personal attention, or they don't have the access maybe in their community or financial resources to work with someone like Brittany one on one that we wanted to create a way of process for students to go through that can actually help them walk through and understand themselves understand their real story, and be able to tell that and an articulate way. So we're going live with that's right in the next few weeks. It's got to be Sam, it's been a labor of love and something we're both excited about that could have a real impact for a lot of students. So what are you excited about when it comes to that course?
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Brittany: I'm most excited about having students give us some feedback on you know, the brainstorming. So I talked about that a little bit earlier. Yeah, I'm a story person, the brainstorming is where these stories begin to emerge. So I'm really excited to see, you know, what the students that take the course, you know, come up with if it really helps them develop their thinking, deepen their thinking. And I hope that some of them will share their stories with us in the finished product in the in the essays because everyone has a story. Everyone has a unique story and exciting story. And colleges deserve to hear that story. And so I'm just so hopeful that this course helps students unlock those stories, and present, you know, their best, most authentic, you know, true self to admissions officers.
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Scott Schimmel: And when I think about when I think about myself, writing that sort of autopilot essay 20 years ago, because I thought that's what I what someone wanted me to say. And but but really, even more broadly than that the entire process for me was just going to autopilot. I knew I was in my family going off to for your school, I knew that was the directions where all my friends were going from the high schoolers at. But there was no real sense during that season of life of real discovery, I was not open was not thinking about things, I was not exploring who I was. And so the idea that we can actually leverage this pretty stressful season, maybe the most stressful season that a kid will go through in there, in some ways, and you're tired lives maybe. Yeah. But we could actually leverage that season as as a time to actually really get to understand yourself and who you are and who you want to be. And that's I think that's the great opportunity that the college essay particularly provides that it forces you to look backwards. And by looking backwards, if you do that, well, you will see where your life is headed. And you'll be able to have a little sense of confidence and clarity, and maybe agency I think, you know, I want that story to change direction. I want to go in a different down a different path. And so that would be amazing. Brittany, if we can reconnect in a year from now on the show and say, Look, story after story of students saying, Man, I really, this really helped me understand myself. And now I'm making different choices about my life path because of that, that that's our dream.
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Brittany: Absolutely. And I think it's possible with the course. And I think it's also possible when students and families and counselors and advisors and teachers and everyone that touches students college counseling and sort of college application journey, looks at it as a journey. And as something that you can learn from and grow from and kind of do in a way that is true, and good to you. And also not that stressful. Yeah,
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Scott Schimmel: yeah. Well, I took some great quotes from just what you're saying that I love your perspective. I'm so glad you're doing what you're doing and how you're doing it. I'm so glad that we can partner together. And thanks again for being on the show. I hope you have a great warm spring New York weekends because I know it's going to be warm here in San Diego. So we'll send over some good vibes.
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Brittany: Thanks so much that you know, I am a huge fan of yours YouSchool, I'm so glad that we are working on this course together. So send some warm weather my way.
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Scott Schimmel: Hey, thanks for joining us for The YouSchool podcast, we wanted to let you know that we have a new free mini course. That's a available for you called the Real Me course. It's available on our website, go to theyouschool.com/register, create an account and you'll see The Real Me course available for you for free. Within three quick exercises, you can get clear about your identity about who you are and what matters to you. Let us guide you through video and through interactive prompts for you to figure out and get clear about your real story. So go to theyouschool.com and thanks for joining us today.