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New Book Demystifies College-Admissions Process

Getting into college is not rocket science. It is a lot of hard work, but it can be done.

That's the mantra that authors Robin Mamlet and Christine VanDeVelde suggest to families in their book out today from Three Rivers Press, College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step.

Mamlet offers her insider view as a former dean of admission at Stanford, Swarthmore, and Sarah Lawrence. VanDeVelde is a journalist and parent of a college student, who recently went through the process herself.

It's not as though they are trying to look at college admissions through rose-colored glasses. They acknowledge the process can be intimidating. But the key is to be informed and stop trying to find out some short-cut to game the system. Just dive in and be real.

"Ironically, people put a lot more work into trying to find secret ways—whether it's prep courses or individual counseling—when if they just did the hard work themselves to begin with, they'd save a lot of money and time and be more successful," Mamlet says.

What every college really wants is sincerity, the authors emphasize. The student who becomes a "professional college aspirant" throughout his high school career is often not happy in college because he has not been authentic and pursued his true interests.

A surprising insight to many families: The admission process is really more about the needs of the school—not the individual student. Colleges want to fill a freshman class with a certain mix of students that fits the mission and aspirations of the school, says Mamlet.

This underscores the importance of having students first think about who they are and what they care about, before they ask how a college will evaluate them. Once they know themselves, then they can look for the right match. Check the website of each school to see what it requires, the authors advise.

"Parents and students need to think about the institution's priorities," says VanDeVelde. "It's an advantage to realize you are dealing with somebody who has their own wants and needs. ... And it's good to remember that it's not personal."

The authors remind families that central to every application is the student's academic record. Students' best hope is to take rigorous classes and work hard. There is no certain combination of extracurricular activities or major to declare that will trump classroom performance. "Colleges are looking for future members of a learning community so they want to know how students learn," says VanDeVelde.

VanDeVelde's advice for parents is to remember that there are many colleges out there and to respect their child's independence: "Sit back, take a deep breath, relax, and do your absolute best to ignore the hype. If any step in the process feels painful or expensive, think twice."

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