Susan Goodkin is a national college consultant and Executive Director of the California Learning Strategies Center, where she advises on college admissions for Ivy League universities and other highly selective schools. Susan is a graduate of Harvard University, Harvard Law School, and Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar. In addition to advising students on college admissions, Susan speaks and writes nationally on college planning. Her articles have appeared in newspapers throughout the country, including The Washington Post. Learn more about Susan in this “5 Questions” interview.
1. Before college admissions consulting, you were an appellate attorney. What drove you to make the career change?
Because of my Ivy degrees, many parents came to me for advice when their children were seniors applying to selective colleges. By that point, many students had missed opportunities to improve their chance of getting accepted because their parents – and often their teachers — didn’t understand what selective colleges are looking for today. I got so frustrated about this that I started giving talks at schools and businesses about the college application process for selective colleges. Parents soon began asking me to advise their families individually, and I quickly realized that creating a great college application was very much like crafting a legal case – we had to strategize about how to make as strong an argument as possible to the admissions “jury” for why my clients should be admitted. I found consulting on the college application process fun and very rewarding, and a new career was born.
2. How has your education at Harvard and Oxford influenced your work as a college consultant?
First, I’m familiar with the type of student who attends highly selective schools – and the kinds of achievement and accomplishments that got them there – and that helps me to guide my clients toward building the kind of resume that will make them competitive for top schools. (Although let me stress that I always advise students to build their resumes by following their true passions, not by thinking about what will look good on a college application. There are plenty of ways for a student to create a great resume through pursuing activities he or she is genuinely interested in.) Also, the ability to communicate well in writing was so important at Harvard and Oxford, and I work really hard with my clients to make sure that their essays communicate who they are in an interesting and well-written way, and in their own voice.
3. What are the biggest changes you see happening in the college admissions process today?
Most critically, extracurriculars and curriculum have become much more important in the application process, as high SAT/ACT scores have become the floor for acceptance to selective schools. (For a variety of reasons, high SAT scores have increased over the last 20 years, to the point where Stanford now reports that it rejects 69% of applicants with a perfect 2400 SAT score.) From 9th grade on, students aiming for selective schools – including the UC’s — should be thinking about taking the most challenging classes and pursuing their interests beyond the “typical” high school level. There’s also been an interesting change regarding standardized testing. In general, midwest colleges used to look at the ACT, while colleges on the coasts accepted the SAT, but all colleges today will consider either SAT or ACT scores. Given that change, another important part of the application process is for students to determine which test best suits them. The universe of early action/restricted early action/early decision/rolling decision options has also expanded tremendously, and adds a whole new element of gaming to the decision about where — and when — to apply.
4. How have you adapted to the changes to help your student’s get into their dream colleges?
I start working with students as soon as possible in high school to help them build the kind of academic and extracurricular resume that will stand out in the applicant pool. I try to help students pursue their genuine interests in ways that are not only impressive, but are also fun. I also talk about testing early in the process, so we can better determine which test will play to their strengths, rather than having students waste time preparing for both the ACT and the SAT. Come late junior/senior year, we also spend a lot of time strategizing about where students should apply early, and of course working on essays that capture what the student will bring to the college.
5. Naturally, the admissions process varies from college to college. In a previous interview, you mentioned that students could learn a lot about the admissions process for the school they’re applying to by simply reading that school’s admissions blog. I love this tip because it sheds some light on the school’s unique approach, which can ultimately help you submit a better application for that school. Any other tips and tricks you can leave our readers with?
Okay, I’ll share one of my favorite secret tips, but everyone has to promise not to tell. If you google the name of a college and “common date set,” you’ll be taken to a document filled out by the college that includes lots of information about the college’s application process and admittees. What I find most interesting is a chart labeled, “relative importance of factors in admission,” in which the college notes the weight they give to factors ranging from “rigor of secondary school record,” to “level of applicant’s interest.” That last point is particularly telling. If a school notes that the applicant’s interest is a “very important” part of the admissions decision, it’s signaled that applicants should visit the school if at all possible, go on an official tour, meet with representatives who might come to their high school campus, etc. For schools like Harvard and Stanford, which state that the level of an applicant’s interest is “not considered,” students don’t have to worry about their level of contact with the school.