‘Insider’ talks college process

Karen Stabiner is the author of “Getting In,” a new novel that chronicles the lives of five high school seniors applying to college. Stabiner, who also writes “The College Insider” column for The Huffington Post and teaches at the Columbia University School of Journalism, spoke with the News on Thursday to discuss her latest book and the college admissions process.

Q. What drew you to blog about college admissions for the Huffington Post?

A. I am both a journalist and a survivor of the college admissions process. I have authored nine books, including a cookbook. My daughter is currently in college and I spent her entire senior year — more than any other parent — trying to find answers that I could never find. Everyone went a bit crazy that year. I wanted to write about college admissions from a survivor’s perspective.

Q. Yale reported a 5 percent drop in early application numbers this year, bucking the national trend. What are your thoughts on the possible causes?

A. It seems counterintuitive, as non-binding early admissions should make Yale more attractive. I don’t understand why this has happened, but I think there are trends and this year could just be anomaly. Numbers from year to year don’t indicate trends.

Q. Do you feel highly selective colleges such as Harvard and Yale need to reform their admissions process? If so, what should be done?

A. I think change has to come from families who should realize that it is okay not to submit 24 college applications. People are terrified of doing less than what everyone else does and “Getting In” is a book about families who are in over their heads. There needs to be a focus on where the child will flourish rather than what is written on the decal at the back of the car. Encouraging your child to examine other college options doesn’t mean you love your child any less.

Q. What advice would you give to students waiting on their regular decision results?

A. Here is my recipe: Go to the movies, take the dog for a walk, dig up weeds in the front yard, eat dinner with your parents and keep the cell phone off. Your fate is already sealed in some e-mail bin somewhere. You should go out and enjoy the last semester because the day after you get the acceptance, you will realize that this is probably last time you and your family will permanently live at home together.

Q. What inspired you to write “Getting In”? Are the characters based on students you know from real life?

A. My book attempts to tell the story of five Los Angeles kids trying to get into college without losing humor or perspective. Parents often hope that their kids will enjoy better lives than they have, but a common problem is that many parents already have a lot and probably even more than their kids will have. I wrote this novel as a comedy of manners that illustrates what happens when well-intentioned people get caught up in the frenzy of the college admissions process. People who have gone through this process don’t see the humor in it until it is over.

Q. One of the characters is a fourth generation Harvard legacy. What are your thoughts on legacy admissions these days? Do you believe it is still possible for one to “buy” a place at Harvard or Yale?

A. I attended the University of Michigan, where the volume of undergraduates is too high for me to be an expert on legacies. I am aware of at least one very prestigious college which has a special admissions phone number for parents who write a check for half a million or over to the school. I will also say schools hold events for alumni and their children so there is clearly an interest in legacies. Someone obviously wants to know who the legacy applicants are.

Q. Another character in your novel is a daughter of Asian immigrants who sacrifices her social life in order to get into Harvard. Do you feel recent reports claiming that Asian students may be disadvantaged when it comes to college admissions are valid?

A. College admissions are not purely based on numbers and we as a society try, however clumsily, to compensate for disadvantage. In every generation, there will be groups of students who will feel that they have been shortchanged. I am frankly most interested in economic affirmative action as there are Caucasian families who could use a hand in paying for the cost of college. I have read things about need blind being not as “blind” as they used to be so that if a small college is down to the last five seats, they will give more attention to those who can pay than those who cannot.

Q. How level is the college admissions playing field these days? What role do parents, guidance counselors, and professional college consultants play in college admissions?

A. You can’t have a level playing field when there is money is involved. If you spend five minutes on the web, you will find an amazing array of services that will cost you money. A nice irony is that according to one school administrator I have spoken to, one can burn out on SAT prep.

Q. Harvard or Yale?

A. I can’t! I have friends who went to both who will never speak to me again if picked one over the other!

Correction: March 28, 2010

An earlier version of this article misreported Karen Stabiner’s advice to students awaiting their college decisions. Stabiner said students should keep their cellphones off only when eating dinner with their parents.

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