Brooke Hanson is the CEO and Founder of SupertutorTV.com, an online resource for high school students designed by an elite test prep and college admissions expert. They specialize in online tutoring videos with tips, tricks, and lessons that cover topics about college admissions and standardized testing. Brooke is a perfect SAT and ACT scorer, Stanford graduate with honors, and has been a tutor and college admissions adviser for the past ten years.
We interviewed Brooke about the college admissions process, what top universities are looking for in a qualified applicant, and how aspiring students can craft the right story in their college application to get into the college of their dreams:
1. What inspired you to become a college admissions adviser (in addition to tutoring and test prep)?
I actually started tutoring because it was a good side job to my first career, which was working in the entertainment industry. I attended USC for Cinematic Arts Production and had a strong background in storytelling. That background in telling stories lent itself, I think, to working with students to craft their stories for college admissions essays. Writing a screenplay or crafting a short film isn’t terribly dissimilar to penning a personal statement. You need to capture attention, make people wonder “what’s next,” and make people feel.
2. What’s the biggest thing students and teachers fail to understand about the college admissions process?
It’s competitive and sometimes random. Everyone thinks she will be the exception to the rule or that a wonderful GPA or test score or activity will “make up” for some other shortcoming on an application. That’s just not the way college admissions work. No matter how much you love your kid, or how wonderful you believe they are, they are judged according to how they’ve performed and how good of a story they can tell in their essays. The other tough point is that sometimes admissions seem random— I’ve had students denied to Penn early decision (23%+ acceptance rate) and accepted to MIT regular decision (about a 9% acceptance rate), rejected by UC San Diego (35.9%) while accepted at UC Berkeley (17.5%). You would think the lower the acceptance rate, the more likely you are to get in. It doesn’t always work that way. As a result, I think the best move is to apply to schools you are passionate about but have a shot at, write the best essays you can and approach it all with an open mind.
3. Are there any particular themes such as “Global Citizenship”, “Grit” “Volunteerism”, or otherwise that are particularly in vogue right now in the eyes of admissions officers?
Intellectual Curiosity is all the rage with schools. Stanford calls it “Intellectual Vitality.” The University of Chicago calls it “Fearless Inquiry.” Whatever you call it, it’s an asset to your admissions, and most schools want to see a glimmer of it in some of your essays. It’s also the topic of the newest Common Application Essay prompt: 6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
4. What should teachers be encouraging their students to do to help them get into the colleges of their choice?
Get awesome grades. Study for your ACT or SAT. And have a point of view. You can have all the scores and grades, but without perspective, your application is one among thousands. Teachers should foster in students an ability to see patterns, trace the connections between the personal and political, and participate in the larger intellectual dialogue going on in our world— the ability for students to hear other voices and develop their own. That could mean assigning students reading from The Economist or The New York Times, or challenging them to write essays on more than just symbolism in Moby Dick. Colleges are looking for engaged thinkers, not just students who know how to jump through academic hoops.
5. In your video, ‘5 Activities That Don’t Help Your College Application’, you talk about activities that don’t help students get into college. While you don’t specifically mention educational travel experiences, you do talk about expensive, one-off activities as being particularly unhelpful.
If a student goes on a life-changing educational trip, how could they write about in their essay that would be helpful to their college application?
Yes— First I’ll say that everyone should be taking that video with a grain of salt. It’s drawn quite a bit of controversy, and in truth admissions preferences aren’t always black and white. Still, everything I address (with as much nuance as possible in a 10-minute video) is a misstep I’ve seen on a college application in the past. With the point you mention, I was attempting to debunk the myth that doing a pricy, prestigious sounding one or two-week camp or leadership summit is going to be just as impressive as starring in the school play. It’s not.
These activities can complement a full roster of involvement, but they don’t do enough to comprise a solid activities resume on their own. Long term dedication is a much better story on an application. At the same time, I have read essays from short term experiences that do work. What’s most important is that students discuss true realizations and come at their essay from an interesting perspective. One way I’ve seen students do so is by linking their experience to larger, contemporary political or social interest themes–jumping into a conversation, say, on racism or economic inequality–but not in a trite way.
I always tell my students to imagine not that they are writing a college essay, but rather an Op-Ed for the Huffington Post. You want to write something that other people will enjoy reading and approach it from the perspective that whatever you say should be worth someone’s time. Your job is not to “answer the questions” but to say something worth saying that reveals who you are and what matters to you. The questions are only a means to an end.
6. A big part of your message to aspiring college students seems to be to demonstrate a passion and a commitment to that passion.
If a student is passionate about traveling and exploring new cultures, how can they demonstrate that passion outside of the 1 or 2 times they were able to travel abroad in their high school career?
Students can demonstrate passion by their actions—-but those actions can be quite simple. Regular trips to the library to pick up books on foreign cultures, reading a foreign or international newspaper, or befriending your local exchange students are all ways a student could seek to gain a more cosmopolitan perspective. With the internet, the possibilities really are endless to find a way to explore whatever it is students find inspiring. Again this was part of my point on the expensive programs: you aren’t rewarded for how much your parents are willing to spend on you, but rather, for what you demonstrate as a curious thinker and engaged student of the world.
7. Anything else you’d like to add or impart to aspiring college students and their teachers?
Be prepared, but don’t sweat it! Everyone has a path that is right for them, and universities are one element of that path, not an endgame.
If students or teachers are looking for more insights on the admissions game or ACT/SAT prep resources, we have many more free tips on my YouTube Channel and on our blog at SupertutorTV.com — everything from student admissions stories to top schools to how to hack the SAT Math section. If anyone is prepping for the ACT, we just launched a complete online ACT prep course available at SupertutorTV.com as well—-it features strategies that have helped me and one of my students score perfectly on the exam, at a fraction of the cost of a traditional class or tutoring. Finally, our site also has my contact information for anyone seeking private tutoring or college consulting services.
Have some tips you share with your students about the college admissions process? Share them in the comments section below!
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