How to Get Into College
Six Westchester college presidents share their thoughts on what local high school students should do — and not do — to up their chances of admission.
Photography by Ken Gabrielsen
Dorothy A. Escribano, PhD
Michael E. Geisler, PhD
Dr. Belinda S. Miles
Thomas J. Schwarz
Jon C. Strauss, PhD
Westchester Magazine: What’s the biggest mistake high school students make when it comes to applying and getting into college?
Dorothy A. Escribano, PhD: I believe it’s not understanding family finances. There’s a lot of disappointment when students do not get the financial aid they were hoping to get, and they have to look at other schools. I think [financing college] is a conversation that should happen during junior year, so students really understand how their families can help them and what they need to do for themselves.
Thomas J. Schwarz: The answer to that question depends upon the student body you’re asking about. Financial aid may be the top issue for some students, but not all. To me, [a student’s] gut feeling of which school to go to is very important, and sometimes that’s disregarded because of pressure from parents to go to one school rather than another. If I had a magic wand, I would remove much of the parental direction from students’ choices.
Michael E. Geisler, PhD: I second that. And also extend [that notion] to the choice of a major. Most students who are successful actually switch their majors at some point. There are a few who are passionate about the field they want to go into, but the vast majority of students don’t really know yet when they reach college. Too many of them start [in a particular major] because that’s what their parents told them to do. There are jobs everywhere in any major that you have a passion for. So I would say that you need to listen to yourself, not your parents.
“To me, [a student’s] gut feeling of which school to go to is very important, and sometimes that’s disregarded because of pressure from parents to go to one school rather than another.”
—Thomas J. Schwarz, President, Purchase College
Dr. Belinda S. Miles: We have a different type of experience involving parental engagement and parental advising. We serve many first-generation college students, and so the college-going conversation is not something that is typically occurring. So the mistake that our students make is not really tapping into all of the available resources for counseling and advising services. Even taking the time to explore different types of options within the education curriculum is something that could be viewed as a luxury [for our students], where the necessity is to find that major to find a job.
Marvin Krislov: I think students need to spend more time on the application process. I find a lot of students think that it’s all about numbers — the standardized test and the GPA. For us, the most important thing is a transcript that shows how they’ve performed and particularly if they’ve made progress in a rigorous curriculum. Students don’t always spend enough time thinking about the essays and thinking about the way that they can contribute to the campus community, and that’s very much part of what we think about.
Jon C. Strauss, PhD: I look at the “mistakes” issue through the eyes of my own children. The biggest mistake they made was believing that they had to build up their activities résumé; my oldest son went so far as to invent a club and hold meetings in our house, so he could claim it on his application. It’s this notion that [college admissions staff] are going to measure you, when what you really should be looking at is measuring them and deciding how well [the school] fits.
WM: When evaluating a student’s application, on what do you place the greatest emphasis?
Escribano: I was provost for 10 years, and I usually found that if a student did not perform well on tests but performed well in their classes, that would transform into [that student] working hard at the college. So what I look at is if a student has been able to do well. They don’t haven’t to take all honors courses, but they have to be committed and they have to show [consistency in their] transcript.
Krislov: The transcript is the most important thing. We look at the type of classes they’ve taken, and if they’ve challenged themselves. If they’ve gotten B’s or C’s, but they’ve consistently been in very demanding courses, that matters. And if they’ve made progression, I think that’s important, too. Also, we try to look for their ability to deal with challenging circumstances, because we know that there’s a time management element [in college] that is very challenging. Some students may have held jobs in high school, may have had familial responsibilities; those life skills, they matter, as well.
Geisler: Too many students are obsessed with being well rounded. And yes, it’s important. But you don’t have to be a candidate for a Nobel Prize or have started your own nonprofit to be accepted into a really good college. What I would like to see is a commitment of some sort. Some depth in some area — it can be curricular or extracurricular. If somebody shows that they have a passion for something in high school, that’s a fairly good predictor, I believe, for both college success and success in life. Sticking with something over a period of time instead of having done 15 different things is very critical for us.
Miles: Community colleges are a uniquely American phenomenon with regard to higher education. We are founded as open-door-access institutions, and so we accept students at varying degrees of college readiness and will even provide remedial support for those who might need it, as well as opening the door to our honors college.
Schwarz: We’re also not looking for somebody who’s dabbled in 20 different things. We’re looking for somebody who has focus and seems to fit with who we are as an institution. Of course, our arts programs are all very competitive, so students have to submit [film] reels or written materials or complete an audition. Also, our motto is: “Think Wide Open.” For liberal-arts admission, we require a written piece, where we ask students to write what that means to them.
Strauss: What colleges are looking for depends very much on who the college is and what they do. When I was president of Harvey Mudd College, for example, the median SATs of our students were in the 1500 range, so we were looking for people who could live in that environment. They had to be competitive at the very highest level. That’s very different from the scenario at Iona, where we are looking for a reasonably well-rounded kid that’s got, as Michael [Geisler] suggested, a passion for something. When I was at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, we found [through studies which determined the best predictors of success] it was best if you’d ever had a major paper route or if you’d managed a major animal, like a horse or a cow (laughs). What it is is a measure of determination.
“What I look at is if a student has been able to do well. They don’t have to take all honors courses, but they have to be committed, and they have to show [consistency in their] transcript.”
—Dorothy A. Escribano, PhD, Interim President, The College of New Rochelle
WM: You’ve all expressed that being the most well-rounded student is maybe not as important as everyone thinks. Is that really the case?
Geisler: Well, I do think it’s important [for students] to show breadth, as well as depth. It’s just that I think it has gone too far in one direction. What you want to see is a student who has some depth in a particular area and a particular passion but who can also adjust quickly to a changing environment, because that’s what the workforce of the future will need.
Krislov: I think that when we talk about well-rounded, we are also referring to people who do something outside of the classroom. It could be a work experience, or it could be some sort of co-curricular or extracurricular experience. Let’s say someone was in an orchestra or a pep band at their high school and was able to contribute to that campus, that’s a likely predictor of their ability to succeed on our campus, as well.
“This question, for me, gets to the heart of the purpose of education. What is it that we are doing? Is it simply transactional, so that students are coming to acquire skills or knowledge for a particular end? Or does [higher education] have the power to be more transformative or even transcendent?”
—Dr. Belinda S. Miles, President, Westchester Community College
Miles: This question, for me, gets to the heart of the purpose of education. What is it that we are doing? Is it simply transactional, so that students are coming to acquire skills or knowledge for a particular end? Or does [higher education] have the power to be more transformative or even transcendent? We want our students to be employed, but we want them to be good community members and family members, too. So education has that potential and power to expand their lives along the human-development and student-development spectrum of experience.
Schwarz: To the extent that parents have an influence, it should be to get their kids to focus and not to spread themselves all over.
WM: Do you think today’s high school students are over-programmed and/or that we are expecting too much of them?
Krislov: There’s certainly a lot of pressure [on high school students] in [areas like] Westchester; a lot of parents think that it’s important to do a lot of activities and push their kids to do so. I think in general a lot of our young people are working very hard, whether it’s at paid jobs or extracurriculars. But [part of the problem] is also technology. They’re online all the time, and there’s a lot of stimulation and distraction.
Geisler: There’s a forgotten guest at the table here, and it’s [socioeconomic] class. Not all families in Westchester are rich, so sometimes when students are pushed by their parents [to be involved in activities or jobs], it’s because their parents expect [the students to make] a significant contribution to the cost of college. So, particularly with first-generation students, they sometimes feel they have no choice.
Schwarz: Right, we need to separate the kids in Scarsdale and communities like that, who may be over-programmed for different reasons. In my view, it’s often because of their parents. I think sports is a great organizer, and kids who play a sport in high school have a leg up because they are learning how to organize their time.
WM: What is the biggest mistake parents make when helping their children build their college-ready resumes and in guiding them through the college-application process?
Strauss: Submitting essays that were obviously written by the parent — oftentimes more poorly than the student would have done on their own! That is one of the things parents really have to avoid. We know they’re doing it, and we want measures of the student, not measures of the parent.
Schwarz: This is an area where over-parenting can be more risky than under-parenting. A student needs to figure out who he or she is and how he or she fits with an institution, and the parent can’t determine that for the student. We see this all the time in the so-called elite institutions, where parents want their kid to go to a particular school that maybe they didn’t get into, and now they’re living their life through their child. But it’s ultimately the student who has to make the determination and the parents who have to be supportive. I think the best job parents can do is make sure students are supported, remind them of their deadlines [for various parts of the application process], and make sure they work together with the students on financial aid.
“One area where we can help parents do a better job is in encouraging them to let their students navigate problems by themselves. We can help parents help their children by teaching them the skills to work within the institutional framework.”
—Marvin Krislov, President, Pace University
Escribano: Parents should not expect that the student, at around 18 years old, knows what he or she wants to do. That’s what college is about. The general education of a core curriculum is all about learning what your passion is as an adult and translating that [into a course of study].
Geisler: I think we also need to realize that parents don’t live in a context-free world. They’re exposed to [the opinions of] friends and colleagues; they look at US News & World Report rankings and all the college surveys. And they feel that they have failed if they don’t get their son or their daughter into one of the top 20 schools. So I think it’s a mistake not to look at the big picture and to listen to high school counselors and admissions counselors, who actually can be your agents in trying to understand what a school does for your kid.
Krislov: One area where we can help parents do a better job is in encouraging them to let their students navigate problems by themselves. We can help parents help their children by teaching them the skills to work within the institutional framework — whether [the problem is] a housing assignment or an academic thing, parents should be encouraging them to find the right people on campus. That’s a life skill that those students are going to learn.
Miles: I, too, get those calls from families, and we remind them that we want to be able to support their student in navigating our processes. That challenge with [parental] support can be a good combination to help spur them along the way a little later in life. But also, because we don’t typically end up on the college tour that might be more traditional with other institutions, we have to invite [parents and prospective students] in. We’ve added financial-literacy days for families, on Saturdays, for example. So we really do have to increase awareness and understanding of those parts of the process.
WM: How good of a job do you think Westchester’s public high schools are doing to prepare their students for a successful tenure at your colleges?
Schwarz: I don’t want to limit it to Westchester, but I think by and large schools are not doing a very good job teaching students how to write. I’m always amazed how you can have 1400 on your SATs and still be a lousy writer. I think the whole use of email and texting and the notion that you don’t have to punctuate properly has undercut the ability of students to write. When you look at all of the studies of Fortune 500 companies, they are looking for students who can write, who can stand up on their feet and speak and critique. High schools by and large are failing to teach students those very rudimentary efforts, which is partly because of federal standards and too much teaching for the test, et cetera.
Miles: We’ve worked with area high schools to align our curriculum, particularly in math and English, because we found on many occasions that the exit criteria [for high school] were different than the college-entrance expectations. And often, students were not taking the demanding courses in math — or any math — during senior year. So curriculum alignment has been an important activity that has helped us to create a better pathway and increase readiness for college-level study. I think another opportunity within high schools is to enhance career education and get more of an understanding about students’ areas of interests and affinities. [Too often students] choose the accounting program because Uncle Joe is an accountant, but they don’t have a passion for that field. So more of that exploration earlier could be helpful for students.
“You don’t have to be a candidate for a Nobel Prize or have started your own nonprofit to be accepted into a really good college. What I like to see is a commitment of some sort, depth in some area — it can be curricular or extracurricular. ”
—Michael E. Geisler, PhD, President, Manhattanville College
Geisler: I like the idea of reaching out to high school students, and an increasing number of colleges do that. Our philosophy department at Manhattanville does a very successful philosophy competition for high school students. Those kinds of incentives for high school students to engage in academic projects outside of their regular curricula, with a certain rigor sponsored by colleges, can help push students in positive ways to realize their potential.
Krislov: There is a wide range of high schools here with a wide range of student bodies, and some obviously have more resources. There are many first-gen and immigrant families [sending kids to college here], and we have to meet students where they are. So, we have programs that are designed to help students who may not have had some of the preparation, but they have the desire and passion to learn. We need to be open and welcoming to students from all backgrounds, and that’s going to inherently involve a real range of students and talents and backgrounds.
Escribano: We also meet the students where they are, and the important thing is how they leave us. We make sure that by the time they graduate, they are at the level they need to be for both writing and math.
Miles: WCC is part of the State University of New York system, and we are actually SUNY’s first Hispanic-serving institution, which is a federal designation for when 25 percent of your student body is of Latino descent. We are up to 36 percent; it has been a rapid growth, and it signals some of the changing demographics in the county. We have the state’s largest English-as-a-second-language program outside of New York City. And so those are different kinds of opportunities we have, to meet students where they are and to get them to some different places of achievement.
Strauss: Our admissions folks agree there is enormous variation among the schools in this county, and, relative to the other counties in the state and counties in other states, Westchester high schools do very well, and we’ve been very pleased with the students we’ve been dealing with.
Escribano: I believe that the Westchester high schools are doing a really good job in conveying the value of education. I’ve found that Westchester students believe that education is the key to change. Students are more politically involved now, and education is a big piece of that. They’re asking more questions, they’re asking for special-topic courses that might not be part of the curriculum but would address some of the questions that they have about what’s happening in history.
Krislov: Yes, they have a positive attitude toward education, which is very important.
Miles: We have close to 4,000 high school students who are taking college-level courses [at WCC] to earn their high school diplomas, so that’s the dual-admissions program. It’s very popular, so I also see that commitment to education and investing in it early on.
Geisler: One group we haven’t talked much about yet is high school guidance counselors. We’ve hosted a lot of conferences here, and in talking [to counselors], a lot of them are making a sophisticated attempt to understand what students’ needs are. They really do a good job matching up students with schools that meet their needs.
WM: How would you characterize Westchester high school students coming into your schools, compared with students from other areas you’ve worked with?
Krislov: What I’ve observed in my short time here is an overall positive attitude students have toward education and an optimism about the future. I’ve gotten a sense that students see technology and healthcare opportunities here and regard Westchester as a vital place. A lot of students want to stay in this region, and I feel that’s a very positive sign for the economy. Students have the idea that education is a stepping-stone to opportunity and good jobs.
“Our admissions folks agree there is enormous variation among the schools in this county, and, relative to the other counties in the state and counties in other states, Westchester high schools do very well, and we’ve been very pleased with the students we’ve been dealing with.”
—Jon C. Strauss, PhD, Acting President, Iona College
Miles: I think education is no longer seen as a finite phenomenon. It’s not going to be two years or four years, and you’re done. We have a very large continuing-education program; we serve lots of adults. So it’s been an interesting phenomenon, to look at the trends that are not what you might expect.
Geisler: What I’ve picked up on among our Westchester students is a very high sense of social justice and civic responsibility. They do more volunteer hours here than what I’m used to from other institutions. Also, they seem to be pretty entrepreneurial. We have a group of students who want to start their own Uber-type service for students at Manhattanville College, so I’m looking at that. We had another group of students who created their own video and communications club, which was sufficiently professional that we actually hired them to do some of our communications work.
WM: What is the best piece of advice you’d offer high school students and their families to maximize their chances of getting accepted by your school?
Escribano: Many students have the bad habit of slacking off during senior year, and I would advise students to ensure they continue to work hard up until graduation.
Schwarz: I would say that they need to work on their [applications and essays] for college on their own. I don’t mean without help, but make sure they demonstrate to the college that it is their effort, their interest, and [indicate] why they fit in the particular institution.
Miles: I would say that for those who are considering community college, begin with the end in mind. We are a viable pathway to so many wonderful opportunities. We have articulation agreements with every institution represented around this table, so we’re a great pathway for occupations and for transfer.
Geisler: I think I said in the beginning: Show us some passion, some project — whether it’s curricular or extracurricular — that you’ve really persevered in or even that you failed in and learned something from. In addition to that, I’d like to have a pretty good idea of whether that student knows what his or her identity is at this point. Show me that you have not just been directed in certain ways but that you have some inner core that will contribute something to the college community.
Krislov: I’m thinking of one student who told me that Pace was her dream school. Her guidance counselor did not seem to think it was a good fit, but she persisted and was able to get admission. Then, she didn’t think she could get the money together, and she went to the local rotary [and other groups] and just scraped and saved and worked. And colleges really like to see that drive. So students should explain why they want to go to Pace or any other school. Tell us why you’re going to make a difference in our community. We like to hear that.