#AdmissionsPros: Show (Don’t Tell) With College Connection’s Jeannie Borin

Welcome to #AdmissionsPros! In this series, admissions advisors and educational consultants offer their advice and insight on the big picture of elementary, secondary, and graduate school admissions — from extracurriculars, to essays, to, (of course) standardized tests.

As founder and president of worldwide college consulting company College Connections, Jeannie Borin has helped thousands of students gain admission to competitive colleges and graduate schools. In fact, 98% of her past students have received offers from at least one of their top choice schools! Jeannie talked to Noodle Pros about her approach to counseling, her advice for parents, and the difference between showing and telling on college applications.

What service do you provide at College Connections, and what kinds of students do you work with?

We work with a wide range of students, from students with learning needs to the highly gifted, and ages range from 9th grade through medical school. In addition to our admissions services, we offer a career and assessment program. Our college counseling includes significant research; we insist on balanced lists. If you’ve seen any of the media recently with regard to the competitive nature of admissions, you’ll know that waitlists are sometimes longer than admitted classes! It can be very discouraging, but we believe that there is a college for everyone.

What is your process for guiding students through their college essays?

We spend an awful lot of time on the essays; some schools want an additional three or four essays or writing supplements in their applications. Self-reflective first person writing is a completely different style of writing than students get in high school, where they’re often told to write in the third person And writing about yourself is just not an easy thing to do — I often say to adults that it would be very difficult for them to do the essay — so we start very early by learning about students’ experiences and trying to isolate good stories about their lives. We also teach them to show their interests and talents rather than just tell about them, and to avoid repeating what’s already on the application. We work with students on revisions and give suggestions, but they do all the writing.

What are some other things College Connections helps with?

We do interview prep if a student has an interview. We’ve gathered questions for years on end, and we really encourage students to answer the most important question: why do they want to go to that school? Students need to be able to distinguish one college from another.

For teacher recommendations, we talk to the students about who they should ask and when. Do they need two teachers for a certain college, or one? Who would be a better teacher to ask? Should they ask their school counselor? Most colleges will want a report from the school counselor. Additionally, some colleges will allow supplemental recommendations, which might be from someone outside of school — a coach, or somebody who mentors a club that the student is in. All of the colleges have their own rules, so it’s very important to check requirements.  

We also talk to students about college visits. We give them a spreadsheet of different things we suggest that they look for when visiting, and remind them that demonstrated interest is a factor. Colleges like to accept students who they think will attend. Visiting definitely shows interest.

Next we spend time on what we call a “brag sheet.” Technically it’s an activity resume. These are items that won’t necessarily go on the transcript, but will allow colleges to gain more insight into the student’s interests. And it’s not only about the quantity of activities. The quality, depth, and continuity are very important factors here as well.

We also offer resources for college financial planning. We work with a specialist for those families who don’t understand how the FAFSA works, the CSS profile, when they need to submit, what they need to say, how to gather information. All of that is very important.

Finally, we offer portfolio specialists. I have a Juilliard background myself, and oftentimes there will either be an audition involved for a performing artist, or an art portfolio that will need to be sent in, and we will work with students on those factors.

You mentioned that you attended Juilliard. What is the rest of your educational background, and how did you find yourself counseling students?

I’ve been in education for over 40 years now. I started in schools; I worked as a teacher, I worked in administration, and I worked in counseling. I also have a master’s in Education and Counseling from UCLA. Around 2003 or 2004 I began to see a significant need: the schools were not really helping students with this college process, and for the amount of money parents spend on college, they needed to get it right. So I took some additional courses at UCLA, and I started a business. The business started to grow and grow, we migrated to other states, and now we have 20 consultants working for us all over the country. I am on numerous professional digests, and I belong to all the professional organizations — IECA, NACAC, the Higher Education Consultants Association — because things change all the time and you must stay current. For example, just last month Harvard dropped the SAT Subject Test requirement! There’s all this information that’s constantly changing. I find that you can’t stop learning in this profession.

What are three questions that you would typically ask in your first meeting with a student?

Well, I usually let families know right away that there are three criteria for admission decisions: test scores, grades and having the most challenging curriculum at your high school. I will always review what they’re doing in high school, what their courses or anticipated courses are, and why they’ve selected certain classes or activities. Then the second thing we talk about is their interests: their activities outside of school, things they want to pursue, why they stopped doing certain things… I really want to gain insight and learn about the student. I’ll also ask them if they have visited any colleges, and what their impressions were — what stood out for them, what they liked, what they didn’t like. That information will ultimately will help me recommend colleges.

Let’s talk about parents. Are parents usually in your initial meetings with the students? How involved should they be?

I invite them to first meetings, but it’s really up to the student. What happens more often than not is that one or both parents will come to the first meeting, and then the student will come their own. There are those parents who want to overtake the process. But when we get to college essays, we really — unless the student chooses to share with parents — we really don’t want the parents involved in that. Because if the student gets mixed messages, it can be very confusing. I’ve had strange situations where a student has forward me edited work, but below her email is the parent’s email saying “Is this one OK?” Yeah. So I am very kind, but I’m firm. I just say to parents, you know, you’re not going to college with your student. The students have to embrace this, and they have to own this process. It’s a challenge, and it’s a challenge for the parents to be able to let go, but my favorites are the parents who allow their kids to have some independence when they work with us. That’s why they hired us!

What is your perspective on test prep? How can students prioritize standardized tests when they have so many other important things to think about during this process?

A lot of parents ask me about private tutors versus classes, and while I think that the courses do teach students the strategy of the tests, I think that they can hurt as well. Courses talk about how to best answer questions, but they don’t necessarily focus on individual errors as a teacher would in a private tutoring situation. So when families comes to me, I see if they can do private tutoring first, rather than a course.

In terms of prioritizing, there’s the academic piece, and then there’s the emotional piece. I absolutely think students need to prepare for the tests. Testing is just part of our society. If you want to move up in your career, there are all kinds of things that come your way — career placement exams, LSAT, the GMAT. So I think test prep is a good skill; it teaches independence, responsibility, accountability, and a lot of other intangible kinds of things. But there is tremendous pressure on these kids, and there are over 900 colleges in this country today that are test optional. Occasionally we will get a student who’s a very good performer in school who just can’t take these tests for whatever reason. So we work with them. We see if they qualify for extended time. That’s a possibility. But generally speaking, if students are really not happy with their scores, we will mix some test optional colleges into their list to give them that option.

Is there a common misstep that you see students and parents making when it comes to admissions?

Oh yes. Time management. I think it’s the biggest thing; a lot of the teenagers have their own clocks, and they like to do what’s right in front of them. There’s a lot of conflict over that, because their parents see things differently and want more of a long range goal or plan for this whole process. And you know, oftentimes it doesn’t work that way. Parents may hire us in January, and the student is not even ready to start with us until July because of really poor time management. And so we keep encouraging and giving students little pieces. Our goal is to underwhelm! Ideally, we want to have them do their college research, start taking notes on colleges, and start to formulate lists — keeping lists very flexible. Then really look at their interests and start doing some brainstorming in regards to essay writing. We like to really keep pointing out the time management piece as much as possible.

Last question: what is your top advice for students who are applying to selective schools and programs?

Well, like I say, students come to me with these very, very, very selective colleges. I tell them that if they have a weighted 5.0 GPA and perfect test scores certain colleges will still be in a reach category, because the colleges have quotas, and there’s seemingly no rhyme or reason to who gets in. It’s very difficult for students to understand that they must have a diversified and balanced list, but it’s essential. The other thing I tell students is to really look at early admissions statistics for the more selective schools, because there’s quite a difference. There are some schools that will take 30% of students in the early round, and the regular admit round will be 7% or 8%. It’s important to know the early statistics, and, if you really do favor the school after doing your research, consider applying early. The last thing, which I mentioned before, is to show, not tell, your interests. It’s one thing to say “I’m going to be a doctor.” It’s another thing to have a resume showing “I mentored with a doctor, I volunteered at the Red Cross,” etc. You want to demonstrate your sincerity throughout.


Interested in working with Jeannie Borin? Contact her via the College Connections website for more information.

Are you an admissions specialist who would be interested in being featured in #AdmissionsPros? Reach out via our online form.