#AdmissionsPros: Keeping It Relative With Michael Muska

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.

Michael Muska has been working in admissions for nearly 30 years at such institutions as Brown, Oberlin, Cornell, Poly Prep, Phillips Andover Academy, and Milton Academy. He has also earned accolades as a collegiate-level track and field coach, and is considered a national expert on college athletics and athletic recruiting. As the head of Relativity College Consulting, Michael helps students stand out in the college admissions process, guiding them from beginning to end. Here, he shares his perspective on exactly what colleges want, and how to get there.

Can you give us some background on your company and the services you provide?

Our goal at Relativity is to help students develop a college plan in which they can demonstrate who they really are. I was fortunate enough to be at Brown and Oberlin for a number of years, and they are big believers in holistic admissions, in looking at the whole individual. We named our company Relativity because we believe that while test scores and grades are really, really important in college admissions, it’s all relative.

What we try to do is develop the whole picture: help create a list of schools, help create a testing schedule, help students write their essays, help them write their applications, help them prepare for interviews if they’re going to have those. Help them find out what other contacts might be important at a college — for example, if they’re an athlete, or a musician, or a theater person, how they might reach out to a coach or prepare for an audition. We also think about how students can use the summers to enhance their applications. A lot of students forget that while they might do certain things during the school year, there are many other things they can do over the summers to add to their resumes and make themselves better applicants.

Tell us a bit more about your personal and educational background and expertise.

I have over 20 years of experience, primarily in college counseling. Most of it was at Poly Prep here in Brooklyn, but I also worked up at Andover and Milton in Massachusetts. I am now working as a consultant at EF Academy in Westchester County, which is primarily an international boarding school, so it has broadened my exposure to more international kids. And then I have 20 years of college admissions and athletic experience in places like Brown, Cornell, Northwestern, and Oberlin.

What kinds of students do you generally work with?

I’ve worked with many athletes, and I’ve been very active on LGBT issues — I was one of the leaders for the Gay Rights Bill to be passed in Rhode Island when I was at Brown, and I was the first openly gay college athletic director and college coach. So I’ve been very active in making sure that students find a safe place to be successful. I’ve done a lot of outreach with international students, and certainly here in New York I’ve worked with students interested in both the public and private sector in terms of schools.

At what age should students start thinking about college and college applications?

I’m a firm believer that students should start by the beginning of their sophomore years. When they start much later than that, they begin to feel rushed. For example, the sophomore year is the first time most students will take the PSAT. While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking it the first time without additional preparation, the PSAT can be a real launching point. It can help students decide what they need to work on, and whether the SAT or the ACT will be a better test for them. So beginning the process in sophomore year is really important.

What is your process for working with a student?

It’s important for every student to have his or her own timeline, because every student is different. If we start early enough, we can be involved in course selection, advising students about the right courses to take. The line I always say is, “Take the most demanding curriculum that you can be successful in.” I think a lot of times kids take courses just to take courses. I would much rather see them take courses they can be successful in, and/or enjoy taking. Also, starting early in the process means we can get involved earlier with test prep and making thoughtful decisions in terms of balance.

I also do a one-on-one with students to talk about their dreams, their goals, and their ambitions, and I do a one-on-one with parents to make sure that we’re in sync. And then, as we get closer to senior summer — of course we can’t even do the Common App until late in the summer before the senior year — I work with students on application preparation. I work with them on their essays, and just make sure that they are moving in a good direction.

The ideal scenario for a lot of kids is that they pick their top school early, apply early, get in, and then they’re done with the process by January 1st. The alternative to that is the student who doesn’t apply early, who doesn’t want to do it or isn’t ready to do it, or who wants to keep his or her options open.

When we get to March and April and students start receiving decision letters, I talk with them about going back and revisiting, staying on the campus overnight, and making sure that this is a good connection. An additional piece on top of that is working with students who get waitlisted, and negotiating the waitlist process.

My philosophy is that I’m involved with students from beginning to end, but where “end” is located is very different for different students.

Let’s talk application essays. In your experience, what makes an application essay dull or non-compelling?

An essay that regurgitates what’s already in the application. In the common application, students list all of their activities — and they’re supposed to list them in order of priority. Many times, students will write essays that just regurgitate what they already have on the app. The essay really should be an opportunity to tell something unique about a student: to tell a story. Who are they? What are they passionate about? What can they bring to the university? Something that catches the university’s attention. That’s what I look for in an essay: that it resonates with me and makes me say “oh, that’s cool.”

The flipside is an essay that is generic and straightforward, and doesn’t have the voice of the student in it. It’s important that we work with students as consultants and as educators, but the student’s voice still needs to come through. Our job is to give guidance, but not to necessarily alter their story.

Are there any essay subjects that students should avoid?

One of the lines I heard from admissions at Brown was, “hopefully they won’t write about the three Ds.” Those are: death, divorce, and disease. Obviously a student can write a very thoughtful essay about any of those things, but many times they’re not telling their story, they’re telling their reaction to something that they witnessed. It can work, but I think sometimes going off in a different direction and writing about what they’re really excited about can be better. What gets them motivated to get up in the morning?

Also, there are some things that students might think look really great for colleges, but are actually an indication of privilege, such as organized trips where they are on a beach for three days and helping build something for two days. Sometimes things like that can be a turn-off on an application. So I think that it’s important for students who have access and resources to demonstrate how they have used them to do something good.

What about parental involvement? Is there a point in the process at which parents might want to take a step back?

There are those parents who are really involved, but who will step back, and then there are the helicopter parents who would prefer to oversee every aspect of the operation. For my process, I want to get to know the student and to talk to the student one on one without parents. I want to get a sense of what the student cares about, what they’re passionate about, what they’re interested in for the future. And then I’m happy to have the same conversation with the parents, apart from the child, to compare their different goals and interests. It’s important to be on the same page; I say very clearly to families: “If you’re going to hire me, I’m here to work with your child and to help them get what they want out of this process. It’s really about them.” It’s really, really important to make sure that students get to know me and trust me, and that the parents’ agenda doesn’t drive the entire process.

Why is it important for tutors and advisors to be honest with students and parents about their chances of getting in?

One of the lines I’ve always used in college counseling at a school, and I think it applies in this situation as well, is that I’d rather have a student be mad at me early in the process than at the end of the process. I want to make sure we’re protecting students from having these terrible disappointments in March and April, when all of a sudden, they get a series of rejections and only get into one or two schools. I think it’s important to really be honest and realistic with families in terms of prospects.

What’s a common misstep you’ve seen students and parents make in the college admissions process?

When I was at Brown, we would often see students who overstuffed their files. These students feel like the more letters of recommendation they get from anybody that their family knows, the better their chances. And then they basically have a resume packet that they send that has pictures of awards that they got back in 6th, 7th, and 8th grades — you know, those don’t help the process. A joke I’ve heard from college admissions officers is “the thicker the file, the thicker the child.” So you don’t want to have that kind of occurrence, where a college has a negative reaction because you tried to do too much.

Some people also think that having influential people recommend them will be really helpful, but lots of times those people have never even met the child. I remember a letter that I got once at Brown said, “If so-and-so is anything like his father, he’ll be a great addition to your community.” Clearly, the recommender never even met the kid! So I sometimes educate families on this process and on what’s right and what’s wrong, what can help and what can hurt.

You mentioned that you do a lot of work with athletes and others who are recruited for their special talents or abilities. In your experience, what is the role of extracurriculars? Should all students be participating in extracurriculars at a high level?

You know, I mentioned a student finding their passion. For an athlete, athletics is their passion. For a musician, what they do in music is their passion. For an artist, what they do in art is their passion. So I think that in terms of extracurriculars, activities that demonstrate passion are really important.

I wrote a book a couple of years ago called Getting In, coauthored with Steve Cohen, and one of the things that he stressed in the book, which is something that I always believe in college admissions, is that colleges are not looking for well-rounded individuals — they’re looking for a well-rounded class. And what that exactly means, is that they don’t want a student who just has a boilerplate of activities but hasn’t really focused on one or two. The college wants to bring lots kids to campus who are really good at something; when you put all of them together, you’ve got a class.

We support that by helping students identify the things that they really enjoy, and that they are really passionate about, and with which they can develop leadership skills. And again, by starting younger and really using the summer, students can start to think about those things much earlier than if they come to us in the middle of the junior year. For example, if the student’s interest is in medicine, they might get involved in shadowing a doctor or doing some research. Those kinds of things are going to really impress a college.

At Noodle Pros, we have lots of students who use the summers to prep for the SAT and ACT; how can students balance test prep with other summer activities and extracurriculars?

What’s interesting to me is watching how an athlete balances their time in terms of practice time, participation in competitions, and keeping up with their schoolwork and their studies. And I think all students can do that. They just have to create a healthy balance.

Also, one of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about working with test prep people over the years, is that the best ones identify exactly what they believe a student can accomplish through testing. I’m a firm believer, and I know a lot of test people would agree with me on this, that you don’t flog a dead horse. A really good tutor has a sense of — “you’ve reached what we thought you could reach.” And then if you need to prime something, take the ACT one more time because you’re applying to schools that superscore, fine. All well and good. But by the time students get to summer before their senior year, they should be pretty far along in their testing. So they can still enjoy their summer, and perhaps focus on the exact aspect of the test that they need to develop.

Are there three questions that you typically ask in your first meeting with a student?

There’s a multiplicity of questions that I would ask, but one that would be consistent is, “What are three words that you could use to describe yourself?” And then I follow that up with, “What are three words that you think others would use to describe you?” Because I’m curious to see if they identify a difference.

The Second thing is that I try to find out if there is something they’re passionate about, or something they get excited about. Because if I find out the student already has a passion that we can build upon, all the better than trying to develop one.

And then finally I say, “If you had to describe your ideal college, what would it be?” Realizing that a year, year-and-a-half, or two years from now it may be very different. But for right now, let’s get a starting point and build from there.

Do you have a top piece of advice for students who are applying to competitive universities?

I don’t want to beat this to death, but I really think what’s important is that passion piece that you bring to a campus. The admissions office wants to know what differentiates you from everybody else who applies. Everybody who is applying to these highly competitive schools has good test scores and good grades. What’s that piece that makes you a little bit different, or a common thread of who you are, that makes you a positive addition to a particular community?

It goes back to what I spoke about before, regarding the well-rounded class versus the individual. The universities are looking for that, so anything we can do to build upon it is really important.


Interested in working with Michael Muska? Contact him via the Relativity College Consulting website for more information.

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