#AdmissionsPros: Standing Out With Mona Molarsky of The College Strategist

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

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Mona Molarsky is a New York City-based college admissions counselor. Through her company, The College Strategist, Mona helps high school students and their parents navigate every stage of the admissions process. Read on for Mona’s advice on parental involvement, moving beyond grades and test scores, and the importance of starting to think about college early.

What services do you provide at The College Strategist?

I offer high school students and their parents one-on-one counseling and attention through every stage of the college search and admissions process. That includes the helping students evaluate their academic course loads and extracurricular activities during the early years of high school, working with them to develop their college lists and plan their college admissions strategies and visits during the middle years, and offering guidance on essays and application strategies during senior year and the summer before.

Throughout the process I concentrate on what makes the student unique and what they can contribute to the campus community they hope to join.

And what is your personal educational background?

I graduated from Columbia University, where I majored in English, with a focus on writing and journalism. After graduation, I worked for many years as a researcher at the glossy magazines—including Vanity Fair, Vogue, Glamour and People. I’ve written articles about travel and the arts for magazines and newspapers, and I’ve worked on high school language arts textbooks that introduce students to English literature and help them develop advanced reading and writing skills.

What kinds of students do you work with?

I work with all sorts of students. Many are high-achievers who are at the top of their classes and hope to get admitted to the most selective colleges in America. The challenge is to help them figure out how they are different from all the other high-achieving students who are applying to the same schools. That’s what colleges want to know.

Every student is different and has different hopes and different needs. No matter who I’m working with, my goal is always to help a student find a college where they will be happy.

What are 3 questions you always ask in your first meeting with a client?

One of first questions I ask a student is what they enjoy doing in their free time. Usually that prompts a teenager to describe an organized, extracurricular activity that they participate in. That’s interesting, and I make note of it.

Next, I ask what they like to do when they have really free time, time that has not been structured in advance. What do they enjoy doing when no adults are looking over their shoulder? Often kids are involved in unusual activities that they don’t bother mentioning to adults, because they don’t consider them “impressive.” For example, one of my students confessed that she ran her own website, whose purpose was to introduce teenagers to classical Chinese poetry. Her website had thousands of followers, but she’d never mentioned this to any of the adults in her life, since she didn’t think it was “resume material.” She was so wrong!

So the answer to this question helps me understand who a person really is and what makes them special.

I also ask every student what their hopes and dreams about their future are—their future after college. Some students know exactly what they want to do with their lives — or they think they do — and they are super-focused. But many high school students tell me they have no fantasies about their lives after college. They’ve been so intent on doing well in school and acing all the tests, that they just haven’t given much thought to what comes afterwards. I encourage kids to recognize that there are thousands of possible futures out there. I try to help them open up their imaginations and have fun thinking about the possibilities their adult lives will offer.

At what stage in the college admissions process do you usually start working with students? What part of the process do you tackle first?

I prefer to start with clients during their freshman or sophomore years of high school, because that gives us time to explore ideas such as internships, extracurricular activities and summer plans, while they still have the time to adjust their schedules.

When students come to me in junior year, we need to get down to business quickly. I lay out the basic principles of college admissions and how to plan an effective strategy. Then we jump into college lists and college visits, hoping to organize a savvy travel plan before spring break. Next, I get students going on the personal essay, so they have a head start.

If a student comes to me for the first time during senior year (or the summer before), it’s a mad dash. We focus on the essays—first the personal essay, then the supplements. We begin by brainstorming ideas, then the student starts writing, and I critique their drafts. The writing process usually takes longer than students expect, because it’s not just about style, it’s about strategy and how to best present oneself. This intensive one-on-one writing, critiquing and editing process is a great learning experience, and helps students prepare for the advanced writing they’ll be asked to do in college. It’s best for them to do this during the summer before senior year, because, no matter how you slice it, the fall of senior year is always packed with activities and deadlines.

What is your perspective on parental involvement? When should a parent not be involved?

This is a complicated issue. Of course, parents should be involved in a student’s school search. Generally, they are the ones who will be paying the college bills, which means they should get to have a say in where their son or daughter goes. But, if a parent tries to take control of the entire search and application process, it robs the student of an essential growing-up experience. Today this is happening more and more. The college search and application processes represent opportunities for teenagers to start taking on more responsibility. That’s how I approach it.

For example, the student should be the one who does the research and contacts the schools for information. When it’s time for college visits, the student is the one who should speak with the admissions staff, while the parent stays in the background. And parents should not get involved in the student’s essay. Generally, they are too close to have much perspective.

What is your perspective on test prep?

Like many people in college admissions, I don’t think test scores are the best way to gauge college applicants. However, hundreds of schools do rely on these tests, along with other measures, to make their admissions decisions. As long as this is the case, some students will turn to test prep for an advantage. Because of this reality, if students’ scores don’t fall into the middle-to-upper ranges of the scores of admitted students at the colleges they hope to attend, I advise them to consider doing test prep.

Are there any topics that students should avoid when it comes to application essays?

In general, it’s best to avoid well-worn subjects such as your participation in an athletic, scientific or musical competition—whether or not you won. Also, nobody wants to hear overly personal confessions, like the embarrassing time you wet the bed at overnight camp.

What is another common misstep you see students and parents making when it comes to admissions?

Many students and parents don’t start the college counseling process soon enough. For maximum effect, you should start learning the ropes during sophomore year of high school. High school goes faster than anyone expects it will, and you don’t want to start senior year without a carefully planned college admissions strategy already in place.

Why are good grades and test scores not enough for today’s students?

Today there are so many students with top grades and test scores that the more selective colleges are overwhelmed with them. Admissions directors at Harvard and Princeton have said that every year they could fill their freshman class twice over with students from their applicant pools, and still be forced to reject many top students. The Ivy League schools are not the only ones facing this embarrassment of riches. This is the situation at many good colleges. Now top applicants don’t just come from all across America, they come from all around the world.

Colleges want students who are more than just an impressive set of numbers. They’re looking for students who are deeply involved in interesting activities and really stand out from the crowd. They want students who will make a contribution to the campus community, intellectually and socially.

What is your #1 piece of advice for students who are applying to highly selective colleges?

It’s important to know that — once you’ve met the necessary academic benchmarks — it’s the qualities that make you unique that will help you gain admission to the most selective colleges. These schools are looking for future leaders, people who think in interesting ways, are passionately engaged in meaningful activities and are capable of challenging the status quo to make our world a better place.

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Interested in working with Mona Molarsky? Contact her via her website for more information.

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

KC is a writer and educator for Noodle Pros, and is currently earning her MA in Educational Theatre and English at NYU's Steinhardt School. She is from a big family of gifted and 2E kids (and parents), and is passionate about creating inclusive learning environments for all children.