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.

Franca Rawitz founded ReadySetCollege to give students and parents some expert guidance through the college admissions process. With her 24/7 support, students learn to see the college search as an exciting journey rather than a series of roadblocks, and find confidence, clarity, and ease with their college applications. Franca spoke with Noodle Pros about helping students meet deadlines early, why college visits matter, and how to stay grounded while reaching for the stars.

Give us a little bit of background information on ReadySetCollege and the services you offer.

I’ve been a college admissions advisor for 12 years, and I help students through every stage of the process. Some students come to me as early as 9th or 10th grades; I might advise a 9th or 10th grader to take an SAT Subject Test, or to expand (or shrink) certain extracurriculars to enhance their applications later on down the road. But the bulk of my families come to me in 11th grade, because that’s when things really start to ramp up.

I strongly encourage students to start visiting colleges and building their college lists by the fall of 11th grade. I work with my 11th grade students on their essays, and I work with my rising seniors in the summer between 11th and 12th grades on the rest of their applications. If students can get most of this heavy duty work out of the way by the fall of senior year, they are freed up to travel to more schools, do overnight visits, and take the SAT or ACT if needed. My whole goal is to make the process more manageable for students and parents, especially as they get closer to admissions deadlines.

What is your personal educational background? How did you get into the field of admissions advising?

I have a master’s in biology and a master’s in journalism. I was a medical writer for about 25 years, and then I switched course when I was going through the college application process with my own children. I saw how time consuming it was, not just for them, but for me as a parent. I realized that this is a service that I could offer to parents who are working full time, and don’t have the time to go listen to lectures, research schools, and go through that whole process.

I also have both personal and professional experience working with students with learning disabilities. My older son has learning disabilities, so I went through the process with him, and I have done so with many other students over the years. Learning disabilities add an extra layer of research, in terms of knowing what academic support services to look for and understanding what options are available at particular schools.

What are three questions you always ask in your first session with a student?

In the first meeting, I’m really trying to get a sense of who the student is. So my first question is, “What do you do outside of school?” This gives me a sense of extracurriculars.

Next, “What are your favorite subjects in school?” So I find out about any strengths, any direction in terms of interests, If this is a STEM kid or an artsy kid, etc.

And the third question is, “When you picture yourself on a college campus, what do you see?” You get more creative answers to that one, and it gives me insights into the student’s personality and what they are really looking for. That’s often a springboard to other kinds of questions as well.

Do you find that many students have clear preferences about the size of a school?

I’ve had students say to me, “Well I’m in such a small high school right now, I don’t want to be in a small school.” Of course, what they don’t realize is that there’s a big difference between 100 students per grade at a small high school, and 2.5k students at a “small” college. Even a small school can feel much bigger! So I encourage students to visit at least one school in each category at the beginning, so that they feel the difference between a school that has 2.5k kids versus a school that has 5k, versus one that has 12k.

Can you walk us through your process of working with a student, from beginning to end?

Well it begins with an initial consultation with the family, where we talk through a realistic timeline for the student — either very specific tasks, if they’re coming to me later in their process, or more broad tasks if they’re coming to me in 9th or 10th grade.  We talk about tests and test-prep, and I encourage the student to visit schools as early as possible. Later, I meet with students to find out what they liked and didn’t like on their school visits, and which schools are staying on their list. I call the school list a “work in progress,” because it may be modified up until the last minute based on visits, test scores, and many other factors.

I start working with students on essays and applications in the summer before senior year, and that obviously goes into the fall. I make sure that students order their score reports to be sent to their schools. I make sure that they tell their school counselors when and where to send transcripts. We talk about early decision and early action. We draft a student resume. I make sure that they really stay on the job, from when they first come to me until they are actually submitting applications in the fall.

You mentioned test prep. What is your advice regarding test prep and the SAT and ACT?

I always include test prep in initial consultations, because many students don’t build in enough time for the tests. They think that because they’ve been studying a subject all year in school, they can just take the tests — maybe do a little bit of self prep, pick up a book and prep for a couple of weeks. And I tell them these tests are harder than they think. I strongly encourage families to invest in at least a little bit of test prep, even on the SAT Subject Tests. And certainly there’s a lot of discussion around which test is easier, the ACT or the SAT. A lot of families still don’t know that you don’t have to take both! There are a lot of misconceptions about testing out there. So I encourage students to focus on the tests as soon as possible, and to build test prep time into their school schedules.

In regards to prep options, I always recommend one-on-one tutoring. People often look to save money on taking classes, but they just don’t get as much out of it. I will also encourage students to switch tutors if they aren’t making enough progress; that’s why I like to partner with multiple tutors, so if one approach doesn’t work, I have someone else to recommend who might get a better outcome for the student. And these days I’m certainly recommending Noodle Pros quite often, because you have such a variety of people with all sorts of expertise and experience.

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

A very big part of what I do is serve as the buffer between parents and the students. That’s why they’re hiring me!

Many parents come to this process with preconceived notions of where their kids should go. What I really try to do is open their minds a little bit, and let them know that there are so many schools out there that may be better suited to what a student is trying to do. I also try to put a sense of ownership on the student as early as possible, because the process really has to be driven by the student.

Before a family goes on a campus visit, I have a meeting with them. I give parents good questions to ask, I help them to contact the admissions people in advance, all of those tasks for before, during, and after. I also tell parents that during the campus visit, at some point, they should let their son or daughter walk around the campus alone for at least an hour. It’s really going to feel different when they’re walking around the campus solo, versus standing in a tour group next to their mother. The student needs to look at the other kids on campus, sit in the cafeteria and scan the room, just get a sense of “Are these the kinds of kids I want to be in school with?” I also tell parents to refrain from rattling off what they thought about a school at first, but to ask the student, “What did you like?” “What didn’t you like?” and to get the student to start writing these things down. Because not only is it important for students to verbalize their feelings about the schools they visit, they will also be writing down details that they may want to reference in their applications.

Another area where I really insist that parents step back is the essay. I can’t tell you how many parents write the essay for their student. Other than helping with brainstorming, once a student has an idea of what she wants to write about, parents just have to leave it alone. Sometimes the parents don’t like what a student is writing about, but I have to say, “This is a unique essay. It’s sweet, it’s genuine, and that’s really all it has to be.” The essay really needs to reflect a student’s unique personality, and give admissions officers a sense of who that student is.

The only exception to telling parents to stay out of it as much as possible would be when a student has learning disabilities. I do encourage parents to be a little bit more involved in those cases, because the parents are usually the most knowledgeable and realistic about the academic supports that a student will continue to need.

Let’s go back to talking about essays. Are there any essay topics that you would tell students to avoid?

I tell students to stay away from politics and religion, you know, the usual things. That said, it all depends on how they’re coming at it. If a student feels very personally connected to religion or social issues and wants to write about them, the main theme just needs to be focused on the student’s personality and passion, not the topic itself.

The essays are absolutely critical. One of the handouts that I give out in my presentations is “The Top Five Factors in Admissions.” The essay is actually number three — right after grades and scores. So students really do need to spend a good amount of time on it; it’s the only way for schools to really get a sense of their personality, of who they really are.

What is a common misstep that you see students and parents making in the admissions process?

I think the most common mistake is not following through on the application. Once students hit “submit,” they have to follow up and make sure that the admissions office has received their test scores, has received the application in full, has received the supplement, has received the recommendations. The follow up is very important, because I can’t tell you how many applications still get lost, misplaced, or mixed up with other things. After all that hard work, students need to make sure that everything is there.

What is your number one piece of advice for students who are applying to competitive schools and programs?

Reach for the stars, but be realistic. I don’t discourage students from applying to schools that they really want to go to, but I tell them that there are absolutely no guarantees. And they can’t take it too personally. That really applies to all students, not only the ones who are applying to selective schools.

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Interested in working with Franca Rawitz? Contact her via the ReadySetCollege website for more information.

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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.