#AdmissionsPros: Consultant Brittany Maschal On De-Stressing College Admissions

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.

After a decade serving in various roles in higher education, Dr. Brittany Maschal branched out to form her own college admissions consulting firm: Brittany Maschal Consulting. Here, Brittany draws on her experiences working with students in the New York City tri-state area, across the country, and abroad, and shares her modern, “more transparency, less stress,” approach to undergraduate admissions.

Can you share some background information about your company and the services you provide?

I started my company about six years ago, after I had been working in higher education for 10 years. I had worked in a number of different roles at a number of different universities, in grad and undergrad services. I was a registrar, did advising, lots of different things, but I always kind of knew I wanted to do more one-on-one student work.

I had a couple of ex-colleagues who had gone into independent counseling, and they suggested that counseling might be something I would be really good at given my interest and experience in higher ed. So I left my job in higher education and launched my company, Brittany Maschal Consulting.

The main thing that I do is undergraduate college admissions counseling, really helping families through every part of the process. Most people come to me in 10th or 11th grade; I think that’s the ideal time, and it’s also the most popular time. We work on everything from figuring out what students’ academic interests and extracurricular interests are, to portfolio and digital footprint reviews.

Can you explain a bit more about the digital footprint review?

Sometimes, the image that students put out there through social media and Facebook can be pretty negative. But it doesn’t have to be! You can have a really positive social media presence or digital footprint. I try to make sure that students have that positive profile online.

You mentioned that you worked in higher education. What is your personal educational background? How did you get involved with higher ed?

I went to University of Vermont for undergraduate, thinking that I was going to be a teacher. I knew that I loved education, but I didn’t like the idea of going to the same place every day. I took some grad classes, and I was really excited to hear that you can be involved in education and not be a teacher. No one ever told me that before I went to college! So I ended up creating my own interdisciplinary education undergraduate degree, and then took a year off and went to Penn for grad school. I got my Master’s from Penn GSE in Educational Anthropology, and my doctorate in Higher Education.

What kinds of students do you generally work with?

All different types. I have students who are applying to the Ivy League schools, and then some whose goal school might be their state school. So It’s really the whole spectrum in terms of levels of selectivity. And then I also work with different types of families. I’m based in Brooklyn, but I would say that half of the families that I work with don’t live in New York or the tri-state area. Some are overseas, I used to live in California so I’ve worked with a lot of students in California… there really isn’t a “typical” student. In terms of interest, it’s also a spectrum. I always have some engineers, some artists, some business people.

Have you found Skype and other online platforms to be effective when working with students who are overseas or in another state?

Absolutely. When I first started doing this, it was very localized. I had actually worked for another advising company, and I found myself getting on the train every day and traveling to people’s houses… oftentimes, it actually wasn’t all that efficient! Students are so used to doing everything online; they’re used to doing meetings over FaceTime and Skype, they’re comfortable with it, and it’s easier for them (and me) to schedule.

Are there three questions that you always ask in your first intake meeting with a client?

I have a lot of questions! Actually, I have students fill out this really long questionnaire for me, which some of them probably hate. But I think that if I had to choose three main ones, the first would be what they think their greatest strengths are. A lot can be built from that when discussing what they might want to do in college. We also try to talk about the areas where students are feeling really good, and feeling really comfortable. And I usually ask about what they like to do outside of school, because that stuff really matters.

Essentially, I’m trying to get to know my students really well, to understand what they’re into, and to make myself super approachable to them.

Since you’re working with high school students, there’s probably some level of parental involvement in the process. What is your perspective on that? When should parents try to step back?

I have a pretty strict parent policy. Before a family signs on to work with me, they are asked to read a pretty lengthy document that includes some frequently asked questions and some notes about parental involvement. I generally speak with a family first, and then I do a meet and greet with just the student. I ask that the student set that up — and it’s really telling if a parent says “Oh, no, no, no” and wants to set the meeting up for their son or daughter. Sometimes that can be a red flag for me. I really expect, and actually only work with, students that are going to be 100% in the driver’s seat. That means they need to be able to communicate via e-mail. They need to be open to texting. They need to be at meetings on time. They need to be the ones driving the process, because that’s what they’re going to have to do in college. No better time to start than now1 I stay in touch with parents and don’t push them away, but I do try to push the student to own the process for themselves.

The other big thing about parental involvement comes up in the essays. Parents know the students better than I ever will over the course of the year or couple of years that we’ll work together. But the personal statement is just that: personal. And it can be very emotional. So I’ve found that it’s really beneficial for parents to be step aside, so that students can be genuine and authentic and confident in writing whatever they want to write that’s personal and important to them. I do think it’s good for parents read the final essay, and at that point we can come together and have a conversation about it, but it’s really best for parents not to give their opinions early on.

How much outside editing and re-working is appropriate for the essay? Is it possible to get too much help from advisors?

It depends a little bit on the student. I work with a lot of students who have learning differences, and it can be difficult for them to get that first draft out. For those students, I might do a live brainstorming and outlining session. But they always write it: it’s their work. I help students come up with ideas that best tell their stories, and help them do a type of writing that they’re not used to doing in high school: personal narrative. And I use a mix of reviewing and editing tactics, explaining any edits so that students understand every single suggested change. The hope is always that students will walk away being better writers.

Are there any are there any topics that you would say are off limits for admissions essays?

I would like to say that there aren’t any that are 100% off limits, but I’ve definitely read so many essays that are about people’s grandparents — and those essays always end up being about their grandparents and not actually about them. So that’s one that I’m a little bit sensitive on. But there is always a different way to do your essays, and so I never approach the beginning of the process saying, “Okay, don’t even THINK about writing about this, this, or this…” Because you just don’t know! You really have to brainstorm and see where things go.

What is your perspective on tests and test prep?

I kind of stay out of test prep and refer to people like you and the people who are experts on the tests, because that’s not my wheelhouse. But from my experience as a counselor, I do see that testing becomes a hurdle for a lot of students. And so when I’m working with a student early-on, maybe they’re in 10th grade, and they haven’t even started doing standardized test prep, I often recommend that they should start it sooner rather than later. I suggest using all of the resources available, things like the Kahn Academy, but really, especially if you’re on a strict timeline, maybe you’re late in your junior year, working with a tutor can be very helpful. It’s helpful to have someone look at a diagnostic and say, “This is where you are. This is where you want to go. This is what we need to do.” I’m really into looking ahead, having plans, and sticking to those plans, because the process can be kind of short depending on when you start it.

What do you think about college visits? Should students be carving out time to visit every campus?

You obviously need to visit a school and really get in there to know if it’s a fit. And I think there is an expectation that if you’re within driving distance, or you can hop on a train or a bus, that you should see a school. At some of the smaller schools, they’ll even meet with you — they’ll sit down and talk with you, and you’ll get a much better sense of the vibe of the school. And I think that’s really important for some students. Also, one thing that was a bit more pronounced this year than in past years was that, no matter what the common data-sets say about whether a school looks at demonstrated interest, I’ve witnessed demonstrated interest really mattering as a deciding factor and making a difference in admissions.

I’ve also been really lucky that a lot of the students I’ve worked with are friendly with me still, so I’m able to hook up a lot of my high school students with former students who are in college. Some of my high schoolers might not know anyone that goes to a school like Michigan, for example, so I can say, “well, I’ve got a couple of students there,” and connect them. And oftentimes my former students are willing to chat with them, and be really honest about what life is like going to that college.

Last question: what is your biggest piece of advice for students who are applying to selective colleges and programs?

I have lots of opinions and lots of things to say about students applying to highly selective schools. But the biggest one is, don’t go into the process from a standpoint of fear. I think that’s what a lot of students and families do: they go in fearful. They think, “I am not going to get into ‘X’ school.”

My thing is more transparency, less stress. I always get that question, “How do we get into this particular highly selective school?” And the process doesn’t work like that. In reality, you’re going to get into a lot of schools. You’re going to go to college. But I think a big part of my role and my responsibility is to shed light on the admissions data and help bring some transparency to the process. There are tons of schools that are awesome, and you’re going to be really happy at a lot of them — and you know, it might not be Princeton or Harvard or Yale. It might not even be a school in the top 20 or the top 30 for some students. And that’s okay. My hope is that students and families can be excited about the process, can go through it learning a lot about themselves and about these schools, and that it will be a positive experience.

Another thing I would add is that it’s really important to support students who are feeling rejected. And what I just talked about is one of the ways that we can steer the course a little bit differently. Colleges aren’t changing their admissions policies. Colleges aren’t changing how they evaluate candidates. So, if something needs to change, maybe we can change our mindset about the process. In the end, the name on your diploma does not matter as much as you think it does. There are so many really awesome schools in this country and abroad. And you can have a very happy and successful life going into any one of these hundreds and hundreds of really, really great schools.

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Interested in working with Brittany Maschal? Sign up for a consultation on her company website.

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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.