Jeb White is the founder of CollegeAdmissions.com. In his new book Breaking Into College, he gives you the formula for getting into America’s most selective colleges.
The dirty truth is that many students slide past gate-keepers with the help of consultants, tutors, coaches, and essay writers. Jeb teaches the smart way to avoid getting rejected, by ensuring your kid’s application stands apart from everybody else’s.
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- How to approach going into college like an attorney
- Where college applications go really wrong
- How the Mountain Exercise helps students and parents alike
How Breaking Into College Changes the Admissions Game
Charlie Hoehn: How can young people get into America’s most selective colleges?
Jeb White: By practice, I’m an attorney. I’ve represented whistle-blowers in cases involving fraud on the government for a number of years. We had one of our cases hit for a large number, which got the attention of one of my colleges that I attended. They came out for a fund-raising visit to talk to me.
During that conversation, they asked me, “What did you enjoy about attending our college?” I mentioned a number of things, and I said, “You know, one of the things that bothered me is that most of the people that I had classes with were from a different economic background than I was.” I came from a working-class background.
They said, “Well, you know, things have changed but a lot of things haven’t. A lot of students who are coming from those backgrounds are not able to make it to the top of the admissions pile. The chances of catching the attention of the admissions officers are becoming increasingly more difficult because the people who can afford admissions consultants are hiring them.”
Everybody is trying to package their application the same way that their public school counselors are telling them to.
“They’re getting what everyone else is getting: a rejection letter.”
It bothered me that it’s getting harder and harder for working-class families to get into some of these more selective colleges.
For me, it was a gateway to a better life. I thought that somebody should do something. I decided I should do something. Writing a book was one way I could help alleviate this problem.
Charlie Hoehn: How is your approach different then from what high school counselors are telling kids to do?
Jeb White: The common theme throughout my book is that you should approach applying to college as you would as if you were an attorney.
Whenever you bring your case to a jury, you want to make sure that your case is cohesive, coherent, impactful, and persuasive. The best way to do that, I have found, is also applicable to admissions world.
You bring forward how you are strong in a particular area or need that is of interest to the college. You make that the storyline, or the opening statement. Then that’s backed up by corroborating evidence of essays, teacher recommendations, and extracurricular activities.
“The admissions committee buys into your storyline because you back it up with corroborating evidence.”
For a lot of school counselors, the old way of doing it is that you try to make yourself appear well-rounded. And a lot of school counselors still applying this old approach.
It simply doesn’t work.
Focused Applications are More Effective
Charlie Hoehn: Does that mean basically that you’re trying to show that you can do it all?
Jeb White: Exactly. Jack of all trades, master of none. If you try to make yourself look like you’re so good in so many different areas, you come across like so many others.
The only way to stand out is by making yourself stand out in your area of particular strength. Play up that area, highlight it, and spotlight it for the admissions officers.
That’s the way we’re hardwired, right? We want to see people stand out in certain areas. Colleges are no longer looking for the well-rounded student.
They’re looking for the well-rounded student body. They need different places, different roles to be played by students, and you just simply aren’t going to be able to do that for all the different areas for a university.
Charlie Hoehn: Who is Breaking into College really for? Is this for the student or is it for the parent or is it for the high school counselor?
Jeb White: The answer is yes. It’s for all three. What I’ve seen play out is the parent finds the book first, which happens 99% of the time. Then they work through the book with their student, and there comes a point where they sit down with their school counselor.
“When the school counselor tries to push them back towards the old way of doing things, the book comes out from a purse or from a backpack and the discussion starts from there.”
I’ve given this book to hundreds of people, and it’s our goal to give it out to 10,000 people in the next year. School counselors seem to be receiving it the most. They recognize that they can’t keep up with the evolving trends of the college admissions world, and this playbook is welcome.
It’s helping them realize that there’s a new way to do it that really has seen better results for students.
Tailor Your Application to Their Need
Charlie Hoehn: What are you emphasizing?
Jeb White: We’re taking off the desire to hit every checkbox and include everything you’ve ever done in the history of mankind in high school. That simply is the wrong approach.
Once people work through the book, it’s a very tailored application that speaks to that student.
For example, I was working with a student who was very good at languages, so she spent a lot of time starting clubs that helped students learn new languages. She was an ESL tutor working with students who were trying to master English but Spanish was the first language.
She was also involved in the field hockey team. Although it was a big part of her schedule, it was not something that we highlighted in her application.
“There are 48,000 high schools in America and 19,000 slots in the Ivy league.”
There are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of field hockey players applying to the Ivy league. But people who have shown or demonstrated interest and talent in languages are very few. It’s an area that’s in need for a lot of colleges.
They have a linguistics department that they need to beef up. They have programs and clubs that they need to make sure are filled. We highlighted that strength in her essays, in her teacher recommendations. We went to teachers who had taught her languages and talked about the enthusiasm that she had for that area, and we also talked about it in her interviews.
Everything about her package spoke to that strength. Field hockey became one of the things that yes, she included, but it was not spotlighted in her application.
We also don’t start with what the interest of the school is. We start from chapter one: what are the passions, skillsets, and strengths of the student. Then we try to find a college where that matches up.
“If you chase significance or the rankings list, you end up with a student who ends up at a college where they’re miserable.”
Start with their strengths and passions and then find a college where that is a particular need and marry the two. You are looking for student X, I am that student.
Well over half the time, parents will email me or call me or approach me and say, “I wish I had this book when I was going through the high school process.”
The Mountain Exercise
Jeb White: There is a chapter in the book that’s about trying to figure out where your passion is. It’s called The Mountain Exercise. I have parents go through this exercise too and then go through career changes afterward.
It’s an exercise to help students, but it’s for everybody. At no point in your life are you at the end of the road.
The Mountain Exercise does that. It came out of my own similar awakening. I was in my front yard playing soccer with my six-year-old son. The beautiful thing about soccer, unlike baseball or football, is that you don’t really have to look at the person.
When kicking the ball back, you just generally kick in their direction. So it is really good for multi-tasking. I could take a conference call, kick the ball in his general direction and continue on with my call.
When the conference call ended, he’s like, “Dad, I got to tell you what happened about in school.” At that moment, my phone rings again. “Hold on, I have to take this. It’s on my schedule.”
“I put the phone up to my ear and kicked the ball back towards him, and the ball never came back.”
His eyes were welling up. So I said, “Hold on guys.” I put the phone down and said, “Finley what’s going on?”
He said, “Dad, how do I get on your schedule?”
That’s a dagger to the heart. To this day, I actually have it on my computer, “How do I get in on your schedule?” It’s a reminder to me.
Here I was at the top of what I perceive as my mountain. I’m in it. Helping out with cases at the US Supreme Court as a lawyer and presenting to Congress on different points of national concern, but I am missing out at home. I am looking at one mountain and looking over saying I should be over on this other mountain.
That was one of my wake-up calls. There are so many people like me who ultimately get to some point and you’re like, “Wait a second, what am I doing here?”
“I am working so hard to climb this ladder, and it is leaning up against the wrong wall.”
Parents identify with that chapter, and they walk their students though it because they don’t want them to have that experience. There is an opportunity early in life to identify where you have some strength and compassion. Try to steer your college admissions process to put you in a position where you are living a life of not only success but of fulfillment.
Connecting Counselors, Students, and Parents
This book is a playbook for students, but it allows parents to play a more effective role. When you talk to parents at the end of the day, every parent is going to tell you that they just want their child to be happy.
But there is a disconnect at some point in the college admissions process. A lot of students and especially parents fall into this trap of feeling like they have to keep up with a certain level.
The old keeping up with the Joneses story. You have to do certain things. They have to go to certain colleges. And then it just doesn’t quite fit the need of the student.
My hope is that this book will help steer parents in a healthier direction. If they approach it in a way that will help their child and allow them to go on the path that is best for them, it will allow for a healthier relationship between the parent and the student.
For a lot of counselors, it’s just simply a matter of numbers. There are 500 students for every one school counselor.
“The ratio simply doesn’t allow the counselor the time, money, or resources to devote to a particular student.”
They need help, and the parents need help to help them along the path. That really is the purpose of the book. It’s to give them a way to make an informed decision. To put them on a better path and not allow them to not fall into some of these traps that do a lot of damage to the student and to the parent-child relationship.
Changing the Numbers Game
Charlie Hoehn: Is there anything else in your book that goes against conventional wisdom?
Jeb White: There is a chapter that talks about the SAT and the ACT. It’s one of the smaller chapters, and I do that for a reason. There is a lot of focus on numbers in the college admissions process. “What is your SAT, your ACT, your GPA?” This idea that you can reduce somebody to a number.
I really try to go against that. Numbers get you so far. But if you want to go to the most selective college in America, everyone appears the same at a certain point. The numbers aren’t going to tell the full story.
Yes, there are certain thresholds that you have to clear, but if you’re so focused on your SATs, your ACTs, it can take away from your ability to excel outside of the classroom. You’re really putting yourself behind the eight ball. A large focus of your time and effort should be on doing things that make an impact.
“It’s not about making a high score in your SAT.”
It is about leaving your school and your community in a better place. At the end of the day, the admissions committee is looking for a student who is not just showing up and making good grades. Anybody can sit in a dorm room and study for hours and hours and make a good grade. They are looking for students who are going to show up and actually contribute something of significance to their school.
You need to show that by doing that at a high school level. The way to do that is not by just taking on a leadership role. It is by taking on a project or doing something that’s going to show that you were there. You are leaving your mark.
This book is about that. It’s not about showing up in the classroom and getting good grades. Those are important, but it is really about making sure that you are showing up outside of the classroom and making an impact on your community.
Breaking Into College Success Stories
Charlie Hoehn: What are some of the projects that you’ve seen that are shoe-ins into these higher tier schools?
Jeb White: There is a student that I worked with a couple of years ago named Colin. He was heading into his senior year of high school, so we’re late in the game. He had an interest in computer science.
The word computer appeared nowhere in his list of activities.
I said, “You know there’s nothing here that says computer, but you want to tell colleges that you have this passion and strength in computers. Is there some need that the school has?”
He thought about it and said, “Well we don’t have a computer science club at our school.”
He lived in a part of a country where basic internet is pretty slow. So, in his senior year he went to the administration of his school and got funding to start a computer science club.
He just founded the club, so there is nothing in there to point to results from that club. But the mere fact of founding a club shows initiative, and it was in his area of interest. So he was able to write his essay about that.
Part of his essay to Johns Hopkins was his interest in computer science and starting a computer science club geared toward entrepreneurs at Johns Hopkins. He went to Johns Hopkins and ultimately founded that club.
“He saw that there was a need, and his record of being an initiator would translate.”
Sometimes even late in the game, if you are able to show you’re able to take initiative and start something that’s consistent with a need of a particular school, you get yourself a lot further than just being the president of a computer science club that’s always been there.
Persuasion Tactics for College Admissions
Charlie Hoehn: So it helps if you have something that you can show you have a history of doing something successfully and you’d like to do it for them too?
Jeb White: Yeah that’s exactly right. These are persuasion tactics. The same persuasion tactics that we use on the courtroom apply here, and they apply at any stage in your career. You want to show not tell. You want to show through your track record or evidence of success, that you have shown up in your life and made an impact. When you do that, it is just natural.
People start to think about themselves.
“How is that going to translate when you work for me, if I allow you into this college?”
How is that going to translate if we get into a relationship? By seeing how other people performed in the past, it’s just natural that you are going to say, “Oh I wonder how that would work for me if you work for me?” That’s why I spend a lot of time in the book telling stories. There are a lot of my personal stories in here and stories of my students.
I want people to see themselves in the stories. It is possible to do what others have done. It’s just a matter of making sure you follow the playbook.
Charlie Hoehn: Could you share with me your favorite story from the book?
Jeb White: I tell my personal story because I want people to know that I’ve been there. I was near rock bottom, at least at a personal level.
At 15 years old, standing outside of my high school waiting for the bus, and my dad drove up in a U-Haul truck. My friends go, “Is that your dad?” I got in the truck with him and said, “Alright we have until the morning to move out.”
“We had moved 19 times up to that point.”
Moving in the dead of the night was a very common practice in my family. We moved for many different reasons. On that particular night, my brother and I made a game of “Let’s get the house boxed up.” Under 12 hours was our record.
We pulled out of the driveway and could see the police car pulling in the driveway as we left. That was just part of my childhood. That there is this uncertainty and instability, and we ended up moving again and again.
I went to three high schools in a period of one month.
Charlie Hoehn: The police car was pulling in your driveway as you all were leaving?
Jeb White: That’s right. That was my childhood. Three high schools in one month of my sophomore year. I said, “If I am going to get somewhere in life, I need to have some level of certainty.”
This life of insecurity is not putting me on a good path. I reached out to different teachers and shared my story and they said, “You need some level of stability.”
So I sent out applications to every boarding school in the country and said, “I have no money. I make good grades and I can play a little bit of football. Is there some spot in your school?”
I was able to get a financial aid package and a scholarship to a boarding school. That set me on a trajectory that ultimately led to where I am today. I am very thankful to that school.
“No matter where you are, no matter what level of insecurity and instability you have, there is some way to make that into a good story.”
I took what was a bad story for me and said, “Even through this turmoil and these struggles, I have been able to maintain good grades. Imagine what I can do for your school if I am there every single day?”
I was using the same playbook that I’m advocating now. If you take your perceived stumbling blocks and turn them into stepping stones, people really pull for the underdog.
If you paint yourself as the underdog who is able to succeed even through mounting challenges, people identify with that. They will pull for you and ultimately allow you into their school.
Applying Strategies from Breaking Into College
Charlie Hoehn: What is one thing they can do from your book this week to change their life for the better?
Jeb White: We talk a lot about having the right mindset. As you look at your life as it currently stands today, think about where you’d like to be five years from today. Why do you want to go there?
This is the mountain exercise. What is the particular summit? How will they know they will actually reach where they want to go?
Who can help them get up the mountain? Who’s been where they want to be. Ultimately, that can be a mentor. It could provide a roadmap and help them up that particular mountain.
Then, what obstacles do they see in front of them? What’s going to prevent them from getting there? It’s a very objective look at their future. It’s not a matter of getting into the victim mentality of saying, “I can’t do that.”
“What if you could do that?”
What if you could get to ultimately where you want to go? For my students that I work with, for example, in their freshman and sophomore year they say, “I want to go to a particular school.” I always ask them why? Why do you want to go to that particular school? Is it the prestige that you’re after? Or is it because that school is going to put you up in a position where you’re ultimately going to reach some higher career level?
And then I ask, “Is there anybody in your life who’s been there?” If not, I can supply those names for you.
“What obstacles do you perceive?” I have worked with students who have had a horrible freshman year. Their GPA is near 2.0, and they have desires to go to the Ivy league. They are stumbling out of their gate of their freshman year. I had a 1.7 GPA after my freshman year at Penn. My storyline then became that I worked up to a GPA that allowed me to get into a lot of other law schools across the country.
How? Because I made the opening storyline that I overcame the odds of my freshman year. I got focused.
For a lot of students in high school, it is a coming of age point where you’re really discovering how to study. You are finding yourself. Making that into a story of success is one way to do it.
“Identify what you perceive as obstacles and make it into a success story.”
It’s all a matter of seeing where you want to go. Identify why you want to go there. Identify people who can get you there. Try to make your obstacles into stepping stones to better things.
Charlie Hoehn: How can our listeners connect with and follow you?
Jeb White: If they go to collegeadmissions.com, that’s where I am. They actually can get a free copy of the book there. Just cover the shipping. I’ll ship your book anywhere. I speak to high schools across the country, and I give books to all the students who are in attendance.
It’s just a matter of getting the message out to the world. That’s what we’re trying to do here.