The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 69 Transcript

Host: Jennifer Gonzalez

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This is Jennifer Gonzalez welcoming you to episode 69 of the Cult of Pedagogy Podcast. In this episode, we’re going to talk about three surprising mistakes students make when trying to get into college, and what they should be doing instead.

I know a lot of you teach high school and middle school, and for many of your students and their families, getting into a good college is a top priority. It turns out that some of the conventional wisdom on how to get into those colleges is inaccurate. In other words, doing the things most people tell you to do in order to get into a highly competitive college might not actually help you at all. What’s worse, a lot of those things can be incredibly time consuming, energy draining, and expensive.

My guest today, Shirag Shemmassian, has had plenty of experience with college applications. He attended Cornell University and UCLA himself, spent some time as an admissions interviewer at Cornell, and now, through Shemmassian Academic Consulting, he teaches students and their families how to achieve college admissions success.

Over the years, Shirag has learned what factors really make colleges take notice, and what he has to share here might surprise you. If your students are actively (or even passively) thinking about what they need to do to be accepted by the college of their choice, my hope is that you will share this episode with them and their parents. For myself, as a parent of a delightful trio of pre-teens, I was relieved and excited to hear Shirag’s advice. I feel like I have a much better understanding of the direction we should be heading in over the next six or seven years.

I also hope that teachers will listen, so you can share these insights with your overscheduled, stressed out students.

Before we start, I’m going to take a moment to tell you about my brand-new technology course for teachers called JumpStart. I designed this online course especially for teachers who want to take a more thoughtful approach to using technology in the classroom.

The course is built around 10 processes. These are not specific tools, but ways to use technology that can have a big impact on student learning. For each module, we start by studying the process and how you can apply it in your classroom, then we do a hands-on project that gives you practice using that process with one tool. By the time you’re done with all 10 modules, you’ll not only have a great new set of tech skills, you’ll have a solid, smart method for integrating tech in a way that supports real learning in your classroom.

To learn more, visit and click on “The Course.”

I’d also like to thank you so much for the reviews you have left for this podcast on iTunes. These really help show other educators what kind of value they might be able to find here. If you think other teachers should be listening, but haven’t left a review yet, I would really appreciate it if you would take a few minutes today, head over to iTunes and tell me what you like about the show. Thanks so much.

Now let’s get some insights about college admissions from Shirag Shemmassian.

GONZALEZ: I would like to welcome Shirag Shemmassian to the program.

SHEMMASSIAN: Thanks for having me, Jennifer.

GONZALEZ: Thank you. Why don’t you go ahead and tell us a little bit about what you do.

SHEMMASSIAN: So I help high-achieving high school students get into America’s top college, so schools like Princeton, Stanford, MIT, UC-Berkeley, etc.

GONZALEZ: Got it. And what did you do before you were doing this work?

SHEMMASSIAN: So I’ve been doing this work for a number of years, it’s been nine-plus years now. But simultaneously I was in school in the first part of it, so I got my undergrad degree from Cornell University, and I got my Ph.D. in clinical psychology from UCLA, so I am a licensed clinical psychologist.

GONZALEZ: OK. And you also served as an admissions interviewer at Cornell?

SHEMMASSIAN: Yes. So I served as an alumni interviewer for a number of years.

GONZALEZ: OK. And so that’s informing the work that you’re doing now; you’ve had some experience in seeing how kids actually get into these difficult colleges to get into.

SHEMMASSIAN: Oh absolutely, yeah. So just my personal experience going through high stakes admissions multiple times, and then helping many, many students through the years, and then being an admissions interviewer gives you that behind-the-scenes look as well.

GONZALEZ: OK. And there’s also one more detail about you personally, about your own challenges that, if you don’t mind, I’d love for you to share, because I think that’s just something that makes you unique and may also lead other people to consult with you.

SHEMMASSIAN: Oh sure, yeah. So I grew up with Tourette’s syndrome. I was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome around 8 or 9 years old, so I was exhibiting a lot of facial ticks. There was so much stigma associated with that, not only in my school and community but also in my family, not really understanding what that would mean for me or maybe having lower expectations because of it or teachers and administrators not believing that I had this sort of thing and thinking it’s a bad habit or I’m making it up. So it was definitely difficult growing up, in addition to all of the social pressures. But actually on the college admissions side, it’s been a real blessing, because it’s put a lot of my accomplishments into context. It’s sort of led me to clinical psychology as well and helping people with mental health conditions. And actually on the college admissions side, supporting students with disabilities navigate the college admissions process, because in a lot of ways, it is more difficult for them.

GONZALEZ: Right, OK. So you’ve got a lot of knowledge about pretty much any student getting into college, but you also could be very helpful to students who are struggling with disabilities too. I just want to make sure that people listening know that.

SHEMMASSIAN: Yeah, absolutely. You know, a lot of students with disabilities do have IEPs or accommodations or psych assessment reports and things like that. I can certainly understand and help students navigate the process, given all of that information.

GONZALEZ: So let’s talk a little bit about what problem you are attacking here. What’s the current situation with families and students trying to get into their most desired college?

SHEMMASSIAN: Sure. So there’s a lot of information out there, right? And first of all, parents and students don’t really know where to go for high-quality information. They’re especially unsure about how to stand out. So it seems like everyone around them is doing everything, right?


SHEMMASSIAN: So enrolling in the most difficult classes, trying to get the highest standardized test scores. But beyond that, they’re not really sure how to stand out. Should they join every club or activity? And then you can peruse websites to find this information, but a lot of it seems to be the same, and if you go talk to the high school counselor, (a) they have limited time, and (b) with the limited time, a lot of the same canned advice seems to go around. So at the end of the day, what ends up happening is students are all hearing the same advice, they’re following the same advice, so they, of course, end up looking like every other applicant. So in a lot of ways, what they thought they should do is actually contributing, in large part, to them not standing out.

GONZALEZ: So the advice is actually being counterproductive?

SHEMMASSIAN: Yes, in many ways.

GONZALEZ: OK. And so what you’re going to be sharing with us today are three mistakes that applicants make and families make thinking that they’re helping themselves get into college, but that are actually not helping at all, and what they should be doing instead.


GONZALEZ: Great. OK. So what’s the first one?

Mistake #1: Taking ALL the Tough Classes

SHEMMASSIAN: So the first mistake is enrolling in every difficult course that their high school offers, OK? So the reason why students make this mistake, and parents encourage this as well, is there’s a lot of pressure to keep up with the Joneses, right? So if Joseph sees Sally enrolled in every difficult class, he’s going to feel pressure to enroll in every difficult class too, right?


SHEMMASSIAN: And this advice is rooted in a good place, because top schools are looking for students who challenge themselves academically, and of course the more AP classes or honors classes you enroll yourself in, the more it’s going to seem like you challenged yourself. So it makes sense, right?


SHEMMASSIAN: The reason it’s a mistake, however, is that it takes up way too much time from activities that can actually help students stand out. What I mean by this is what actually differentiates top applicants from the field is not necessarily what they do inside the classroom but what they do outside of the classroom. You have to always think about if you’re an admissions person at a top school. So say you’re applying to Yale for admissions, and the person on that admissions committee sees a ton of applications, mostly from students who are incredibly high achieving, so they have perfect or near perfect grades, they have perfect or near perfect SAT scores. So if you’re that person, how could you differentiate among these candidates? Do you just close your eyes and put your fingers on a few names and admit them? No. That’s not the way it works, right? They’re really looking for the superstars outside of the classroom. Now if you’ve enrolled in too many AP or honors courses and difficult things like that, it takes away a lot of time that you would otherwise be able to devote to extracurricular activities, right?

GONZALEZ: Yeah. That really is … it’s sort of surprising, but I bet a lot of people listening to this could really relate to it, because of the amount of time that the schoolwork is taking, they’re thinking, “And how is my daughter supposed to be also doing all of these other things?” And so your advice is, “Don’t necessarily take every single course.”

SHEMMASSIAN: Right. And I’m not saying, just to be clear, and you suggested this as well, Jennifer, so students who want to get into top schools should certainly take challenging courses in high school, but they shouldn’t necessarily take all of them, right? So if there are five AP courses being offered by their school for that grade year, then maybe take three. If you feel like it’s a subject you’re especially strong in, you could take four, because the fourth one isn’t as difficult. But the goal is not to think too much about the number of them, but to make sure that you leave time to pursue other things. And when I say “leave time to pursue other things,” it’s not just for the sake of college admissions. Because these are very important years for anybody, and so we want teenagers to be teenagers and to pursue things that they’re actually interested in. The more time they have to do that, the deeper and deeper they go, the more fulfilled they are, and all of that good stuff.

GONZALEZ: Right. And really that kind of time spent pursuing a passion and developing another skill, it seems like that would inform their choice of college too and their choice of program.

SHEMMASSIAN: Oh, absolutely. Because a lot of families just go on the US News list, and they say, well these are the top 20 or the top 30 schools, and how do you pick amongst those, right? Because Princeton’s not the same as Yale, UCLA is not the same as UC-Berkeley, and each school has things that they specialize in and programs that cater to students’ interests. So when you really develop this unique extracurricular profile and sort of develop your interests and understand the type of person you are, then you’re better able to understand the schools that are “the right fit,” that we spend so much time talking about.

GONZALEZ: Do admissions officers take into account… I know that if I’m applying for a job or to grad school, for example, it seems like it makes a difference if I can explain to them why I am interested in them, show that I have done my research about their special offerings. Does that make a difference with undergrad admissions as well?

SHEMMASSIAN: Absolutely. So the word “fit” gets thrown around all the time, and that’s definitely true with grad school, definitely true with employment, but it’s also true with high school, right? So there are many ways to demonstrate fit, and it actually starts before the application, Jennifer. So students who are looking to get into very competitive schools, if you’re in the area, definitely, definitely go on the school tour, an official one. Keep in touch with admissions advisers and all of that. I encourage all of my students to do that sort of thing. Because say you live in Boston and you never visited Harvard, and you tell them on their application that it’s been your dream school for 10 years. Would they believe you? Unlikely. Right?


SHEMMASSIAN: Similarly, every school has Instagram accounts, or really top schools go around to various major cities in the US, and so if they’re in the area, definitely seek them out. All of those things go into your folder. So it actually starts way before the application, but on the application, if you can point out… It’s not about “this is who I am” or “this is who you are,” it’s about demonstrating fit. So I’ll give an example. It’s like, “Wow, I have a passion for the environment and keeping things green, and, oh my gosh, what a coincidence: Your school has this program that’s really focused on sustainability,” all of that good stuff. “We should be friends.” That’s basically what they’re looking for, and it’s so clear to them, “Oh my gosh, not only is this a good student, but they’d be a great student here.”

GONZALEZ: Here, yeah. Excellent. OK. Are we ready to move to mistake No. 2?

SHEMMASSIAN: Let’s do it.

Mistake #2: Doing Whatever It Takes to Maximize Test Scores

So the second mistake a lot of families make is doing whatever it takes to maximize ACT and SAT scores, right? And the reason students make this mistake is similar to the first one in a lot of ways, it’s feeling like they need perfect scores to get into top colleges, right? So I need to do the hardest thing, I need to be the academically most high-achieving student. Now, why it’s a mistake. So colleges actually reject many students each year with top scores, right? And then related to sort of the first mistake that students make is focusing or over-focusing on standardized tests again takes away time from what truly matters, which is building that unique extracurricular profile to stand out. Now the question becomes, what should my child do instead? So if it’s not, “Try to get a 1600,” it’s really to study very hard for three to six months, or a semester, take the ACT or SAT, and you can do it a few times, I mean two to three times, and target a score between the 25th and 75th percentiles of admitted applicants at your desired schools. OK?

GONZALEZ: Got it. I did not see that “admitted applicants” part when I read that 25th and 75th… I was thinking of applicants in general, not admitted ones. I thought, “Why would you want to be in the 25th percentile?” Makes a lot more sense now, yeah.

SHEMMASSIAN: So if you visit any school’s website, you can look at a class profile, and they will very clearly have the data there. So the 25th to 75th percentile of admitted applicants’ SAT scores, for example, say they’re 1480 to 1540, right? That’s the range that you should aim for. Anything above that is a bonus, because like I said, there are many students who get above the 75th percentile who don’t get in. And with any middle 50th percentile, of course, 25 percent of students who get in are above those numbers, 25 percent of students are below those numbers, right? And so it’s important to remember that it’s not a bunch of 1600 scores who are going to Ivy League and UC schools and other top schools like that.

GONZALEZ: So if a student submits an application, and it’s a perfect SAT or ACT score, it is a 4.5 GPA, and there’s not much there on the extracurricular front, is that pretty much an automatic no?

SHEMMASSIAN: It’s hard to say “automatic”…


SHEMMASSIAN: …anytime it comes to the admissions process.

GONZALEZ: Right, right.

SHEMMASSIAN: But it’s not looking good.


SHEMMASSIAN: Because there’s going to be someone else with similar stats who did have that extracurricular profile. And so a lot of people struggle with this, it’s because, “I did everything. I felt like I did all the right things, and I still didn’t get in.”


SHEMMASSIAN: But it’s not the right things that you think you have to do, it’s thinking from the admissions committee’s perspective. So yes, academically super high achieving, you deserve all of the credit for that. But from their perspective, it’s like, “Well, I have students who have that academic profile and they’re the Michael Jordan in their field,” or whatever.

GONZALEZ: Right, right.

SHEMMASSIAN: And so it’s an easier decision for them.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. I think it’s definitely time for us to move to mistake No. 3, because you’re talking about Michael Jordan now, and I know where you’re headed. So what’s the third mistake that students make?

Mistake 3: No Extracurricular Focus

SHEMMASSIAN: Right. So with the first two, we talked about how it’s very important to open up time to pursue extracurricular activities. Now parents don’t really know how to go about this, students as well. The big mistake they make is joining as many clubs and teams as possible and trying to pursue leadership positions in each one, right?


SHEMMASSIAN: This is the sort of classic advice that gets thrown around, because people think that colleges want to admit “well-rounded students.”


SHEMMASSIAN: And the error is that colleges are actually looking for student bodies that are collectively well-rounded, so comprising a bunch of specialists who together are an incredibly well-rounded and diverse student body. But they’re not looking for students who do a little bit of a lot of things.


SHEMMASSIAN: So if you pursue, say, eight extracurricular activities, you’re part of four clubs, two teams, and you volunteer outside of school in two different places. Now, say you have 16 hours a week to devote to extracurriculars and you’re doing those eight things, of course I’m oversimplifying here, but you can only devote two hours to each one of those. So you’re not going to get very deep. There isn’t going to be anything that really differentiates your extracurricular performance versus another candidate, right?

GONZALEZ: Right, right.

SHEMMASSIAN: So it ends up with the student doing a little bit of a lot of things, looking like a lot of other candidates, and all of that. So colleges really want to admit those specialists, so the Michael Jordans like we said of their respective areas.

GONZALEZ: Do you see a lot of applicants where it’s just a laundry list of activities?

SHEMMASSIAN: Oh, all the time.


SHEMMASSIAN: All the time.

GONZALEZ: So there’s no better way to just be a sheep in the herd than to have that exact same thing? “I’m in this club, and this club, and this club, and I play five sports, and I did all of these things.” That’s just really going to make you generic to admissions people.

SHEMMASSIAN: Yeah, I mean … (a) It’s a lot of stuff, so it’s like, well, where do you hang your hat? What do you use as that differentiator? And then on top of that, it’s hard to say that the student is a specialist in any given one of these things. But then it also has collateral effects on essays. So the student who becomes a specialist in a certain area or really skilled in a certain area, their essays are no-brainers, like what they’re going to write about. And not only is it much easier to choose the topic, but it’s so much easier to go super deep into that topic, to talk about insights they gained that they couldn’t have otherwise if they only devoted a little bit of time to them. So it makes a lot of the process easier. And, frankly we can spend a lot of time talking about how to do this, because a lot of parents, upon hearing this, like the Michael Jordans, they’ll have the reaction of, “Well, my child doesn’t have that ‘it’ factor,” or “They’re not special in that way,” or “They weren’t born as Mozart, so how do I do this?” And we can spend some time talking about that too if you’d like.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, a little bit, because that probably is a thought. Even just the name “Michael Jordan” is probably terrifying some people to think, “Well, my kid doesn’t have that kind of talent.” So, yeah, talk a little bit about how they become specialists in their area.

SHEMMASSIAN: Yeah. So it starts very small, right? And it starts with things that your student is interested in. So whether it’s art, or sports, or science, or hiking. It doesn’t really matter, but it’s just making sure that the student has time to pursue it, and whatever they’re interested in, to just try it, right?


SHEMMASSIAN: So if the student is interested in art, they might start out with just doing their own artwork, maybe teaching other students in their community to paint, maybe it’s students from a low-income school that don’t have resources or access to art classes and things like that. So you can see what your student demonstrates interest in and take that step. So you’re exploring at the beginning.


SHEMMASSIAN: And then the next step will be to maybe start documenting all this stuff, and maybe start a blog related to it, right? And so now you’re sort of blogging about the work that you’re doing with the students, what your students drew today, maybe some of the feedback you’re getting, and things like that. As you’re going through this process, of course that school is very happy to have you and may sort of refer you to another school, or maybe the local school district, and you put together a much bigger event or a bigger class, and perhaps you invite media attention to that. And so now you’ve been featured on the media, and maybe you start developing relationships with local artists. Now if you live in certain areas, those local artists may be very famous artists or artists with connections and things like that. And all of a sudden, you’re doing joint work with a well-known artist and things like that. Now over the years, when you do little by little, and you take tiny step after tiny step, you end up looking like a prodigy.

GONZALEZ: Right. Yep.

SHEMMASSIAN: Even though you’re not necessarily Picasso or anything, but when you take these incremental steps and start making connections in the community and start getting attention, and all this kind of stuff, by the time you apply, you look like a Michael Jordan.

GONZALEZ: Right. Because you spent so many years really building on those initial interests.

SHEMMASSIAN: Absolutely. And it brings up another important point too of which activities stand out versus which ones that don’t. And there’s sort of an easy way to figure this out, and it goes to Cal Newport, who’s a professor and also an author, and he talks a lot about education and all of that, but he talks about the failed simulation effect. So the failed simulation effect is accomplishments that are hard to explain can be much more impressive than accomplishments that are simply hard to do, right?

So if a student spends a lot of time with a certain club or on sports, but it’s really easy to wrap your head around how they did it, then it’s not going to look as impressive as something that’s very hard to explain. For example, say there’s a student who’s a very gifted basketball player, and they devote a ton of time to it, and they put in hours upon hours upon hours across all four years, and you know, it’s like, “Well, this is my schtick. This is what I’m really interested in and good at.” Now on a college application when an admissions committee person sees that, they’re going to say, “Oh great. They’re really committed to that sport.” But it’s easy for them to think about how the student made it happen, right? They joined the team, they went to all of the practices, maybe they practiced over the summer and through all their years, so it’s like, “Oh, OK, that’s very clear.” Versus the other student we discussed, the artist, who is hanging out with these famous artists and getting media attention and doing joint work, and stuff like that. If I just said that to you on the application, you’re going to say, “Wait, what? How did you make that happen?”


SHEMMASSIAN: And so if it’s hard to explain it, it automatically seems more impressive.

GONZALEZ: Right. The first student just worked his way through an already existing paradigm, and the second one sort of created her own brand new thing that didn’t even exist. There was no pathway there, she created that.

SHEMMASSIAN: Exactly, right? And maybe the basketball player becomes the team captain, so it’s like, “Well, I have all these leadership skills because I’m the team captain,” etc. But with the second student, they don’t even have to talk about how they’re a leader, because the admissions person will already feel that about them. So anytime the admissions committee member can start complimenting you on your own behalf, then that’s much more impressive, right?


SHEMMASSIAN: So a student who had that unique art extracurricular profile, they’re going to clearly have demonstrated a community impact. They’re going to have demonstrated their leadership skills. They’re going to have demonstrated that specialty. They don’t even have to say it, because it’ll just ooze through every piece of their application.

GONZALEZ: Right, right. Well I hope that this is something of a relief to some families who are just scrambling to pack everything in. I don’t know. As a parent of three kids who are all going to be in college in 10 years, this gives me a very different way of looking at it too, so I appreciate it. Tell us a little bit more about your online college prep program that you offer to families who want to go deeper with this.

SHEMMASSIAN: Sure, yeah. So we work with a lot of families one-on-one, but we also have an online college prep program that teaches families the exact steps they need to take each semester of high school to help their kids achieve college admission success. Even if they feel there’s nothing special about them, even if they’re confused about where to start. So it’s semester by semester, right? So we teach families freshman year fall, what should you be focusing on? Freshman year spring, sophomore fall, sophomore spring, etc., with month-to-month timelines. Because when you’re sort of looking at this college admissions process, it sometimes feels like you’re at the bottom of a mountain, and you’re staring at this impossible-to-climb peak and it’s overwhelming or you’re sort of drowning in this information. So it’s like, let’s take a breath, let’s think about what I need to do today, and worry about the other stuff at the right time versus sort of feeling like you have to tackle everything at once, and that leads to this trying to grab at everything but sort of looking like everybody else.

GONZALEZ: Right. How can people learn more about this and find you online?

SHEMMASSIAN: Sure. So my website, which I’m sure you’ll link to, Shemmassian Academic Consulting. But folks who listen to this, I would guide them to another link, that’s, and there they can receive a short guide containing my top 10 steps to stand out and get into top colleges. And so it compares what most students do, the folks that end up looking like everybody else, versus what standout applicants do, and there are clear contrasts in multiple spaces in the college admissions world between what most students are doing versus those superstars.

GONZALEZ: OK. And I will definitely put a link to that in my show notes so people can go in and grab that free guide of secrets that they can use. Thank you so much, Shirag, for all of this information.

SHEMMASSIAN: It was such a pleasure. Thank you for having me, Jennifer.

GONZALEZ: I appreciate it.

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