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December 16, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, December 16, 2005

Mastering the college interview Mastering the college interview (December 16, 2005)

Yale alumnus gives students, parents, tips on impressing elite schools

by Alexandria Rocha

For many of Palo Alto's high-achieving students, admission to an Ivy League school is like the Holy Grail.

And getting that elusive acceptance letter all starts with the college interview.

Last week, dozens of students decided to forego their lunch period to listen to Paly parent and Yale University alumni Doug Shaker give tips on how to nail an Ivy League interview.

"I was thinking about the East Coast -- not Yale, but Brown. I would like to go to the East Coast because I want to experience a different section of the country," said junior Zack Kousnetz, 16. "I have high expectations for myself."

Students packed into a library conference room to hear Shaker's advice. A handful of parents also attended. They listened intently and many took notes.

Shaker, whose daughter is a senior at Paly, graduated from Yale in 1972. He is part of a network of alumni scattered throughout the country who interview university candidates unable to make the trip to New Haven. He has been interviewing applicants for about 10 years, and he said about one student -- every two years -- is accepted.

Shaker wasn't there to discourage students from applying to top-tier schools, quite the opposite in fact. But he made it clear how tough it is to get in. More and more high school graduates are eligible for college these days, and the coveted slots are hard to come by.

Yale, in fact, receives 19,000 applications each year and can only accept 1,400, he said.

"It's daunting," he added. "That's the way Ivy League admissions are."

It also became clear that stellar grades are no longer the hot ticket. Today, it's all about being passionate about a singular hobby, whether that's reading, crew, anime or studying molecular biology.

"I want to know about something you do that your parents and teachers don't make you do," he said.

Shaker told the group that his daughter used to wake up at 4:30 every morning to practice for crew. She now drives to Oakland after school everyday to be on a better team.

"I can't make her do that. In some ways I don't want her to do that," he said.

Shaker assured the audience he wasn't expecting students to have their entire life planned. But, he said top-tier universities do want to know that their students are going to be society's next leaders.

"Yale and Harvard and most of the Ivy Leagues believe they're giving you the best education on Earth," he said. "They want you to make movies, run for political office, be a track star. They want you to do something with that education."

For some students, identifying a passion can seem even more daunting then earning top grades. Paly junior Siddhartha Oza, 15, who attended the talk, was a little unnerved by the notion that teenagers should know what they're passionate about at such a young age. He is counting on the first few years of college to figure it out.

"That's a pretty amazing thing to do if you are in high school and you know what you want to do for the rest of your life," he said.

Some parents were equally wary.

"All along the way, students hear they have to be at the top of their class and do all these activities for college applications. The parents have put this environment in place," said Meredith Warshaw, who attended Shaker's talk.

"Whether it's crew or tennis, parents spend $10,000 to $15,000 a year on these activities. A lot of good can come out of that support, but the question is, is it the kid who has the motivation to do it or is it the pressure from the parents?" she added. "There's often a push from the parents to go to a certain school and it's not necessarily where the student wants to go."

Then again, Shaker said, many students apply to Yale solely because of its name and prestige. Those students are typically spotted right away, he said, because they don't know anything about the school. A candidate once told him, for example, that she wanted to study dance and fashion; Yale doesn't have such programs.

These days, high-school college advisors are trying to debunk the myth that there are only a handful of colleges worth of applying to.

It's a tough impression to break. The desire to attend a top-tier school runs deep. For many students, it means following in their parents' footsteps.

"At Paly, there are a lot of prestigious students. There's a lot of competition in the honors and AP classes from students who want to be in the top 5 or 10 percent of their class. It gets very competitive," Kousnetz said.

Staff Writer Alexandria Rocha can be reached at

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