The Golden Ticket: A Life in College Admission Essays (SheWritesPress) is not about how to write the perfect essay to get into a dream college. Rather, the book is a mix of Irena Smith’s autobiography (born in the then Soviet Union, moved to the U.S. with her parents, a Ph.D. in comparative literature and a Stanford University admissions officer) and her reflections about her current career as a college consultant for high school students.
In the memoir, she begins each chapter with a quote from a college’s application or the Common Application. (For instance, “Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities, a job you hold, or responsibilities you have for your family.”)
Her current base is in Palo Alto, Calif., home to many hyperstressed students. But her practice is not limited to them.
Smith responded via email to questions about the book.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of linking each chapter to a question on a college application?
A: I’ve been obsessed with college essay prompts for a long time—probably since my own college application days. They’re such a unique writing challenge: you have to reveal something compelling about yourself in a very particular way with a nonnegotiable word count. I’m obsessed with creative nonfiction (memoir and personal essay in particular), and a college essay is basically that in shorter form.
During my work as a college counselor, I’ve occasionally had parents give unsolicited advice about what they think their student should write about, or how the essay should be written, and it’s all I can do not to say, “Would you like to take a crack at this if you’re so smart?” And at some point, while writing the memoir, I thought, “Well, maybe I should take a crack at this.” I actually tried to stick to the word count when I first got the idea but gave up almost immediately—it was just too hard to convey what I wanted to say in 50 or 250 or 650 words. I have so much respect for each successive class of seniors who manages to distill their life experiences into such a small envelope.
Q: Do you think colleges are asking the right sorts of essay questions?
A: Now that is a great question! I can tell you what the wrong questions are: “What is the most significant challenge that society faces today?” (Fifty-word limit). I mean, really? The world is literally burning; sea levels are rising; our country is cracking open as a result of divisions that seem increasingly unbridgeable; there’s war, famine and a pandemic that no one wants to talk about anymore; young people are depressed and anxious and hopeless; and could you, an already overextended 17-year-old, please boil all that into a catchy 50-word sound bite? I also really dislike the “why our college?” questions. Let’s face it: most colleges are more similar than they are different, and to make students wade through course catalogs and search for professors whose names they can drop into the essay seems really unproductive. Instead, ask students questions that get at their interests and curiosities: What’s the best course you’ve taken so far, and why was it so good? What would you like to study in college?
With the arrival of ChatGPT and articles heralding the death of the college essay, I’m curious to see how—or whether—colleges will adapt. Some colleges already have short student videos as a supplement, and I wonder if interviews will start to play a more prominent role. (If they do, I think there should be a way to adapt them to accommodate students who are anxious or introverted—if they can’t do face-to-face, they should be able to type their responses to questions in real time.) This is all just spitballing, and I certainly don’t have the answer for what might be a better way to assess tens of thousands of applicants, but I will say based on my own experience that a college essay that allows a student to show their authentic self and to shine can be revelatory, both for the student and the reader.
Q: You write with passion about students, including your daughter, who study at a community college. When most people think about private college counseling, they think of the norm (students trying to get into the “best” colleges). What can advice like yours show a community college student?
A: I advise all students to think hard about what “best” means—is a college “best” because the U.S. News & World Report says so, or because it’s best for you at this particular point in your life? Regardless of where you end up—a community college or Cornell or Grinnell or Indiana University or Landmark—your success depends on you. Be curious, be open-minded, talk to people who are different from you, take advantage of whatever the campus has to offer, whether it’s a study group in your Spanish class or the school newspaper or an affinity group or chess club. Engage with your professors. Read books, listen to podcasts, go to museums, attend campus performances. It’s entirely possible to be an uninteresting (and uninterested) person who graduated from a “brand-name” college; conversely, I have friends who didn’t finish college (or who went to colleges no one’s ever heard of) who are whip-smart and eager to learn even as adults.
Q: You also write about the students whose parents pay you to help them get into Stanford (or the equivalent). What do you find is the main thing they need from you?
A: I wouldn’t say I help get them into Stanford, since I have no relationship with the Stanford admissions office; I think of myself more as a batting coach whose job it is to help them hit harder and more accurately, but I certainly can’t guarantee a home run. I also try to be very clear when I work with students about their chances of being admitted at Stanford (or its equivalent) if their grades or test scores or extracurricular activities will likely not stand out in the applicant pool. I think the main thing most parents are after—particularly for students who do have the grades and test scores and achievements that will stand out in the applicant pool—is actually twofold: they want outside confirmation that their student really is that capable, and if so, they want me to work with their student to help them present their best self on their application. Typically, that means pushing students to think more deeply about who they are, about their personal history, about larger connections between their particular interests and the world beyond those interests, and about the kinds of problems they hope to solve or explore.
Here’s what bedevils me about the obsession with getting into Stanford (or its equivalent): if your kid is on the junior varsity cross country team, you don’t try to train them to go to the Olympics, right? You go to their meets and cheer when they beat their personal best time, or maybe simply when they cross the finish line. To me, the highly selective (or, as they’re increasingly being called, highly rejective) colleges are the academic equivalent of the Olympics, and yet many parents believe that it’s possible to take a kid with a 3.83 GPA who likes to play video games and is on the debate team and occasionally volunteers at a food bank and “package” them to be competitive at Stanford. I can’t begin to describe how much damage that kind of thinking does.
Q: Your stories of being an immigrant are very moving, and it’s not surprising that immigrant parents seek you out for their children. What are their issues that you try to help with?
A: Interestingly, not all of the parents I work with know that I’m from the former Soviet Union—but whether or not they do, I think I’m in a unique position to understand where they’re coming from. I came to the United States when I was young enough to fully assimilate but old enough to appreciate how incredibly difficult it is to uproot yourself and move to a new country. The transition was pretty brutal for me, and exponentially more so for my parents. My father spoke passable English, but my mother spoke none, and almost as soon as we arrived, she enrolled in Cogswell College in San Francisco to start working toward an engineering degree. Then she would return home and make dinner and deal with weeping 9-year-old me because I also spoke no English and everyone at school was mean to me, and after consoling me, she would do her homework, and my father would come back from work exhausted at 8 p.m. and try to help her with her homework, and they would get into colossal fights (my father is a brilliant engineer but not always the best explainer). There was also a memorable stretch during which my father taught my mother how to drive. Let’s just say that I think there should be a law forbidding spouse-to-spouse driving practice.
In my experience, immigrants who come to a new country often expect that their hard work and their struggles will pay off, that they will get something valuable in exchange for the sacrifices they’ve made. I mean, isn’t that why most people uproot themselves and come to a new country? It’s profoundly human to expect reciprocity—like, in exchange for giving up your birthplace, your native language, proximity to your extended family, you’re going to get something better in return. I try to convey to parents that the ROI is not always their child going to one of 10 colleges they’ve decided are acceptable, and if they don’t get into Harvard or Stanford or MIT or UChicago, it doesn’t mean that all their hard work and sacrifice was for naught. Sometimes the ROI is not an acceptance letter to the dream school; rather, it’s that their child is fulfilled and happy or gets a full scholarship and is treated like royalty at a “lesser” school (which can often pave the way for a “brand-name” graduate program, and if not, just provide a really positive undergraduate experience). And yes, their expectations often seem outlandish and entitled, but I think it’s important to recognize that those expectations are rooted in a desire to do what’s best for their children, no matter how misguided or destructive those desires might be.