How to Get In

By Susan Estrich

December 2, 2016 5 min read

It is that time of year. If neither you nor anyone in your family is applying, much less waiting for early decision or early action (if you don't know the difference, rejoice), if no one you love is sweating the retaking of the LSATs because they've heard that just a few points could move them into a different tier, you can chillax. Or get back to work so you can pay those student loans that will be with you till eternity.

I've been teaching forever, so I'm always surrounded by nervous faces desperate to get in somewhere: to USC, where I teach; a particular graduate or professional school; a PhD program; or an internship program. You name it.

And the tougher the economy, the more desperate the faces, as if getting into the right college is a meal ticket for life.

It isn't. That's the good and bad news.

The days when your dads, or maybe your granddads, went to work for a company and could expect to stay there until they retired — those days went out with the information age. For better or worse, we are all movers, and your last job, not your GPA 20 years ago, will determine whether you get the interview.

Easy for me to say, right? I got in. Well, not really, but more on that later. There is a trick to getting in. Assuming you are not a member of the lucky gene club, an Olympic athlete or a scientific prodigy: Work. Numbers matter more than they should. They are arbitrary, and they are not all equally arbitrary, but as with most things in life, if you work harder than everyone else, study more, prepare more, figure out the system, the grammar of the test, put in the time, put schoolwork first, fight for your education, if you have to — you'll do all right.

Why so many of our schools, public and private, endlessly celebrate who can run the fastest or throw the ball the best or carry a show when none of those skills are going to lead to an education much less a career I do not understand.

Nothing has really changed. You want to get into X. Start working now. Keep working. Forget about who has connections, and who knows who, and what's not fair. Take the toughest courses you can, and do the best you can. Get the most out of your school. If you haven't been doing that up until now, then change.

USC has wonderful administrators, but — I don't often say this out loud — the truth is, I don't really work for them. I work for my students. They pay my salary. What they get, other than what they give each other, is the best that I can offer. But most of what they get, truth be told, is what they learn themselves. I show them how to pick up a weight and even how to lift it, but then they have to go back and do it over and over. And I don't care where you care, whether it's at a community college or Oxford, how hard you work will end up counting for more than anything else.

The secret to a good application? Honesty. Be yourself. You don't have to write about a trip to Europe. I knew the speaker of the House before I'd been to Europe. Recommendations should be from the people who know you, not the people I know: I remember one case where the Harvard admissions people were literally laughing at the recommendation letter of a former president until I came in to support the same guy. Does he really know the president, they asked? They didn't take him.

They were wrong. They often are. Admissions people are not clairvoyant. They are not predicting the future. In most cases, they don't know you at all. The tests are a photograph of how you scored on one day. Half the essays are edited by somebody's uncle. We're no fools. Tutoring is a business, alumni kids have advantages, and life's not fair. I know that because I got rejected at five of the six colleges I applied to. I got accepted at the only girls school I applied to (and my mother had made me apply): Wellesley College. I did just fine.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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