Sally GangaWe’re bringing back our popular series, Meet an Admissions Counselor, where we introduce students and families to a different member of the College Coach admissions team. Drop in to see what we’re reading, where we went to school, and our strategies for beginning the college essay. As you work with us to find an educational consultant who best fits your needs or the needs of your child, we will help you consider the personality and working styles that will bring out the best in you or your student. Today we introduce Sally Gangawho works with students both remotely and in the Westport, CT area.

Where are you from, where have you lived, and where do you live now?
I was born in Detroit, Michigan, but my family moved to Los Angeles when I was two years old and I lived in the Los Angeles area until leaving for a gap year in Belgium after I graduated high school. I then moved to Portland, Oregon to attend Reed College and lived there until I moved back to the Los Angeles area to work at Whittier College and live in Whittier. I then moved to Chicago for three years to work at the University of Chicago, then back to the Los Angeles area to work at the Archer School for Girls and Chadwick School. I then moved to Norwalk, Connecticut, in Fairfield County, where I live now.

What are you reading, watching, and/or listening to lately?
I’m currently reading A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, and I just finished binge watching The Great British Baking Show and have moved on to Special on Netflix.

What do you do for fun or to relax?
Read, watch TV and movies, go for walks on the beach, and make day trips to Manhattan to visit museums or attend concerts.

What are some of your interests—things that fascinate you or send you down internet rabbit holes, or things you love to learn more about?
Most recently I’ve been fascinated by ancient cultures and patterns of migration around the globe. For example, the Aboriginal Australian people migrated to what is now Australia so long ago that there is some disagreement about when they arrived. It is believed (as far as I understand it) that their migration occurred before migration to what is now the European continent, via land bridges when the oceans were lower. As a result of its longevity, their culture appears endlessly complex to me. (You asked about a rabbit hole!!) While this is a more recent interest, culture, language, and history have always been compelling to me.

Do you do any volunteer work? If so, what, and are there certain causes that are close to your heart? Most recently I have volunteered to register people to vote. While I am passionate about a variety of political causes, voting rights are so fundamental to maintaining our democracy that they are my focus.

Where did you go to college?
Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

What did you study?
History. My senior thesis was on the women’s suffrage movement in Oregon.

What was your favorite thing about college?
It was my first time being in a place where everyone was as interested in learning and academics as I was, where being nerdy and getting excited about what you were studying was cool.

What about your college experience was different from what you expected?
It was more academically intense than I expected, although I did expect that to a certain degree. It’s hard to imagine what writing a year-long thesis is like until you’re doing it.

What would you say to your high school self if you could coach him/her through the research and application process? What would you have done differently?
First, I wish I’d been open-minded about women’s colleges. A Smith or Wellesley might have been great for me. However, overall I’d affirm the choices I made. I went against what most people expected me to do by turning down UC Berkeley and choosing Reed College, but I knew I wouldn’t be happy at a very large university like Berkeley. I knew I needed small, discussion-based classrooms. As far as the application process goes, I should have given my essays to someone to read. I found two of them after I had become an admission officer and realized that one of them was atrocious. I cringed as I read it.

Where did you work in admissions and/or counseling?
Reed College, Whittier College, the University of Chicago, Archer School for Girls, and Chadwick School.

What aspect of the college admissions and/or counseling process do you most enjoy working on?
Assisting students in identifying their own strengths and imagining their future. The beginning of the process, in other words.

How do you encourage students to look beyond the schools they know to find hidden gems?
I try to spend some time getting to know them and making sure they trust that I do know them well enough to make good suggestions. I am also a consistent cheerleader for less well-known colleges, reminding my students that there are thousands of colleges in this country and they can’t possibly know all the good ones. And, I can be very pushy. If I think they would like a college I tell them I won’t stop asking until they research it and give me a good reason that they don’t like it. And, “I’ve never heard of it” or “a friend of a friend says it’s (fill in the blank)” doesn’t count.

What in your mind makes a good college essay?
First and foremost, sincerity. It is pretty clear to me when a student has picked a topic that isn’t meaningful to him or her. While I (like most admissions counselors) prize originality, an original topic that feels forced is not as good as a topic that, while common, reads as sincere and meaningful to the student. Beyond that, I always recommend that students use an informal and conversational writing style. It helps us get to know who the student is in a non-academic way.

How would you describe your counseling style?
If we have the time, my approach is very relaxed. I take the time to get to know the student to make sure that this remains their process and that their voice is always heard.

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Written by Sally Ganga
Sally Ganga is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Prior to joining College Coach, Sally was a senior admissions officer at The University of Chicago, Reed College, and Whittier College. Visit our website to learn more about Sally Ganga.