We’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 Tova Tolman.
Where are you from?
I grew up in Lebanon, Pennsylvania in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch farm country and then lived in New York City and its suburbs for 17 years. Just recently I moved down south to Savannah, Georgia.
Where did you go to school?
Barnard College for undergraduate, Columbia University for graduate school (at their school of education, Teachers College)
What did you study?
- Undergrad: A whole lot of different things. I came in sure I was going to be pre-med and thought I was going to major in Physics. I ended up majoring in Sociology, but found the Barnard general requirements to be flexible enough to dabble in quite a bit of this and that. I ended up one class shy of a music minor (mainly because I was too excited to take The History of Jazz instead of another theory requirement)
- Grad: Higher Education Administration
Where did you work?
At lots and lots of different colleges and universities. In addition to working in admissions at Barnard, Columbia, Fordham, and Montclair State, I was also the Director of Student Life at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
What are you reading right now for fun?
I could list a bunch of books sitting on my night stand that I have every good intention of reading, or I could be honest. The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and a new favorite, Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood. Both are about some pretty rockstar, quick thinking, resourceful young women who show my four- and two-year-olds that girls can be a lot more than shiny tiara-wearing damsels in distress.
You have a free weekend and carte blanche to go anywhere and do anything. What do you do?
Sleep. Did I mention I have two pre-school aged children? But this is fantasy land, which means they will behave and be fun travel companions. I’d love to explore my new home state! A weekend road trip (wait—unlimited funds—we’ll ride in a helicopter) up to northern Georgia to do some hiking and white water rafting in the Blue Ridge region followed by ice cream. Lots of ice cream.
What was your favorite thing about college?
I. Loved. College. I loved college so much they couldn’t get rid of me when I graduated, which is why I started working in the admissions office. I wanted to tell the next generation of applicants how much I loved college! If you’re forcing me to pick one thing, it would have to be the lessons learned outside of the classroom. While I was incredibly privileged to attend a phenomenal institution, my real learning happened in the residence halls, the dining halls, the gym, the library (the library was for socializing, let’s be honest). I was continuously inspired and amazed by my friends and peers. Having a protected quasi-independent environment to explore, discover, and reflect is a pretty special opportunity and I don’t take for granted how advantaged I was to have had that traditional residential experience.
What about your college experience was different from what you expected?
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I chose Barnard in spite of it being a women’s college. At 17 I didn’t fully understand the benefits and much to my surprise (and my mother’s knowing delight), that factor ended up being the best and most transformative part of my experience.
What’s your philosophy on college admission?
College is a match to be made not a prize to be won. Put brand aside. I beg of you, please put perceived prestige aside. Take the time to find your match.
What aspect of the college admissions process do you most enjoy working on?
I imagine most find this piece to be one of the most painful, but I love helping students get organized! I’m tasky by nature and if I can help put some order to what otherwise can feel like an overwhelming and uncontrollable process, I’m happy.
What is the most common mistake you see from students that can easily be fixed?
Basing your understanding of a college on the impression of others. While “reviews” and “reviewers” have their place, forming your own researched and current opinion of a school is what counts. Working at Fordham really drove home this lesson for me. Fordham is a school that has undergone tremendous transformation and growth in the last 30 years. Many parents would base their understanding of Fordham today on the experience they or their friend had back in 1985. It was fun to overhear the surprise and inevitable, “Wow!” when they’d arrive back in the admission office after the tour.
How do you encourage students to look beyond the schools they know to find hidden gems?
See above. It may be hiding right under your nose but you haven’t given it a chance. If it shows up on a list someone has run for you and you haven’t heard of it, check it out!
What in your mind makes a good college essay?
Something that is readable! I like to think I gave every student my full attention when it came time to sit down in front of their essay, whether it was my first or fiftieth file of the day. But goodness, when you’re reading that many applications a day, a week, a month…it was very difficult to make my way through an essay filled with thick imagery, vague analogies, and thesaurus type words no 17-year-old uses in their everyday speech. Just say it. I want to hear you, in your own words, tell me just a little something about you.
What are some important things you’ve learned during your time as a College Coach educator?
There really is a college for everyone who wants one! I spent nine of my ten years in college admissions working at highly selective colleges and had a narrow view of this process. My one year at Montclair State University and the last three at College Coach have reminded me how much the media frenzy and scare tactics are completely unfounded and based on such a tiny slice of the college pie. There are phenomenal colleges out there for students who have never seen an A on their transcript!
What would you say to your high school self if you could coach him/her through the process?
There isn’t just one perfect school out there for you! I put a lot of eggs in one basket and frankly cringe remembering I didn’t have other applications ready to go if my ED school didn’t work out. Spend time identifying the reasons why you like your first choice school, and then go out and find a handful of other schools sharing similar features. You might be surprised by what you find! That and listen to your mother. She’s always right. Just listen to her.