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, where have you lived, and where do you live now?
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. A few years ago I moved down south to Savannah, Georgia.
What are you reading, watching, and/or listening to lately?
I could list a bunch of books sitting on my nightstand 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 rock-star, quick-thinking, resourceful young women who show my children that girls can be a lot more than shiny tiara-wearing damsels in distress.
What do you do for fun or to relax?
Put me on (or in!) the water. Paddle boarding, kayaking, wakeboarding, or any boating in general always brings me joy. Being active isn’t new, but growing up in the northeast, I never would have guessed how much I love low country living and being right on the coastal marsh ways.
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?
Home renovations. I had no idea how easy it could be to lay down all new flooring or tile a backsplash. A few hours of YouTube videos and Home Depot tutorials later and I’m ready for the next project.
Do you do any volunteer work? If so, what, and are there certain causes that are close to your heart?
I seem to collect board positions. I serve on three different boards in the Savannah Jewish community, all related to service and education. Currently, I am nearing completion of my term as president of the board of the local Hebrew school. I love working for a company that encourages giving your time, and financially backs that commitment.
Where did you go to college?
What did you study?
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).
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 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 (let’s be honest, the library was for socializing). 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 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?
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.
Where did you work in admissions and/or counseling?
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 aspect of the college admissions and/or counseling 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.
How do you encourage students to look beyond the schools they know to find hidden gems?
Most often, hidden gems are right under your nose. You cannot base your entire 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.
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.
How would you describe your counseling style?
Collaborative. This is the student’s work and the student’s process, but I can be a partner in the process and explain the options. Jokes and laughter are both essential, which will hopefully keep the journey laid back and fun.