John Carpenter. Smart dude.

I haven’t used this space for this kind of thing before, but I used to love posting interviews of artists I liked back in the day when I was a music blogger, and after I read John Carpenter’s Going Geek: What Every Smart Kid (and Every Smart Parent) Should Know About College AdmissionsI decided to send him an email and see if he’d be willing to answer some questions. 

I really thought John’s book delivered good, solid advice about how smart kids—and if you’re spending time reading an SAT blog, you probably qualify—should approach college admissions. And I dug the way he was able to set so much insightful advice about a truly labyrinthine process in a completely non-intimidating, conversational tone. So I got him to share some of that here, on my site, free of charge to you. You know how I do.


PWN the SAT: I read Going Geek on the train, and said “YES!” out loud more than once, much to the chagrin of my fellow passengers. I hate to ask you to do this because you wrote so much excellent advice, but if you could distill the whole book down to one overarching theme, what would it be?

John Carpenter: Thanks for the positive feedback, and I have to admit that I love that image of you reading on the train and finding stuff you agreed with. Anyway, I actually like this question quite a lot, and the answer is easy to give.

Be intentional. Be thoughtful. Be organized. And for the really smart kid, all those things often mean just being yourself. The theme that I hope kids take away is that it’s possible to create an amazing application by simply THINKING a little bit about what it is that gets you excited intellectually and then sharing that in a meaningful way.

PWN: What role does the SAT play in college admissions?

JC: Part of Going Geek is about the purpose of standardized tests in the admissions process; in fact, there’s a whole chapter called “The Standardized Geek” that explains how admissions officers use SAT scores and why they’re important at many colleges and universities. One purpose is to give admissions officers a way to compare students who are obviously very different and who have different strengths. In a society that’s driven by data, it’s easier to make difficult decisions when you can put numbers on things–even dissimilar things, or in this case, people. Also, admissions officers are looking for ways to find students who will likely be successful in college, and lots of studies bear out the idea that SAT scores often correlate with academic success at the undergraduate level.

PWN: Right. So although standardized testing is my bread and butter, it’s only the tip of the admissions iceberg. What are some other things that should be on students’ radar?

JC: The most important thing always, always, always is a student’s academic achievement. That is usually measured by the level of difficulty of a student’s coursework and grades. In other words, how challenging were the courses a student took in all four years of high school and how well did the student do across the board? But another way to highlight academic strength is to point out places where intellectual engagement has taken place in a student’s life, and that gets more to the core message of the book.

PWN: What’s the most common mistake you see really smart kids make as they apply to schools?

JC: I think the biggest mistake that kids make is jumping into the application without any real planning first. What I mean by that is the way some really bright kids just tackle the application, ask for recommendations, and sweat over an essay without really thinking about the specific message that all the components of the application process will convey as a whole. Kids should be smart about how they present themselves, and smart kids plan first. Everything that contributes to a great application should be intentional: the essay, the recommendations, the testing submitted, the activities listed–all of it.

PWN: You spend a lot of time getting to know admissions officers. What are they like?

JC: I really like most admissions officers and I think they don’t get enough recognition for the impossible jobs they have. I also think they tend to be really cool people who care deeply about kids. Most are in the job because they like people, because they want to help people gain access to great opportunities, and because they believe in the institutions they represent. Of course, the tough part–and the part of the job that occasionally drives people out of admissions–is that they meet more amazing kids than they can admit, and end up having to say no to kids who are clearly qualified to attend their schools.

PWN: What do they like?

JC: They like all kinds of kids, but the really smart kids are the ones that their faculty are hoping they’ll find and bring to campus. However, the primary thing that drives admissions officers is the priorities of each individual institution, so even is an AO likes a particular student, whether or not the student is admitted will be affected to a great extent by what specific attribute the kid has and how that matches the attributes that a college is looking for. And no matter what the many priorities might be in any given year, colleges are always looking for is the intellectually engaged kids who will continue that engagement in positive ways once they’re on campus.

PWN: One last question (and thank you for taking the time to do this, by the way): Back in the day, I wrote my college essay about a fish that outlasted all the others when a disease wiped out the entire stock at a pet store I used to work in. I’ll never forget my parents’ reaction, which was basically the “Are you serious?” face. But it worked for me. What advice would you have given 17 year old me, who really wanted to send in an essay that his trusted advisors didn’t like?

JC: What an awesome essay topic! I just read an essay yesterday about a girl who loved being stung by bees–sounds bizarre, but it’s a work of art. Anyway, getting back to your super-fish, I would have asked you what it was that you wanted the admissions officers to know about you and how did that essay accomplish that goal. If you could have convinced me, I would have said, “Go for it.” And then I probably would have congratulated you on being such a genuine Geek.

Thanks so much for this interview. I enjoyed it.


You’d do well to check out John’s site once in a while.