Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, May 7, 2002

Husband and wife team Gen, left, and Kelly Tanabe co-wrote several books on helping students get money for college.

Focusing on unique traits
is your ticket to college

In person

By Shawn "Speedy" Lopes

While exceptional grades and an impressive array of extracurricular activities have long been considered key to gaining entry into college, Gen Tanabe credits a dissertation on pancakes for getting him into Harvard University.

"I wrote an essay about my father making me banana pancakes for breakfast," recalls the 1990 graduate of Waialua High School and co-author of "How to Get Into Any College," in a phone conversation from his home in Palo Alto, Calif. "By telling this story of how he made pancakes for us with bananas from our back yard, I think I set myself apart from other applicants because I focused on something that made me unique."

Tanabe will be enjoying those homemade banana pancakes now that he's back in Hawaii with co-author and wife Kelly, whom he met at Harvard. The Tanabes, who are winding down a 40-city tour, are hosting free college admission workshops this week at various Oahu locations. If they could earn over $100,000 in scholarships and graduate from an Ivy League institution owing nothing, they reason, others can, too.

First published in 1998, "How to Get Into Any College" shows students, through related experiences and real-life examples of other successful applicants, just what it takes to make it to the university of your choice. Now in its second edition, it is supplemented by other college admission and scholarship guides penned by the Tanabes. These books, they say, are precisely the kinds of resources they wished were available to them in high school.

"When we were applying to college, we had no idea how to go about the process," Gen said. "Most books at the time were written by admission officers or college counselors. There were no books written by students who had gone through it themselves. We didn't know anyone who had written a successful college admission essay; we didn't know what kinds of activities were important; we didn't know how important grades were or test scores. For us it was pretty much a hit-and-miss proposition."

While "How to Get Into Any College" was initially available only through select outlets, sales soared when word of its utility spread across the Internet. The Tanabes' Web site,, helped generate enough of a demand for their services that Gen and Kelly eventually left their day jobs at Bay area high-tech companies to focus on writing and publishing full time.

Since embarking on their cross-country tour, the Tanabes have picked up more helpful information from workshop attendees and now recognize the most common blunders committed by college applicants. Many students, they say, overemphasize the importance of their SAT scores while neglecting other, equally important parts of their application. Others spread themselves too thin with a multitude of outside activities, believing that many interests are better than a few strong ones.

"I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that schools are only looking at grades and test scores," Gen ventures. "What colleges want to see is not only that you can handle the academic course work, but that you can bring something unique to the (college) community."

Many also make the mistake of overlooking the ever-crucial essay, which the Tanabes believe is a student's best chance to stand out among thousands of applicants.

"The essay is your opportunity to show the colleges who you are beyond your grades and beyond your test scores," explains Kelly. "You need to write an essay that no other student could write and one that really reflects who you are. Beyond academics, what are you going to add to the campus community? How are you going to contribute to make this an interesting place to go to school? What are you going to add to the college campus besides being in a classroom and being a student?"


Cash for college

What: Gen and Kelly Tanabe speak about how to get into and pay for college.
Where: Campbell High School at 6 p.m. today, St. Louis School at 7 p.m. tomorrow, McKinley High School at 7 p.m. Thursday
Admission: Free

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