Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Adam Hoff is one of the two owners of Amerasia Consulting where he and his team of consultants prep applicants for business school applications. He is quite experienced with the undergrad admissions process as well, having previously been the Associate Director of Admissions at Pepperdine University. Adam also graduated from The University of Chicago Law School, ultimately giving him an incredibly well-rounded view on higher education that he is eager to share with students everywhere.
VT: How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Adam: Not as early as they do! The simple answer that I give most high school students (and, more to the point, their parents) is to slow down. Enjoy being a high school student. Engage in rich experiences that will help inform who you are and what you like. This will allow you to perform better in high school, slow down the acceleration that makes kids feel burned out by the time they reach college, and will also help you pick the right school because you will have a deeper understanding of what you want out of life. Now, that lecture aside, you should probably consider the spring of Junior year a good time to start building a short list of schools and preparing for your the SAT or ACT. That summer, you can take the test and visit programs within reach. That fall, you can secure letters of recommendation and compose your essays. Starting earlier than this is just going to invite burnout and lead to diminishing returns.
VT: What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Adam: Essay writing is more art than science, but there are definitely some rules of thumb. First, don't try to say everything; instead, focus on composing a strong answer to the question being asked. This sounds obvious, but it's amazing how many applicants turn every question into an open-ended personal statement. You don't have to course correct for the school and think "I bet they really want to know X." They know what they are doing. Second, be introspective and personal. The worst sentence in all of essay writing starts with "I think they want..." Don't try to reverse engineer what you think an admissions officer will enjoy, agree with, or respond to. Write what is inside of you. That will make it interesting. Third, understand the school in question. Unless you are dealing with the Common App, you want to really get to know the school. Some programs value their institutional mission and will look for answers that fit that, while others are less married to particular ideals. Basically, you want your essay to be specific and focused, truly be about you, and show that you understand the school you are applying to.
VT: Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
Adam: Anything that resembles a personal statement is a total stay away. I would also avoid talking about anything that feels trivial to an adult and discussing it as a massive challenge overcome or accomplishment. This is admittedly unfair, but there is a divide between people who are in high school and, well, people who completed high school. The things that seem monumental as a teen often don't hold up. Run your ideas past your parents or a teacher and see if they make a face. If they do, don't get defensive, but instead find something that resonates on a deeper scale. Finally, avoid anything that is "too cute." Attempts to be creative - haikus and the like - are usually more annoying than eye-catching. (I would add here that the best essay topics often hit on family and cultural backgrounds. When an applicant can be specific about who they are and how they were raised, and how that informs their world view, it often shares a lot with just a few words and can be very interesting for even the most jaded reader.)
VT: What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
Adam: Put the wrong school name in the essay. Not only does this prove it was an essay that was cut and paste, but it shows no care or attention to detail. Schools often consider "yield" (the number of students who actually enroll from those who are admitted) and nothing says "I'm not all that interested in actually enrolling" than naming the wrong school. This is pretty obvious, so I would extend the answer to anything that suggests to a reader that you are not truly passionate about going there. For instance, my alma mater and former employer, Pepperdine University, values services and its religious affiliation. If you were to submit an essay that disrespects those tenants, you basically are not getting in. Fit and likelihood of enrolling can - and often will - trump merit every time.
VT: What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
Adam: Overall Process: It is hard to call anything typical when schools use such different processes, but what I found to be most typical is the following: 1) a file is put together by a records department (meaning all the pieces are put into one place and the file is then placed on a list of completed files, ready to be reviewed), 2) an individual admissions officers reads it. Note that this is often based on geographic region, but there can be other allocation methods. Note also that readers will take all of about 10 minutes to review it, which means you want clear writing, organized thoughts, and the like. 3) an initial decision will be rendered (admit, waitlist, defer, or deny). If the decision is deny, that is the end of it. If not, you go to 4), which can be an invitation to interview. Most schools don't have the resource to host interviews, nor do they want to put that pressure on applicants, so it's on to 5), which is that applicants flagged as "admit" go to a committee where each name is pulled up and reviewed by a group. The initial reader will often advocate on that applicants behalf.
Individual Process: For an individual reader (the first review), a file is typically reviewed in the following order: 1) the "one sheet" which has the student's name, address, birthdate, social security number, ethnicity, and basic academic profile (school, GPA, test scores, and the like). 2) the resume or any sort of activities grid that the school might require. 3) the application itself (meaning the individual fields), 4) the essays, and 5) the letters of recommendation. The first three items create first impressions, the essays are where they fall in or out of love with you, and the letters of recommendation provide a verification tool so that the reader can double-check his or her own findings with the thoughts of someone who knows the student far better. That's the way I reviewed files and I've found it to be a common approach.
VT: What do you think is the single most important thing a student should make sure they present in the best possible way on their application?
Adam: The contribution they will make to their follow students, their university, and, later, the world outside of college. This does not have to be an overt message, but any essay and overall narrative should really consider "what kind of person will I look like?" Colleges want to admit students that will thrive there, not be miserable, get involved, and - ideally - impact the lives of others in a positive way. Discussing your unique perspective, your passions, your leadership skills, your ability to work with teams, and what you value most are all ways to really show who you will be as a living, breathing human on campus. Try not to think of an application as a highlight reel, but rather a platform, where you get to stand up and say whatever you want to a captive audience. If you were going to walk on a stage and tell a room of 100 people what makes you tick and what you would bring to that group, what would you say?
VT: How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
Adam: They probably won't be able to fully understand a university's culture, especially because the methods for determining that are so unreliable. Forums are often a nightmare, visits (if even possible) are often rushed and overwhelming, and websites and presentations are pure marketing by the university. That said, don't lose hope! First, something you can do is check preconceived ideas at the door. What I mean is don't get hung up on "I want to go to school in New York" or "I like big schools" or other sweeping generalizations. You may find that by "big school" you mean "lots to do and get involved in," which could just as easily describe a small private school as a massive public institution. You should also ditch the idea of getting into the highest ranked school. Rankings are presented as objective, yet the biggest thing being measured is subjective (opinions of other people). If you free yourself from what your friends think, what the rankings say, and what points on a map tell you, that is the biggest step towards finding a good match. Beyond that, I would say to find people you can trust and get their input, then - and this is key - present yourself in a totally honest way when you apply. If you do that, schools will help you find fits by accepting or denying you based on their own superior knowledge of their culture. There is no easy way to find a school that fits, but the surest way to landing at a school that doesn't fit is to pick based on rankings and popularity contests and then to use smoke and mirrors to try to trick that school into admitting you. That's a recipe for unhappiness. Treat your counselors and even the schools as partners in this process.
VT: Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions...With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Adam: It's admittedly gotten very confusing. I generally recommend avoiding binding early decisions. My thinking: it's hard enough to know what you want by April 1 of your senior year, so why make it even harder by moving that date forward? You could get another 1/40th of your life under your belt before you have to decide "this is who I am and where I want to go." As for early action or other non-binding early deadlines, I say sure, if you can present a quality application, go ahead. These are just mechanisms that schools use to try to get more applications in the door. It's not imperative and you should always wait if quality would be impacted, but if all things are equal, go for the early.
VT: How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
Adam: Obviously, these are very important, but it's important to know why. For starters, there aren't that many objective measures that schools can use. Grades (especially if understood in the context of that school) and test scores offer some chances to make the process "apples to apples." It's not perfect, which is why you see most schools use a "holistic" process that accounts for things far beyond a student's "academic profile." They are indeed important though and they can speak to intellectual potential, discipline, focus, and other key traits. Just as important though, is the impact of these numbers of a school's class profile. Despite the distaste many of us have for rankings, schools chase them like a greyhound chasing a rabbit around a track. The class profile - namely acceptance rate, yield, average GPA, and average test scores - is the biggest thing a school can control in where it gets ranked. Schools have internal goals (or even mandates) on what those numbers should be. If your grades and scores are incredibly high, you make the school's life easier and they go into your file wanting to admit you and waiting to see if you reinforce that desire or blow it. If the opposite is true, and your academic profile is weak, they go in very skeptical and will need to fall head-over-heels in love with you as an applicant for your file to move forward. Therefore, grades and scores aren't everything (except in some state systems where they use a strict GPA and test score matrix), but they absolutely frame the way your file is read ... for reasons both good and bad.
VT: What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Adam: Approach them early (before everyone waits and then crushes them with requests) and make them a partner in your process. If you are asking someone for a recommendation, you should probably know them well enough to ask things like, "do you have any thoughts on my college search?" or "do you think I would do well at a private school or a larger, public school?" If you engage someone in this way and ask them to help you, they will want to help you! It's very simple. If you treat them like hired guns, they will have to grind this out begrudgingly and it's not hard to guess which turns out better. I would also think about which teacher might be the stronger writer, based on whatever evidence you might have. The rule of thumb is to pick people who know you best, will be effusive in their praise for you, and then have the ability to put those wonderful thoughts in writing. I would also recommend giving your teachers supporting material to help them. Less is more, so don't give them a binder, but if you can offer a resume and perhaps a short mission statement of what you hope to do in college and beyond, that can really help them get started in bringing you to life in a letter.
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The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.