Ask an Admissions Expert: Angela Conley

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Angela Conley has 20 years of experience in higher education, specifically having worked as an admissions officer for Cornell University, M.I.T., and Columbia University. She holds a Master’s in Education from the Teachers College of Columbia University and was formerly affiliated with the Educational Non-Profit, Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. Angela is now an admissions consultant for Venture Forth Consulting, a company she founded.

VT: How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?

Angela: Working on your "application" assumes the applicant has a definitive list. While I encourage clients to draft a strong application essay in response to the CommonApp prompts the summer prior to their senior year, there is much to "working" on the application. I encourage clients to engage a summer program each year in high school to clarify their interests and strengths. In addition summer programs on varied campuses is a great way to clarify the setting most conducive: suburban, urban, rural. In addition, there are often opportunities to acquire letters of support for one's intellectual or interpersonal strengths. Suffice to say, "working on the application" should not wait until senior year by way of generating a strong profile. The essay drafts are best created before classes begin senior year.

VT: What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?

Angela: Speak to what you know! If you are not known for a sense of humor, don't try that in your essay. Challenges overcome, poignant or compelling experiences are typically the best way to go. If the person/idea/issue moved you enough to make a memory, then I encourage clients to use the known. One of the best essays I ever read was a students' imaginary conversation with a deceased parent.

VT: Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?

Angela: Two very much overused approaches are foremost: the frustration with trying to think of a topic to address for your application. The second most difficult topic often attempted is lauding a parent or relative and telling their story and not how that story informs or inspires your own.

VT: What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?

Angela: Several mistakes come to mind, foremost having your parent or a consultant draft the essay instead of the applicant. However, the most common mistake is submitting the essay without someone objective proofing the document, or having multiple persons editing essays/supplements and taking the spirit or persona of the applicant out of the equation altogether.

VT: What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?

Angela: I don't know that there is a "typical" admission officer. Some bring vast experience to the task of evaluations and other assess only the numbers. My experience as a former admission officer is to read the essay first, then to review the particulars: academic record, leadership and involvement, recommendations and then exam scores. Depending on the state, I look to assess whether the transcript documents the state exit exam outcomes.

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?

Angela: Foremost the admission committee should know that the applicant is prepared to complete collegiate level work which is best documented through the academic record. One can study strategy to perform on standardized exams, they are four hours while most high schools are four years.

VT: How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?

Angela: Many options are available to help students "get a sense" of a specific campus culture. The best means of so doing is to visit during the academic year while classes are in session. Save an inability to visit in person there are "virtual" visits offered through "" and other sites. Finally, most campuses websites hosts student bloggers. I feel strongly that knowing the school's rank in magazines or that a parent or relative attended are insufficient means for establishing "the vibe" that is or is not particular to a specific campus.

VT: Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions...With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?

Angela: If you are absolutely certain where you want to matriculate - apply early. The question of early action vs. early decision depends on your resources. I generally encourage clients to apply early action which is not binding. Most selective institutions admit 40% of their early applicants. The ivies generally speaking admit less than 10% of regular decision applicants. When uncertain about the campus or university of first choice, choose regular timing.

VT: How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?

Angela: I've served in two highly selective admission offices. In both cases grades and a student's academic record outweighed test scores. If the high school offered challenging courses and the student failed to avail themselves of those offerings; choosing to pursue straight "A"s in the regular courses instead, then that would certainly impact a decision. Almost 900 colleges/universities do not consider SAT scores in their decision making, but for those who do, scores are considered in the context of their ability to underscore or undermine a students' transcript and possibly state exam scores. Everything is open for assessment: SAT/ACT/state exams/AP/ IBM. However, the larger context is how those scores make or break the bigger picture.

VT:  What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?

Angela: Do not ask just anyone! I encourage clients to ask for "raves" from those who taught them in the last two years of high school. The difference between a "rave" or a "recommendation" is the level of context. My clients seek out the recommender who says: this young woman is among the best/most creative/singular student I've taught in five or ten years. Find someone who can rave, not just someone who taught or managed you in a classroom or employee setting as a teacher’s assistant.

Check out VentureForth Consulting for more information on Angela’s admissions services.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.