Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Audrey Kahane earned her undergraduate degree in Sociology and her Master’s degree in Counseling, both from the University of Pennsylvania. Previously, Audrey served as a University of California, Los Angeles instructor for its College Counseling Certificate Program. She has been writing a college-themed column in a Ventura County community newspaper for more than a decade.
VT: How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Audrey: I have my students start their applications during the summer before senior year. The Common Application opens on August 1, but the essay prompts are already available. It’s much less stressful to get your applications done during the summer, without the pressure of daily homework and tests. Also, nobody should expect to submit a first draft of the essay. By starting in the summer, students have enough time to write multiple essay drafts, resulting in the strongest possible application.
VT: What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Audrey: Think of a story from your life that reveals something about you that admissions officers won’t learn from the rest of the application. Students often think they need to write about a major event or big idea, but the most compelling essays are often about a moment or a seemingly-mundane experience that caused a shift in how the student sees herself or the world. Make sure that the story includes some reflection. Essays are not just about what happened, but why this experience matters. Spend some time brainstorming until you find an idea that excites you. You may need to try out several ideas until you find the right one, and that’s fine, because once you have the right idea, the writing will flow. If it’s exciting for you to write, it will probably be exciting for admissions officers to read.
VT: Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
Audrey: While I never rule out a topic, it is certainly more challenging to come up with a fresh approach to the “how our basketball team was struggling but came together and triumphed” essay. Writing about painful experiences, like divorce or death in the family, or a struggle with an anxiety disorder, can also be difficult. While these experiences can certainly impact who you are and how you see yourself and the world, it is important to think about what admissions officers will learn about you that will make them see you as a compelling addition to their college. If you write about a difficult life experience, make sure the essay shows how you have grown from the experience and developed qualities like resilience and persistence. If you feel you need to tell the story in order to explain a drop in grades, it may be better to use the “additional information” section of the application to provide context for your academic performance. The main essay is where you want to show admissions officers what you will bring to the campus community.
VT: What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
Audrey: Likeability is rarely talked about, but it’s very important in college admission, especially when colleges have lots of applications from well-qualified students. One admissions officer said that when he reads an application, he asks himself, “Would I want to eat pizza at midnight in a dorm with this person?” Students sometimes try so hard to impress admissions officers, but think about it – when someone tells you how great she is, do you like that person? The goal in a college application is not to impress the reader or come across as perfect, but to create a bond with the reader. It’s great to be confident, but it’s even better with a touch of humility.
VT: What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
Audrey: It depends on the college. At some big public universities, the process is simply a matter of meeting GPA and/or test score requirements. At many colleges, an application will be read by two readers, and one is often a territory representative who is familiar with the student’s high school. At some schools, applications will go on to a committee review.
Many colleges use a holistic approach, where admissions officers evaluate the rigor of the curriculum and grades as well as test scores, but also consider teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities, application essays, and many other factors that can’t be quantified. They evaluate a student’s achievements in the context of the opportunities available to that student. There are institutional needs that come into play as well. The college might want to recruit more students from a certain part of the country. If financial aid resources are limited, the school might need more full-pay students.
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?
Audrey: Colleges will get many applications with similar transcripts and test scores. You want to submit an application that only you can write. This means using a conversational approach in your essay and helping admissions officers hear your voice – your attitude, your personality, your take on the world. You’ll know that your voice is coming through if friends or relatives can read your essay (without your name on it) and know instantly that you are the person who wrote it. Your essay should sound exactly like you.
VT: How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
Audrey: The first step is to think about what kind of culture would be the best fit for you. Does your vision of college include cheering for your team at football games? Or does your ideal Saturday night consist of seeing an independent film and discussing it over cappuccino? Once you know what is important to you, there are lots of resources, including guidebooks and websites with student reviews. One of my favorite suggestions is to start reading the school newspaper, which should be available online, to learn what issues are being discussed on campus, as well as what’s going on – lectures, concerts, and other campus events. Check the organizations listed on the student life section of the school’s website to see if there are clubs that sound interesting. If you love the outdoors and find that a school has a hiking club, ski club, and bicycling club, you know there are people who share some of your interests. You can even email the contact person for the club to ask about the school. Talking with students is the best way to learn about the culture of a university. Talk to friends, neighbors, or relatives who attend the school, and if you are visiting, arrange to meet them and some of their friends.
VT: Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions...With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Audrey: This is a complicated question, and the answer depends on the student and on the college. If a student is considering applying early decision, which is binding, she needs to be sure that she would attend if accepted, and that her family does not need to compare financial aid or scholarship offers. Early action is not binding, but many colleges see early action as evidence of a student’s interest, which can be helpful in admission decisions. Early applications are not always the best strategy, especially for students who need to show improvement in grades during the first semester of senior year. Some colleges defer all students who are not admitted early and reconsider their applications during regular decision. If a college does not defer many early applicants to regular decision, and there is a strong risk of rejection during the early round, it may be better to wait and submit your strongest application.
VT: How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
Audrey: Grades are always important. In addition to looking at grade point average, many admissions officers will look at the trend, so a low grade in 9th grade is less likely to impact admission decisions than a low grade in 11th grade. Standardized test scores are also important at the colleges that require them. Students who don’t perform well on standardized tests should make sure to apply to some test-optional colleges. The good news is that there are more colleges choosing to become test-optional every year.
VT: What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Audrey: A required letter of recommendation should be from a junior- or senior-year teacher. If your favorite teacher, who you know will write the strongest letter, is from sophomore year, that’s fine for a supplemental letter.
That doesn’t mean you always ask a teacher from the class where you got the highest grade. Sure, it’s great to have a teacher rave about how you are the best writer she’s seen in ten years of teaching AP English, or to have your History teacher write that you contributed the most insightful comments to class discussions – but if a teacher writes that you fought to be admitted to AP Chemistry even though you didn’t meet the school’s requirements for taking the AP class, and that you came in for extra help after school every week and were committed to mastering the material even though it was a struggle, that is a letter that can really impress admissions officers. Most importantly, you want a letter from a teacher who knows you well and can provide details about your academic endeavors so the recommendation doesn’t sound like the 100 other letters the admissions officer is reading that week.
An English or History teacher is often a good choice since admissions officers like to know that students can write well. If you’re applying to engineering programs, a math teacher recommendation would be important.
Ask your teachers before the end of the school year, especially if they get lots of requests. Then you can follow up when school starts, and give them a list of your colleges with application deadlines.
If you don’t currently have a class with the teacher, it can be helpful to give her a brief letter, thanking her in advance for writing the recommendation and reminding her of your favorite project from the class, or a paper that she said was unusually well-written. It can also help to tell your teacher about your college plans. If you’re applying to business programs, your teacher’s letter might include examples of the leadership you’ve shown in class as well as your facility with statistics.
Teachers in some schools may be asked to write 40 or 50 recommendations, and they can understandably get burned out. They write recommendation letters on their own time, often giving up evenings and weekends. Be considerate and give them at least four weeks. It’s also not in your interest to have a frazzled teacher scrambling to write a letter three days before the application deadline. Be sure to write thank-you notes to everyone who wrote a recommendation for you, and share your good news when you get your acceptances.
Visit Audrey’s website for more information.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.