Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Carol Barash, PhD is a summa cum laude graduate of Yale University and a graduate alumna of the University of Virginia and Princeton University. She has served as an admissions officer at Rutgers University and has received awards for her alumni service to Yale and Princeton. She is the founder and CEO of Story to College, a company dedicated to helping students through all areas of admissions.
VT: How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Carol: Throughout high school, students can build essential skills to complete successful college applications: research a wide range of colleges (not just name brands), explore different career paths, and pursue your own independent work in the courses that most excite you. For the essays in particular, it is great if you can keep a journal – even 500 words a day of writing about your experience provides details to draw on when it comes time to write the essays. Studies show that writing a little bit every day improves all of your writing!
VT: What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Carol: The best college application essays are those that bring your important, definitional moments to life for your reader. These don't have to be Superman moments; they can be important everyday moments that reveal your character and show the world from your perspective. So it's best to start with stories from your own experience and let each essay evolve in response to specific questions from each college.
VT: Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
Carol: Every year there are a few essay topics that everyone seems to land on at once. Students hear that a certain essay topic "worked" and so they try to imitate it: the Lego essay for future engineers; the service trip to a third-world country; how I overcame this or that learning disability. Rather than start with the topic, ask yourself, "What do I want colleges to know about me as a person? What will I bring to this college community?" And then spend time finding stories from your own experience that bring your character and commitments to life.
VT: What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
Carol: The biggest mistake is to say things that are very general, things that many students can say. Successful applications bring the student's unique character to life. When in doubt, be more specific and more detailed about your own experience and point of view.
VT: What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
Carol: This is different for each school, but in the early rounds your essays get read quickly. If the reader thinks you are good fit for their college community, then others will read it and things will slow down a bit. It's important to remember that you need to be academically qualified for the school, and you also need to be a good fit for their academic and extracurricular programs. It's important to research each school you are applying to, and to be specific about how you are a good fit each place you apply.
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?
Carol: The most important thing is to show your character. What is it that makes you a person a college wants to have as part of their community? Perhaps it is your creativity or your leadership or your commitment to social justice. Whatever it is, bring those unique parts of your character to life in your application essays, so it's almost as if you are there in the room with the person who is reading your essays!
VT: How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
Carol: In addition to visiting, you can learn a lot about each college from their website. Take the virtual tour, when possible chat online with students who are featured on the website, and look closely at programs that interest you. Take notes, with a separate page for each school you are considering, so you can remember each one. When someone from the college visits your high school, set up a meeting. Talk to recent graduates from your high school who attend the school now, and visit them if you can.
VT: Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions...With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Carol: It's best not to worry about all of these options at first. Aim for a list of 8-10 colleges (1-2 that you consider Reaches, 3-4 Target schools where you are a solid fit, and 3-4 where you are Likely to be admitted). Talk to your guidance counselor to help make this list and to decide what Early options make sense for you. Sometimes, if one of the places you want to apply is a strong first choice and they have an Early Decision option, you may want to consider applying there Early. Also make sure to apply as soon as possible to any school that has Rolling admissions.
VT: How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
Carol: Grades and standardized test scores are the 2 most important parts of your application, then the essays. In addition to strong grades, colleges want to see that you have taken the most challenging courses possible at your school--and even outside your school in summer programs and courses at local colleges. It's great if you can show that you have gone beyond the required course work especially in your areas of academic interest.
VT: What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Carol: You can build strong relationships with your teachers by talking to them—after class or after school—about the course and asking for help when you need it and advice for extra work when you are excited to learn more! Perhaps ask them where they went to college and where they think you would be a good fit. Then when the time comes to ask them for a recommendation you have a solid foundation. Try this, "I was wondering if you might be able to write me a letter of recommendation for my college applications? Do you have any reservations about writing a letter for me?" And then listen to what they have to say. If they are not able to write a strong recommendation, consider asking someone else. Sometimes the most popular teachers are asked to write letters for many students; consider asking a teacher who knows you well and isn't writing for everyone else--or a teacher or advisor for whom you did independent research.
For more information, check out Story To College.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.