Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Deena Maerowitz was previously the Associate Director of Admissions at the Columbia University Business School. She holds a professional membership in the Independent Educational Consultants Association and is also a member of the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants. Deena currently works with students on their college applications with a personalized approach in guiding them through the college admissions process through her independent consulting firm.
VT: How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Deena: I would say that it doesn't hurt to become familiar with the common app and the process for applying in the spring of junior year. I work with clients on applications and essays during the summer prior to senior year. Of course, it’s always great to try to visit campuses when they are in session, and if you can do this during your sophomore and junior year, you’ll be ahead of the game.
VT: What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Deena: Think about a time, a snapshot in your life, where you really learned something about yourself. Try to identify a time of growth, development, and a real interest in your life. The most important thing about the admissions essay is that it’s about an experience that only you have had. This doesn’t mean you can’t write about something that you do with a team, or that other kids participate in, but it means that the story you tell about your experience should be one that only you could tell. Focus on times when you’ve really challenged yourself to think differently about something, or how your views on an experience have impacted who you are now.
VT: Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
Deena: I'd definitely say that applicants should stay away from writing about things that aren’t really about you, re: it focuses on someone else's experience and not about how that person or event impacted you. Some other things not to do? Don’t write about how you don’t want to write the essay, or become too abstract or rhetorical. Don’t use the essay to rally against the admissions process.
VT: What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
Deena: Not knowing enough about the college and why it's a good fit. Not thinking through essays or application questions. Not making the effort to visit if you're close by is also a sign that you’re not really taking this college seriously. Make sure that every step of the way, through your visits to campus, interviews, essays, etc., that you’re conveying your knowledge of the college and why you want to be there. Conveying a lack of interest is a big mistake.
VT: What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
Deena:I would read applications, take notes on the side, give my thoughts, and pass onto another member of the committee. Often, I would re-read essays and give myself some time to think about the applicant, what they would bring to the community, and how they would fit in with the academics of life on campus. Often, one admissions officer will advocate for a particular applicant once they form a relationship with that candidate’s application, and sometimes especially when they’ve met them in person and are impressed with what they’ve seen.
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?
Deena: What they will bring to the community, why that college is a fit for them, and how they know that about themselves. Applicants should take this process seriously. Applying to college is hard, but try to think about it as a step by step process. It’s important not to rush through the process. Each step, research, visits, interviews, and essays are important, so if you have the opportunity and time to experience the college as much as you can before you apply, you should.
VT: How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
Deena: Visit, research departments, Google professors and areas of interest, and see what turns up. Talk to students, get off the beaten path on campus visits. Taste the food, sit in on a class, see what is happening on weekends. Look at the dorms that they don't show you on the tour. Check out what people are doing in the library. There are so many ways to determine what life is like on campus.
VT: Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions...With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Deena: It really depends. Early decision is great for applicants that absolutely know that a particular school is their first choice, and that they will not regret withdrawing applications from other schools if they're accepted. Many colleges accept Early Decision applicants at a higher rate than those from the regular decision pool. I also think that Early Action is a great way for students to find out sooner about admissions so that April and May don’t feel so loaded.
VT: How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
Deena: They are incredibly important, but of course, not at all the only thing! Colleges want to know what you will bring to the community, what your interests are, what type of thinker you are, and what you are like as a person. What sports do you enjoy? What clubs? How have you been a leader? Admissions committees will look for a link in a student’s experience. So, it’s more important to show commitment and focus in outside activities than to be scattered. Grades and scores count, but so do all of the other aspects of what you can convey about who you are and what you’ve achieved.
VT: What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Deena: I suggest they bring a resumé to their teacher, to give them a more full understanding as to who they are outside the classroom. I also suggest students hold onto their best pieces of work from that class and are able to really articulate important issues they learned about or why that class was important to them. Do whatever you can to make the process easier for your teacher, and don't forget to waive your right to see the recommendation, and to thank your teacher for their help!
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The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.