Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Dr. Carol Langlois has over 17 years of experience in higher education admissions and recruiting. She has been on the admissions boards for many schools including the University of San Francisco and also holds a Doctorate in Education. Dr. Langlois has handled all aspects of the admissions process and reviewed thousands of applications during her time in past positions as well as her time as an independent admissions consultant.
VT: How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Carol: Families are starting the college search process earlier and earlier. I recommend that as a family you “start” the college conversation during the end of the sophomore year to gear up your teen for the junior year search. I use January of the junior year as the starting point. I find that telling families “slow and steady wins the race” helps them think through this process. We basically have one year to help you and your teen put his or her best foot forward, the finish line being December or January of their senior year.
VT: What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Carol: Look at a bunch of college essays from the year before to familiarize yourself with what the schools will be looking for. That way you won’t be surprised when you actually start your applications. As a rule of thumb, I recommend to students that they think about their best English paper. Pull it out, read again and remember why it was your best paper. Then, keep that in mind when writing the essays for the colleges you have selected. A lot of times, I find students becoming very conservative with their essays. Writing about what they “think” colleges want to see. I start with students by having them brainstorm; having them think outside the box when it comes to some of these questions, then create an outline, which will build into an essay. Don’t think a perfect finished product will happen in one session. You need to go back to these essays and reread, and rediscover. I guarantee the way your essay looks at the beginning of this process is not the way it will look in the end.
VT: Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
Carol: I wouldn’t say there are specific essay topics, but there are formulated ways of writing. Many students start an essay with a quote, reflect upon how it has related to them in their life, and then at the end, somehow bringing things back to the meaning of the quote. Yes, there is a time and a place for an essay like this, but it needs to match with the proper essay question. I would suggest that students think outside the box, get creative. Admissions teams will remember you not for playing it safe, but for sharing something very real, very funny, very interesting – very you. When you read a well-written essay, it is as if the individual is right in front of you. You get an understanding for who they are. That’s what admissions people are looking for.
VT: What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
Carol: Some of the top mistakes I see would be (in no particular order):
- Not paying attention to the word count requested by a college.
- Mentioning a different college’s name in the essay.
- Just plain laziness. Meaning, they don’t thoroughly reread their work, watch for spelling and edit.
I highly encourage students to bring their final essays to their English teacher and have him/her take a final look through to help with structure, flow and clarity.
VT: What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
Carol: I can’t say that all colleges have the same process because it really depends on the size of the institution and the size of the admissions staff. Generally, the admissions counselors/recruiters work a specific region. Here, he/she will recruit in that region, visit those high schools, and conduct presentations. They will then follow-up and communicate with the interested applicants from that region. That counselor tends to be the one to take the initial look through your file and make sure that it is complete. They may rate or rank the individual based on that college’s specific system and make a recommendation to either the director or the Dean, depending upon who makes final decisions. That individual (the director or the Dean) will reevaluate the applications taking into consideration the counselor’s suggestions and from there here he/she will make the final decision on who is admitted. They will most likely be the individuals deciding upon the scholarship awarding. Other schools may review files as a committee. Those committees can be made up of staff as well as faculty.
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: Just be honest, and be yourself. Make sure to be consistent in how you respond to the questions. Make sure your answers and major choice match your interests. Follow the directions carefully and make sure everything is complete before submitting!
VT: How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
Carol: The only way to know the true culture of the college is by visiting. Yes, you should first do your due diligence and read the guides and college-board site. Learn about the students, majors, activities, etc., but not until you step foot on that campus, will you truly know if it’s a good fit. There are intangibles that cannot be learned by looking at a website or by reading a brochure. I would encourage you to tour the campus, meet with admissions people, attend a classroom lecture, and stay overnight (if offered) by the institution. Talk to as many students on campus as possible and see why they like their institution. Seek out people in your hometown who attended your top choice institutions and asked them about their experiences.
VT: Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions...With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Carol: I’m personally not a big fan of early action or early decision. I don’t like to see a student put his/her eggs all in one basket, so to speak. Not to mention that you may feel differently after visiting all the campuses. If you apply early decision, you are informing the institution that if accepted, you will attend. All other applications must be pulled. What if you come to find out that you don’t like the cultures, the extracurriculars, the students? Then you’re stuck. Also, keep in mind that you cannot “successfully” negotiate a financial aid package when you apply early action or early decision. Since colleges know that they are your number 1 choice, they can offer you less aid. Whereas if you applied during regular admissions, you can review all your acceptances collectively, visit campuses, call the institutions and see about your aid and inquire about other scholarship opportunities. I personally think that is the better route.
VT: How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
Carol: Grades and standardized tests are very important for college admissions. Keep your high school GPA solid, meaning, colleges don’t want to see you as a C student one semester and then an A student another. Practice, practice, practice when it comes to taking the ACT or the SAT. Schools want to tout very high SAT and ACT scores. This gives them higher rankings and more opportunity to be selective.
VT: What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Carol: Make sure the teacher knows you very well. Ask them for the recommendation in person. Also, you may want to provide them with some general highlights from your high school career since they may not know some of your involvements, prior to when you were a student of theirs. Also, don’t hit them up last minute for a recommendation. I suggest that you secure that recommender early on. There is nothing worse for a teacher then being bombarded by 10 to 20 students, all asking for a letter of recommendation at the same time. Be sensitive to the time involved with writing a good letter of recommendation. Again, talk to them early on in the process so they have more time to think about the letter. Remember, your recommender doesn’t need to be the most impressive person from your town. They need to be someone who truly believes in you, knows you firsthand, and can speak to your character. Trust me, it is very easy to detect the level of involvement between recommender and student based on how the recommender writes the letter. The more in-depth, more intimate, more impassioned, tells admissions teams that they truly know you and believe in you and your success.
For more information, contact Dr. Carol Langlois at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.