Ask an Admissions Expert: Dr. Joan Martin

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Joan Martin, Ph.D., has been helping students gain admission to their first choice colleges in the U.S. and Europe for two decades. She is the founder of and has written two eBooks, Writing the Common Application and How to Jumpstart the College Application Process. Dr. Martin holds degrees from the University of Michigan, Harvard University, and MIT.

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

Joan: My best suggestion is to start writing the Common Application essay a few days after the junior year has ended. The few days will give the student time to decompress and relax. If the student sets up a well-defined time to write the Personal Essay early in the summer, he will be able to give it a week’s rest and then go back to edit it. Magical things happen when the essay is given a rest; the student brings new ideas to the subject and can also better edit it without being pressed for time. The bonus to this schedule is the student can enjoy his summer because the stressful writing phrase has been completed. Essays should not read like they have been rushed; start early and you will have well-conceived and written essays, the best chance for writing “Essay Gold”.

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

Joan: “Essay Gold” occurs when the student is truly passionate about a subject because the excitement about the topic shines through. Usually students have one story or experience that is sticking in their mind. They should analyze the story to make sure it is positive and will bring out their best traits. So, prior to any writing, the students should list these traits and then analyze the original story to see if those traits are evident, if not, go to another experience. The way in which the student analyzes the experience and makes his personality shine are what makes an essay purposeful and “Essay Gold”. The topic is important but not as important as the passion and analysis.

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

Joan: In my eBook, Writing the Common Application, I list 21 essay topics to avoid. Always avoid anything that is negative such as drinking, eating disorders, or getting into trouble in any way, even it becomes a turning point. What you write is what they will remember about you. The best advice I can give though, is not to use an experience that your parents have paid for, use an experience that you have created through initiative and determination. The new Common Application, 2013, asks very specific questions, so you must be able to use an experience that can be crafted to answer the question.

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

Joan: The biggest mistake a student can ever make when writing an application is not sounding like a 17-year-old has written it. When a student’s parent edits his essay, it sounds like a 48 year old lawyer, teacher, or businessman. Those essays jump out when read by an admissions officer and are promptly marked DDI (Daddy Did It) and go to the reject pile. Sound your age, include your quirkiness, but do correct spelling and grammar.

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

Joan: The application is first scanned for GPA and SAT/ACT scores; if they fall into the college’s acceptance range, the application is further read. The rigor of the courses the student has taken is also considered. What comes next is subjective. Does the application read like their typical, successful student? This question is answered by the essays, the extracurricular activities, and the recommendations. Admissions officers know what type of student can be successful within their curriculum and then go on to become outstanding citizens and alumni. They can literally “smell” a great candidate even if they are reading the application at 1 am, eating pizza, and have read 50 others prior to this.

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?

Joan: Consistency, initiative, and passion are the traits that should be presented in a student’s application starting with the extracurricular activities right through the Personal Essay and the Supplement Questions. Declare how you have stayed with a project or organization through many years, put your own stamp on it, and truly loved doing it. That is the definition of leadership and determination.

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

Joan: The best way to determine the culture of a college is to visit it during the school year, sit in the cafeteria, look around at the students and talk to them. Additionally, the student should contact other students from his high school who are currently enrolled; those students tend to give the best inside information. Websites today provide an excellent way in which to determine the fit between the student’s college goals and the mission of the college itself.  If the student can successfully answer the question, why do I want to go there, it is probably a good fit. Within this answer is usually some program, professor, or courses that the student is attracted to – this is what determines a good academic fit.

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

Joan: I recommend that the student apply to his first choice college as Early Decision and several “safety” colleges as Early Action. If the student does not get accepted Early Decision to his first choice, but does get accepted to Early Action colleges, a lot of pressure will be eliminated – he will be going someplace. The other colleges on his list can be Regular Decision. If a student needs financial aid, never apply to any binding decision option. Wait until all acceptances and financial aid packages have been presented in order to make a decision.

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

Joan: Grades are the number one criterion, then SAT/ACT scores. A minimum Academic Index, GPA/SAT/class rank, is enlisted at all colleges. Once a student has passed that threshold, essays and extracurricular activities demonstrating consistency, initiative, and passion come into play. If a student can make the written part of the application truly sparkle, he can beat out someone with a higher SAT score. Make the essay shine!

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

Joan: Present each teacher with a large envelope containing a copy of your Common Application (extracurricular activities and essays), a list of the colleges to which you are applying, and a short paragraph about your goals for college and career. Ask the teacher politely (in person and not through email) if he would write a recommendation. If he accepts, the teacher will be impressed that you have organized everything into one envelope and will probably give you an even better recommendation than he would have before. Always send a hand written thank you note.

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