Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Dr. Michele Hernández is the co-founder of Top Tier Admissions, which provides college and graduate school admissions assistance and college counseling to students from around the world. Dr. Hernández previously served four years as the Assistant Director of Admissions at Dartmouth College and is the author of several best-selling books: A is for Admission, The Middle School Years, Acing the College Application, and Don’t Worry You’ll Get In, which she wrote with Mimi Doe. She graduated from Dartmouth College and went on to earn a Master’s degree in English and Comparative literature from Columbia University and a Doctorate in Education from Nova Southeastern.
How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Michele: Definitely the summer before senior year. With all our private clients, we start brainstorming essays right when junior year ends and try to have them totally done by Labor Day so they can focus on the all-important fall grades.
What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Michele: Think of your academic area of interest. What is your passion? What topics excite you? If you are interested in a topic, your enthusiasm and knowledge will come across in spades.
Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
Michele: Tons! Any athletics essay, anything that shows being sheltered, or “I didn’t think I could do it…but I did because I persevered” essays—ick—or how you made a speech and people clapped or you won the model UN debate.
What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
Michele: Lots! Careless typos—be sure to proof carefully! Writing the wrong school name on a WHY essay, not doing enough research on a school so you get something wrong—“I want to major in nursing at Dartmouth” (Dartmouth doesn’t have a nursing program…)
What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
Michele: Reading the student’s information—the school transcript, profile, teacher recs, essays—then evaluating the academic level, extracurricular/leadership, and writing up a paragraph or two on each.
What do you think is the single most important thing a student should make sure he or she presents in the best possible way on his or her application?
Michele: Their love of learning and scholarship
How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
Michele: Visiting the campus, speaking to current students, reading the school newspaper, even doing an overnight visit if you can! Visit a class—are the students engaged? Is the teacher interesting? Read unbiased evaluations like those in College Prowler.
Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions...With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Michele: If you have a clear first choice, definitely early decision—odds are way better. Sure, it’s binding, but if you wait until regular admissions with the multitudes, you probably won’t get in. We create a customized plan for our students with ED if we can, combined with EA schools that are not restrictive (like Boston College) or “Single Choice” (Harvard, Yale, Stanford).
How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
Michele: Super important. Basically, if your grades and scores are not in range of a school, no extras will help you get past that. Grades and scores put you in range and then your love of learning, awards, and accomplishments push you in.
What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Michele: Be respectful of their time. It’s a major thing, so ask them if they feel comfortable writing one: “I really loved your English class. Would you feel comfortable writing on my behalf for colleges?” That gives them a way out. Also, if your school has comments, read over all your teacher comments carefully to see which teacher is the most specific. Also, if you did something notable in that class, you can give your teacher a list of things you’ve done to “remind” him or her, so the letter can have specifics!
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The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.