Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Jason Lum is the president and founder of ScholarEdge College Consulting. He obtained his undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis and completed his Master of Public Policy at Harvard University and his Juris Doctor at University of California, Berkeley. Jason previously served as an application reviewer in the Harvard University Admissions Office.
VT: How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Jason: Ideally, students will begin working on their college applications during the summer prior to their senior year. The fact of the matter is that once senior year begins, students are hit hard by all the things thrown at them – AP classes, other advanced courses, athletics, and extracurricular activities. On top of that, they are expected to increasingly apply to more and more schools, particularly if they are interested in highly selective colleges and universities.
Very few students have the ability to juggle all these commitments simultaneously, so the summer before senior year is a vital time to begin the college application process.
VT: What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Jason: A great essay really is nothing more (and nothing less) than a story. When I work with a student, I try to figure out what it is about that person that I find interesting on a personal level. For example, virtually all the students who apply to selective schools can likely handle the academic workload at those universities. What admissions officers look for is a narrative about the student that separates him or her from other candidates. A great essay topic picked by the student gives the admissions committee a ground-level view of what the student has gone through and what challenges, goals, and visions the student embraces.
VT: Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
Jason: One- or two-week mission trips or humanitarian trips that are blown out of proportion. There is, of course, nothing wrong with a student doing a mission trip, and they clearly have value to both the student and to the people who are served. But some students take these trips and make themselves out to be a modern-day Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela. Admissions committees see through this fairly quickly.
VT: What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
Jason: A lack of authenticity. Don’t try to paint yourself as someone you are not; be honest, and really delve within yourself to find out what it is about you that would make you a perfect fit at the colleges and universities you are applying to. In 15 years of working with students, I have yet to meet one student who does not have some inspiring experience or life story that deeply affects the reader.
VT: What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
Jason: It varies from college to college, but admissions officers will generally review the file with a checklist – for lack of a better term – that helps guide them through the application. Virtually everything that they look for will not surprise students: GPA, ACT/SAT scores, extracurricular activities, etc.
The truly subjective part of this process, of course, is the review of the essays, letters of recommendation, and things student cannot control, such as whether the parents are alumni of the college or university, athletics, and race and gender. There is so much subjectivity baked into the process that many students will look at the results from their college applications and not see any consistency – even between schools in the same selectivity range. That’s the new normal.
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?
Jason: The Common Application essay. It is the common denominator for virtually every school a student will apply to, and is the one essay that is guaranteed to be read by the admissions officers at every college and university. Some schools such as Stanford University and The University of Chicago have notoriously lengthy supplemental applications, but even those schools will require the Common Application, and they will review the essay very carefully.
VT: How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
Jason: I am somewhat contrarian on this, but I don’t believe parents need to spend thousands of dollars visiting 20 or 30 schools prior to applying to college. There is plenty of valuable information available in books, and on college and university websites. Students really don’t need to be visiting schools before applying. Also, working with an independent education consultant can save parents time and money – they are paying for the consultant’s experience. In fact, the consultant probably visited many of the schools a student is likely to apply to, and they can greatly help in the process.
VT: Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions...With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Jason: Early-decision – which binds a student to go to the school if they are accepted – is something that I rarely recommend to students. The only exception is if a student unambiguously identifies that institution as his or her first choice and if financial aid is not an issue.
I do, however, recommend non-binding early-action for many students – not only because in some cases you have a slight statistical advantage in getting in, but also because it motivates the student to get his or her application done early, as these deadlines typically fall on November 1. The student can still apply to other schools and wait to see if they get into an institution that is either a better fit or gives the family more money.
VT: How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
Jason: Grades will always be the most important component of an application. Standardized test scores are becoming slightly less important for the vast majority of colleges and universities.
However, even though top colleges and universities may say otherwise, we need to be realistic here: a student with a 26 on the ACT is simply not going to have much of a chance of getting into an Ivy League school unless there are some extremely extenuating circumstances. In my practice, however, I have had many students go on to extremely selective schools with very high GPAs and good, but not great, standardized test scores. To me, this is a good thing because many of the best students I’ve ever met are lousy standardized test-takers. But they do magnificently in the classroom, and they go on to have very rewarding careers.
VT: What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Jason: Don’t be too obsessed with making sure that all your recommenders teach in what you think will be your college major. If you think you’ll be a biology major in college, you don’t have to have all of your high school recommenders from the science department.
Pick recommenders based on whether the person likes you and knows what you do outside the classroom. My litmus test is this: what does a particular teacher know about you outside of the work you’ve done in his or her classroom? If the answer is not much, you are asking the wrong person to recommend you.
As a side note, if none of your teachers know what you’re doing outside of the classroom, then you have a big problem that you need to fix. How do you fix this? Talk to teachers after class or visit them during office hours, join clubs and activities where that faculty member may be an adviser, and basically educate the person about what you do besides taking that teacher’s class. If you do that, you’ll be just fine when you ask for a letter of recommendation.
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The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.