Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Leah Beasley received her Bachelor’s degree from Tufts University, her Master’s from the University of Michigan, and her Ph.D. from Michigan State. Having over a decade of experience in college admissions and high school college counseling, Leah is up to date on all of the most important trends and elements in this world. She has worked in many prestigious admissions offices including those at Harvard University and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Leah has evaluated thousands of applications over the years and is now the President and Founder of Beasley College Consulting, her very own admissions counseling firm.
VT: How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Leah: While a student may not actually begin to put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) until applications come out the summer before senior year, students should begin thinking about their applications well beforehand. First, when visiting colleges it is important to take notes about the visit and begin thinking about why the college might be a good fit. In addition, beginning to brainstorm the personal statement that is required by the Common Application, as well as many other selective colleges, can begin in the junior year. Finally, putting together a list of all extracurricular activities, community service, and work experiences should happen well before a student ever begins an application. However, the best time to actually begin to fill out applications is the summer before senior year as soon as applications become available. This allows the student plenty of time to thoughtfully fill out the application well before any deadline.
VT: What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Leah: It is important to remember that there is no “right” answer than an admissions officer is looking for in response to an essay question—they simply want to find out a bit more about who you are as a student, person, family member, friend, etc. Think about what your preferences, values, personality traits and characteristics that make you who you are and write an essay that showcases one or two of these things. Just as you would write any other essay, it’s important to take time to brainstorm possible essay topics. Often times it may take several drafts of an essay to come up with the right one. After you’ve written a draft make sure that you have someone that knows you well, like a teacher, parent or counselor, read your essay. If you haven’t stayed true to yourself, such a person will know it.
VT: Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
Leah: As an admissions counselor as well as an independent counselor, I’ve read thousands of college essays and I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. Here are a couple of tips when thinking about your essay:
- No topic is inherently a “good” or “bad” one. Admissions people want to discover something about you that they cannot learn from your transcript or test scores, so write about something that matters to you, not what you think they want to hear.
- While no topics are “wrong”, there are wrong approaches. In general, do not dwell on specific experiences, but on your perception of or reaction to those experiences.
- Some topics do need to be treated with great care, and should be avoided if you cannot do so. It is very difficult, for example, to write about personal tragedies or those that affect your community or the world. If you choose one of these subjects, be sure to focus less on the events than on how they affected you—and never focus on just the negatives, be sure to note how you’ve overcome this adversity. If you are asserting a strong opinion on a sensitive political, social, or religious issue, you may also want to point out that you are open to the opinions of others.
- Try to avoid writing about privilege in your essay.
VT: What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
Leah: Not staying true to yourself. A close second is, for instance, if you are applying to Harvard and you state that, “It has been my lifelong dream to attend Yale”!
VT: What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
Leah: Typically, the evaluation process of a student’s application varies based on the selectivity of the college. Some colleges simply rely on hard numbers to assess an applicant’s admissibility and review only grades, courses and test scores. On the other hand, at more selective institutions, a more holistic approach is taken. While admissions officers at highly selective institutions carefully review grades, courses, and test scores, other factors such as activities, leadership, essays, recommendation letters and interviews play an integral part of who will ultimately be offered admission.
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?
Leah: The single most important thing a student should present is their authentic self in the application. What makes them tick, how do they think, what are they truly passionate about—these are the things that will shine through in an application and will make an admissions officer take notice.
VT: How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
Leah: Visiting college campuses in person can be one of the most helpful and important activities during your college search and application process to help you determine if a college is a good fit for you. Touring the campus, talking to current students/faculty and getting a feel for the environment are crucial in helping you to make the all important decision of where you’ll best fit. To schedule a college visit, simply call the admissions office at an institution and inquire into the times for tours, information sessions, and interviews. Also, check the websites for tour and information session times. These visits do not typically require an appointment, but occasionally they do, so call ahead (at least two weeks in advance of your visit).
VT: Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions...With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Leah: Deciding what type of application to submit is a very personal decision—and varies with each student. Some things to remember though if you are thinking about applying as an early decision applicant: Early decision simply means that you are submitting your application early (typically in Nov.-Dec.) of your senior year and will generally receive a decision in December. If you choose to apply early decision you may only apply to one college using this plan and, if accepted, you are bound to attend and must then contact any other colleges to which you apply to remove your applications from consideration. Therefore, I encourage students who use this option to do so carefully—make sure that you have visited the campus (more than once if possible) and can say that it is hands-down your #1 choice.
VT: How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
Leah: Essays? Grades? Test scores? Activities? What matters most when an admissions officer sits down to review your application for admission? I often get this question from families and many are surprised by the answer.
So what matters most? According to the National Association of College Admissions Counselor’s 2011State of College Admission report, the three most important factors (as rated by admissions officers surveyed across the country as “considerably important”) are:
1) Grades in college prep courses—83%
2) Strength of curriculum—66%
3) Admission test scores—59%
Regardless of the selectivity of the college, these three factors will always be weighed most heavily in an admissions decision. However, a second set of factors including essays, recommendations, activities, and demonstrated interest were rated as “moderately important” in the admissions review. These factors can help admissions officers at highly selective institutions to differentiate between the often very well qualified applicants. The report also finds that interviews and AP/IB scores, while ranked of “moderate to low importance”, can also help to provide more information for comparing candidates of similar academic qualifications. Finally, factors such as SAT Subject Tests were rated as having “little or no importance” and are often simply used for placement purposes.
So a word to wise students—work hard in a rigorous curriculum while ensuring that you are prepping for standardized tests, but also ensure that you take the necessary time to research and visit colleges of interest and give your essays the time they deserve to show an admissions officer why you are a good fit for their campus.
VT: What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Leah: When asking a teacher for a letter of recommendation, do so in person. Remember that you are asking them a favor, so you want to be polite and also allow them to thoughtfully decline if they feel that they cannot write you a strong letter. If the teacher agrees to the write the letter, it can often help if you provide them with additional information about yourself as well, such as an extracurricular resume. Finally, make sure to write a handwritten thank you note after the letter has been submitted.
Visit the Beasley College Consulting website for more details on Leah and her admissions consulting services.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.