Ask an Admissions Expert: Nancy Milne

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Nancy Milne has worked in higher education for over 15 years. With a doctorate in Higher Education, she has worked as an application reader for the University of Vermont and a Director of Admissions for Cornell University. Nancy has applied her admissions knowledge to the creation of her own consulting service, Milne Collegiate Consulting, where she guides numerous students through the challenging college search and application process.

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

Nancy: The summer before senior year is the ideal time to begin filling out applications. The Common Application doesn’t “go live” until August, but the essay questions are usually public knowledge before then. The farther along a student is, when school begins, the easier it will be to submit without last minute concerns. Writing the essay takes time to brainstorm, draft, rewrite, edit and proofread. Use the summer months wisely and you won’t feel pressured in the fall once classes begin.

In addition, creating an activities resume, so all of that demographic and extracurricular information is in one place will make it so much easier to fill out applications when they do become available.

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

Nancy: Colleges use the essay to see how a student views the world, how they process information and experiences. The essay demonstrates what is important to the student, what the student values.  Choose an everyday experience that is important to you. Explore a smaller part of a big experience. Make it memorable, so the reader finds themself saying “me too” or “aha”. Make sure that you evaluate and not just describe a situation. Show, don’t tell.  The reader is interested in your character, passion, and personal qualities.

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

Nancy: Unfortunately there is quite a list of overused essay themes that surface year after year.  From “I scored the winning goal for my team” to “my hero is my teacher/parent”. Other overworked examples include death, divorce, drugs, religion, politics, essays written for high school English class and current trends (think Harry Potter books, Twilight movies, reality TV shows). While it is possible to put a positive spin on any of these examples, very few succeed.

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

Nancy: Proof, print preview and don't procrastinate!  That is the number one issue with applications. It is all too easy to overlook errors after you've read your work umpteen times. Despite spell check and word counts there is still much that can be wrong. And just because it looks like it's formatted correctly, print previewing may show otherwise. The worst situation is waiting until the last minute. What if you have technical difficulties?  Always plan time to deal with last minute circumstances.

Also, think quality versus quantity when writing the essay. My order of preference is: short and good, long and good, short and bad, long and bad.  Craft an introductory sentence that hooks the reader and makes them want to keep reading. Be less concerned with what you did than why.  It’s not the events, but what they meant to you. 

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

Nancy: While every school has their own system for application review, you can be certain that because they asked for the information they will use it in their decision process. While some schools will focus more on scores or grades, others will give the essay equal weight or use it to tip the scales. Colleges are looking to enroll a well-rounded class, not just well rounded individuals. There is no magic formula and there is no one perfect profile. Simply be yourself and your authenticity will be evident on the application.

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?

Nancy: It is important that applicants come across as someone looking to be engaged on campus, both academically and socially. Colleges are looking for students who are resilient, humble, wise, and demonstrate courage and grit.

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

Nancy: A visit to campus is the chance to get a feel for the vibe of the school.  Pick a class of interest and sit in on the lecture/discussion. See if you can connect with a faculty member in your area of interest.  Have a meal in the cafeteria and initiate conversation. Pick up the school newspaper to read when you get home. Pay attention to bulletin board postings, student activity tables, and library traffic. Try to get a sense for how engaged the students are on campus. Do folks stay around on the weekend, if so what do they do? Make sure the residence halls look like a place you'd feel good about going home to after a tough day of classes. If recreation is important to you, are you pleased with the facilities? And most of all, if possible see if you can spend an overnight on campus. That is when you'll really see what goes on.

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

Nancy: I love rolling admissions. Within 4 weeks of submitting an application, you could have your first offer of admission. Knowing that someone wants you can make the clouds part and the sun come out at a time when you are feeling stressed.

Early decision concerns me because students are locked in to a commitment that eliminates any financial aid negotiation. I also find teenagers change their minds many times during their senior year of high school, so this could pose a problem.

Early application pools tend to be filled with fewer and stronger students. I encourage students to be organized and apply early whenever possible.

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

Nancy: The rigor of the transcript, along with the curriculum offered at the high school is often a better predictor of college success than SAT/ACT scores. Colleges love to see an upward grade trend, so don’t beat yourself up if you got off to a slow start in high school.

There are many institutions that no longer require standardized test scores in their application requirements. In addition, the degree you are seeking may also determine what parts of your file are considered more important.

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

Nancy: Please give your teachers as much advance notice as possible. I encourage juniors to ask before leaving for summer vacation. Provide your teacher with an activities resume, offer to chat over lunch or coffee, so they understand your plans. By all means don’t forget to thank them and share your final decision with them when the time comes. Chose teachers from the core subjects of math, science, English and social studies. Preferably select faculty whose classes you took as a junior or senior or had for multiple courses and know you well.

Get in touch with Nancy by visiting the Milne Collegiate Consulting website.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.