Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Neil Kamdar is a co-founder of K2 Educational Consulting, a college admissions consultancy founded in 2008. He obtained his undergraduate degree in business from New York University and went on to complete his Master’s in Business Administration at Yale University. K2 Educational Consulting provides guidance from Ivy League-educated consultants for each step of the admissions process.
VT: How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Neil: Ideally, a student should understand what colleges are looking for well before his or her senior year of high school. Students should know that the classes they choose, the extra-curricular activities they are passionate about, and the leadership roles they undertake are all part of the college application process. Because there are so many moving parts in this process, it is important to understand how to approach it as a whole. We recommend starting work on the application during the summer months after junior year. Students should begin by making a list of the possible schools where they’d like to apply. They should then identify all the parts of these applications—essays, recommendation letters, transcripts, etc.—and make a timeline with deadlines for each component. By starting the college admissions process with a clear understanding of tasks and deadlines, you can eliminate a great deal of stress from a tedious process. Stick to your timeline, and you will turn in a much better application without scrambling last-minute to throw items together.
VT: What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Neil: The biggest mistake we see in college essays is that students don’t answer the question correctly. As simple as it sounds, it is very common for a student to be descriptive in his or her essay but miss the entire point. Colleges want to see how you have grown, hear the experiences that have shaped you, and ultimately read how you can take your experiences and add value to their campuses. Try to identify moments in your life that have truly influenced you. In your essays, make sure you clearly identify how these experiences have helped you grow, and how that translates into your future goals. Often, students get caught up in writing as much as possible. Remember that length is not necessarily an indicator of quality. On the contrary, it is better to be concise, yet impactful. Pick a topic that you are passionate about, and let that passion show in your essay.
VT: Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
Neil: There isn’t anything we’d recommend staying away from in this regard. However, as stated earlier, make sure the essay has meaning. It should be about experiences that you have had, and it should highlight your growth. Any essay can do this if written correctly. However, answer the question properly for each essay. I wouldn’t suggest staying away from any topics, but ensure that the topics you do consider can deliver impact.
VT: What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
Neil: The biggest mistake a student can make is taking the process lightly. Many times, even the best students do not realize what is entailed in the application process. Up until this point, they have never applied for anything as serious as college. It is important to start early and recognize every facet of the process. The worst mistake is to procrastinate and throw something together at the last minute. Why waste all of your hard work in high school with a poorly compiled application? Start early and give each part of the application the attention it deserves.
VT: What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
Neil: It can vary depending upon the school. Initially, each application will be reviewed in a very quick time frame, where it will either move on to the next round or be eliminated. Once this has occurred, admissions committees will review the remaining applications and look for important attributes. In addition to examining grades and test scores, they will look for leadership, passion, and initiative packaged in clear, concise, and coherent essays. Finally, they will consider your recommendation letters. The truth is that each admissions committee may value different items. However, each part of the application is very important, and being strong in one area does not mean you can put forth a lesser effort in other areas.
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?
Neil: Certain aspects of an application are impossible to change, such as your grades and test scores. However, there are ways to demonstrate value in the application. At K2, we believe that the single most important item to present is how a particular student can add value to a university. This is illustrated through passionate essays that show leadership. Any time a student takes initiative, it resonates with any admissions committee. When writing your essays and submitting recommendations, make a concentrated effort to present leadership qualities and passion, so that people know what you can potentially bring to their school.
VT: How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
Neil: The best way to determine the culture of a university is to visit the school. Campus visits are a great way to understand how you would fit at a particular school. It will give you a sense of the campus atmosphere, as well an idea of the culture of the student body. If visiting is difficult, reach out to people who have attended those colleges. Ask them about their experiences—what they liked, what they would improve upon, etc. If you already know what you are looking for in a college, that is great. However, don’t underestimate the importance of diligent research. There are often aspects that you may not have considered that can make a huge difference. We suggest developing criteria and grading prospective schools according to those criteria. It may take effort to obtain the information, but it will be worth it when you are at a school that is the perfect fit for you.
VT: Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions...With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Neil: This depends on the situation. If you know what school you would like to attend, and that choice involves a degree of certainty, I’d recommend applying early-decision. Colleges value commitment, and if you show you are interested, without a doubt, it can help your chances. However, most students don’t definitively know where they would like to attend. In those instances, I would recommend applying early-action (non-binding). This can simply jump-start your application process and potentially eliminate the stress of waiting until later in the year to find out your admission status. However, if your test scores are not where you‘d like them to be, or your grades could use some improvement, wait. Take the first semester of your senior year to focus on your academics, get your test scores in order, and craft your story. While applying early can help, the quality of your application is much more important than its timing.
VT: How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
Neil: In my experience, grades are the single most important attribute of any college application. Colleges want to see a consistent body of work that shows dedication and a commitment to academics. They want to select a student who has challenged him- or herself with honors/AP classes, while also balancing other responsibilities. That being said, they will also recognize marked improvements over the course of a high school career. Standardized test scores, including SAT and ACT scores, are also very important for any application. These are the tangibles that cannot be overlooked. However, don’t be discouraged if your grades or scores are not up to par. Put effort into your application so that you give yourself the best chance of succeeding. Every aspect of an application is integral to the process, so don't sell yourself short because you aren't happy with your grades or scores.
VT: What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Neil: Develop a plan in the summer before your senior year. Determine the number of recommendations you’ll need, and identify the teachers that you think will do the best job. Be sure to ask them as soon as possible at the start of the school year, and do your best to make the process as easy as possible for them. Provide them with a list of your accomplishments, as well as a detailed resume, so they know what other activities you’ve been a part of in your high school career outside their classrooms. It is important to realize that teachers will have multiple students asking them for recommendations. Follow up regularly to remind them of your deadlines, as they may forget. By being proactive and asking early with all necessary material prepared, you can ensure a timely and quality recommendation letter.
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The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.