Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Rachel Korn has evaluated over 10,000 applications in her 7 years of experience on admissions staffs. She has worked at the University of Pennsylvania, Brandeis University, and Wellesley College. Rachel is also the author of two admissions books and has been a guest on The Today Show as well. She now runs her own admissions consulting firm and has helped hundreds of applicants make it to schools all over the U.S. and Europe.
VT: How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Rachel: To survive the college admissions process, manage your work as it will manage your stress. New applications are available in the summer before the deadlines, so get a jump start before senior year begins. Take advantage of the quieter time without classes and activities competing for your attention. Even before then, start finalizing your college list so you can dive in right away when the applications go live. Buy a calendar to put on a kitchen wall and mark out weekly deadlines for yourself – the peer pressure will help you stick to what you write. Make yourself constantly responsible for a part of your applications – even if it is just “fill our activities section on the Common Application” one week.
VT: What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Rachel: The best essays (of 10,000+ I have evaluated as an admissions officer) were essays where I “felt” the applicant. You need not try to come up with the most imaginative theme in the world. In fact, you will succeed if you just find that subject that will share how you think and what you value with the admissions committee. Your will connect to the reader if you talk from the heart. Therefore, brainstorm about what the reader cannot see from the data in the application. Show what defines you: pick a topic that will allow you to share a brief significant story and then an analysis of it showing why that is important to know about you. Something you can analyze is key. A “cool” story on its own is not impressive.
VT: Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
Rachel: Frankly, there is very little that an admissions officer has not seen before, so you can take the pressure to be extremely original off of yourself. Good news, huh? Great essays often still come from common themes - navigating through a struggle, something that has shaped your goals and values, personal identity, and family, for example. It is how you write and show the depth of your thinking that will impress. As for no no’s, be very careful not to cross the bounds of taste (in terms of strong or inappropriate language or in terms of a sensitive subject – you know if something is questionable); don’t just praise something or someone else (readers will not learn anything about you); and don’t use the essay as a place to vent about unresolved personal problems (it can be scary to see – readers will worry about your being OK and will not want you on their campuses).
VT: What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
Rachel: Sending an application that you think the admissions committee wants to see. This can fail in two important ways: 1. You may choose an essay topic that is not actually important to you and/or you may write in a style than not your genuine voice – admissions officers see right through these things and are turned off; 2. You may fill the “why study here” supplemental essays with things you imagine will flatter a school rather than why you actually love the school – you will sound generic and not thoughtful if you quote things that do not apply to your situation. Overall, this mistake does not let the committee see “you,” and therefore it cannot admit you because it does not know and like you.
VT: What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
Rachel: You would be amazed at the time and attention admissions officers can spend on applications. In fact, an application may have multiple readers, and each read can take half an hour – or more. Admissions officers fill out forms summarizing the data and capturing their opinion, noting your achievements, both academic and extracurricular, in the context of your background and high school. You would also be amazed at how well admissions officers know your exact high school – it is part of their job to understand your opportunities, or lack of them, to make the right decisions about who you are and if you would thrive on their campuses. Some colleges even run committees, in which all applications are presented for discussion, but at every college, truly, admissions officers are very careful to understand exactly who you are.
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?
Rachel: It may sound simple, but just present “yourself.” Your honest, thoughtful essay showing how you think or what you have done; your genuine, well-researched comments about why you are applying to a school; your carefully filled out application – these show readers what you are all about and your seriousness as a candidate. You impress by showing what no one else should ever be able to show – your unique story and your passion for a school through crossing all i’s and dotting all t’s. The responsibility you take for a thorough, personal presentation gives you your best chance at admission and makes a great impression – no matter what the admission committee ultimately decides.
VT: How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
Rachel: I love this question. This is the heart of an intelligent, successful admissions process. Ideally, you should tour schools to see how you feel, as there is truly no better research than the gut feeling of “wow, this is a fit,” or “whoa, what was I thinking – this is not me” – you learn from both reactions. Also, to determine which colleges fit your personality and goals, especially if you cannot get onto campuses, read colleges’ webpages and other websites talking about colleges – and reach out online. Colleges have armies of student volunteers ready to answer your questions and make a connection with you. Activate those possibilities. Ask your guidance counselor about colleges and check where people you know have attended. This can show you who is attracted to what kind of school. Always try to attend college fairs and presentations in your town and in your high school, too.
VT: Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions...With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Rachel: See if you can answer yes to the following questions by November of your senior year: Will you have you found that one and only school for yourself? Will you have received satisfactory results from your standardized testing? Will you be prepared to accept a financial aid package according to what a school calculates for families in your situation? If you can answer yes to all these questions, a binding early plan can be for you. You would be ready to commit to a school. More broadly, any early plan can be for you – you are set for early notification. If you are not clear about one favorite school, need to compare financial aid offers, and/or may compete for some scholarships, wait until regular decision. Early plans are for students who can present their best applications by the fall. You maximize your chances of admission when you apply at your strongest, so make sure you submit your application when you are truly ready.
VT: How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
Rachel: OK, we have to be honest: this is #1 in terms of importance. After all, you are applying for entrance to educational institutions. The schools need to ensure your survivability, and for those competitive schools with too many qualified students lined up for only a few places, the academic piece makes even more of a difference. Do know, though, that many times, rejection does not mean that you did not do enough. You may be a star. It simply means others had to come first.
VT: What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Rachel: You are asking teachers for a favor requiring hours of their time, so be careful to respect this significant request. Ideally, approach teachers for recommendations close to the beginning of the school year - and certainly well in advance of the deadlines. Give teachers an information sheet to prepare them with data about what you have done well, both in their classes and outside of them, so they will not have to wrack their brains to come up with material. Make the recommendation writing easier for them. Do follow up with the teachers, too, before the deadline to see if you can provide any extra information to help and to make sure that they are on track to submit on time. FYI: students are not penalized for late-arriving recommendations, but it does hold up the evaluation process and your application will be read only when it becomes complete.
Visit Rachel’s website for further information about her background and consulting services.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.