Ask an Admissions Expert: Ralph Becker

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Ralph Becker received his Bachelor’s degree from Yale University and his MBA from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. He served as an alumni interviewer on the Yale admissions board and eventually founded Ivy College Prep, a college counseling and preparation service. For many years, Ralph has helped a number of students gain acceptance into top schools such as Brown University, Rice University, Northwestern University, and more.

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

Ralph: I like to get students working on the first draft 6-8 weeks before the due date. Often it’s useful to take a first shot at an essay, and just let it sit for 5-7 days. Starting early allows for such a luxury of time.

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

Ralph: Certainly there are topics best avoided: death of a pet or the big tour of Outer Mongolia are two…but, for the most part, write about what interests you; don’t worry about what might, or might not, interest the reader. Trust that your enthusiasm will be reflected on the page. Know your topic thoroughly. If it has to do with cars, know the transmission, alternator, and manifold.

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

Ralph: I’ve read dozens of essays about the big game, vying for first seat in the Wind Ensemble, and the difficulties of acculturating into the US from China. You can only imagine what a reader for UCLA (who received over 90,000 applications last year) could say. No matter, if it truly evokes a meaningful emotion in you, and you can get it down on paper, write it up and see what you’ve got.

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

Ralph: Thinking that he/she can bluff his/her way through the question, ‘What about Northwestern makes you want to apply.” Know the school you’re applying to well. Realize the admissions people will recognize when you haven’t done your homework.

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

Ralph: Once your application reaches admissions, it goes to your ‘first read’. The ‘first read’ is, oftentimes—especially for Ivy League schools, the college’s regional representative for your high school. Consequently, if a college that you’re interested in visits your high school, go to the meeting and introduce yourself to the representative; he or she can greatly influence the success of your application. ‘First reads’ will give your application a thoughtful review: usually spending between 15-35 minutes with it. Moreover, the first read creates your electronic data sheet, which includes your hard data and basic information. (So if the school super-scores your SAT, the ‘first reader’ will usually assemble your highest scores from each section of the test.) Interestingly, after the score and GPA are factored out by the ‘first read,’ it’s rare the original test scores or transcript will be accessed. The rest of the data is then assembled: race or ethnicity, special status, extracurricular…The “first read” then determines whether your application is admitted or denied, or warranting further discussion.

Your application will then workflow to a second reader. If both readers concur on denial or acceptance, then it’s likely your application will go to the dean of admissions for final authorization. If the two are in disagreement, or your application is somewhere in the gray zone—the purgatory between acceptance and rejection-- then it goes to committee for consideration.

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?

Ralph: Assuming the application contains essays, within the scope of these essays, the applicant should put forth an image of a knowledgeable, eager, interested candidate who has a decent sense of humor and would be a pleasure to have on campus. If that comes across clearly to the admissions office, the essays have done as good a job as they ever will.

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

Ralph: Students need to ask themselves some questions: What type of educational methods work best for them? What kind of academic atmosphere best fits their learning style? What college environment do they prefer? Where do they want to live for four years? What kind of social environment is preferred? This list isn't exhaustive, but it's a good place to start. Visiting a campus, sleeping over in a dorm and eating in the cafeteria help a student gain a sense of the school. Trust your gut.

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

Ralph: Applying ED limits your access to financial aid, commits you to a place that you might not like, and surrenders your ability to search and consider many other fine institutions during the admissions process. Under early action (EA), the admitted applicant is free to apply to any other school and has until May 1st to make a final decision. Then there is early action single choice, in which you can only apply early to one school (e.g. Yale), but all the benefits of EA remain. There is also regular, rolling, and open, but, the key issue for most students is to have options.  Stick with EA and, unless you’re absolutely in love with the college, avoid ED like the flu.  

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

Ralph: The higher a student’s grades and test scores, the more options that student will have. The higher both, the more selective schools one might be admitted to, the better the financial package offered, and the better access to a school’s honors program. Options make a student’s life more interesting.

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

Ralph: Be very selective about which teachers write your recommendations.  Preferably, you can find a teacher from a class in which you participated actively, enjoyed, and, as a consequence, did well. If in the class, you wrote a strong paper, or performed admirably on a test, all the better... Additionally, the teacher should be someone with whom you have a solid rapport.

Of utmost importance, make certain that she can write well. It doesn’t matter how much a teacher might admire your academic gifts, if she can’t express herself well on paper it’s not going to benefit you. To raise the bar a bit more, it’s important that the recommender be experienced, preferably with five or more years of classroom experience—meaning she should already know how to write a decent recommendation and know their import--, and from a class you took in your junior or senior years.

Check out
Ivy College Prep to learn more about Ralph and the services his company offers.

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