Ask an Admissions Expert: Shannon Duff

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Shannon Duff acquired both her Bachelor’s degree and MBA from Yale University and later went on to work in Yale’s Undergraduate Admissions Office. Having served as both an interviewer and application reader, Shannon has attained an impressive understanding of the overall admissions process as well as the ability to recognize exactly what makes a student’s application stand out. She currently works as a College Coach for Collegiate Compass, an admissions counseling firm she founded.

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

Shannon: Students should begin working on their applications during the summer before their senior year. Filling out the data section of the Common Application (becomes available 8/1) is not particularly time-consuming, but the personal statement and college's supplemental essays take time. I recommend putting together an essay calendar for yourself!

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

Shannon: It is critical to remember that the topic is always you, the student. What you are really choosing is a “backdrop,” a situation or theme that helps you to best showcase yourself. So, start with this in mind—and then consider the situations and environments in which you truly feel that you are yourself. Feel what it is like to be in these places (whether they are physical locations, activities, or whatever), and ask yourself: Who am I? What qualities/activities help to illuminate the person that I am? What would be interesting and helpful for an admissions officer to know about me that they are not going to know from my list of activities and grades? What is an activity I am involved in where I never look at my watch?

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

Shannon: I would ask students who are writing some sort of essay showing perseverance to dig deep, as sometimes these types of essays don’t reveal the full depth of the student.  When I say dig deep, I mean that they should express some of the feelings they had amidst the tough times and then really focus on specific qualities and examples that enabled them to achieve their goal/make a positive change/whatever the case may be. Really focus on making your story unique.

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

Shannon: One big mistake is writing essays about what you think you “should” write about and not revealing who you really are.  Another is focusing essays too much on the situation or experience without relating it back to you – showing the reader how that experience impacted you.

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

Shannon: In my experience, they have a number of categories in which they evaluate students; for instance, academics, standardized testing, extracurricular, and personal might be areas in which students are given ratings. Then there may be room for admissions officers to make more qualitative comments about what really stood out about the student, which could be things like special awards, fantastic teacher recommendations, or impressive leadership roles. The most important aspect of the application is your performance in the context of your high school setting.  Are you challenging yourself in the classroom and proving that you are capable of doing high-level college work?

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?

Shannon: Time is valuable—how you use your time shows what matters most to you. Admissions offices ask for a listing of your activities and the time you dedicate to them on your application. You are demonstrating what matters to you by how much time you spend on given activities—don’t forget to add color to this. If you are spending 20+ hours a week horseback riding, for instance, I believe that you should find some space on your application (an essay question, most likely) to describe the reasons why you love riding, and dedicate so much time to it.

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

Shannon: Visiting schools is critical. It can also be expensive, so it is important to plan ahead to dedicate the time and money needed to see a variety of schools.  I would suggest starting in sophomore year, perhaps with some local colleges or those you will be close to on another trip.  Try to see a variety in terms of size, location, and distance from home, etc. in order to gain perspective about the different options that exist. Junior year is go-time for visits. On your visit, be sure to go on the tour and attend an information session. Walk near the front of the tour so you can ask more questions. Beyond that, spend some time in areas where students congregate. Grab lunch in the cafeteria. If you know anyone at that school, meet up with them. Get their take on what life at the school is like. Inquire about specific majors in which you are interested. And finally, take notes and some pictures—later on in the process, you can look back to these.  And grab a copy of the student newspaper; it can give you a great sense of what’s going on around campus!

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

Shannon: Early action (non-binding) deadlines provide great motivation to pull together applications early, with the benefit that you will hear back from the schools early as well. The main situation in which early action wouldn’t make sense is if you need to bring your grades up to be more competitive for a college; this would be a reason to hold off on early decision too.  Deciding to apply early decision (ED) is a much bigger commitment given that acceptance is binding.  ED can have many benefits, though, as colleges appreciate students’ ability to signal that a college is their first choice; after all, both students and college representatives want to be a part of a community where everyone is excited to be there! I encourage the students I work with to at least put themselves in a position to apply early decision. This means planning to complete standardized testing early (if at all possible, in junior year), and, where feasible, visiting a good number of the colleges on your list in junior year.  Doing these things should provide you with enough information to decide whether you are ready to make the commitment of applying early decision to a school.

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

Shannon: Your academic performance in high school is usually one of the best indicators a college has of how you will perform at their school—so grades are very important, and so are the classes you choose.  Did you challenge yourself with honors/AP classes? I would add that letters of recommendation are also very important at selective colleges. The importance of standardized testing varies from college to college; there is a growing movement at a number of schools to eliminate the requirement of standardized testing for admission (list of test optional schools at  At most of the top schools, however, standardized testing is important as it provides a consistent tool for comparing students.  Test prep can make a huge difference; be sure to make time for this. There are good free online resources for test prep and many tutoring companies give scholarships to dedicated students who cannot otherwise afford their services.

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

Shannon: First, ask your teacher for a time you can meet when you will have about 10 minutes of time to chat. It is helpful for you to bring a list of your activities, and a list of colleges you are considering (or applying to, if you are at that point in the process). Tell them what you are thinking about college and what schools are your favorites and why you like those schoolsIf you can give them a little window into why you are interested in particular schools, it can only help them in writing your letter of recommendation.  Be sure to ask them if there is anything helpful you can provide for them; sometimes teachers like to revisit a student’s favorite projects/assignments, or reading.  It is also helpful for the student to tell the teacher why they are asking them to write on their behalf, letting the teacher know what they liked most about that particular class, how they applied that knowledge outside of the classroom, and how that class aligns well with the student’s academic/career goals. It is helpful to discuss your choices of teachers for recommendations with your high school counselor as they may have valuable insight!

Check out Shannon’s admissions consulting firm, Collegiate Compass.

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