Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Shelley Krause works as a college counselor at Rutgers Preparatory School, New Jersey’s first independent school. Shelley, a graduate of Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania, came to Rutgers after serving in the undergraduate admissions office at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also the lead curator of the College Lists Wiki.
How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Shelley: Once a student has made the decision to apply to a particular school, it makes sense to start at least becoming familiar with what that college asks of its applicants. But even before a student’s college list is finalized, students can be engaging in self-reflection, which will in turn inevitably support the college application process. Students who know themselves well and have an understanding of how they learn best have a huge advantage heading into this process. So do students who leave themselves enough time to actually revise their essays.
What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Shelley: Almost any essay topic can be a terrific topic if it is infused with the genuine and unique perspective of that particular applicant. A successful essay helps the admissions officers reviewing it answer three essential questions: 1) can this student write? 2) can this student think? and 3) if we welcome this student into our community next fall, who do we get?
Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
Shelley: If you write about a topic that lots of other folks are likely to have written about (e.g. a grandparent or a winning moment in sports), you’re setting a higher bar for yourself; it’s going to be harder for your work to stand out. That being said, the biggest pitfalls I see looming for students are not so much topic-related as approach-related. For example:
1) Writing in a style that is unnatural, stilted, and packed with words that are not a part of the student’s working vocabulary.
2) Focusing the essay on someone other than the student (If you’re writing about how someone has inspired you, make sure the essay is less about him or her, and more about the impact he or she had on you!)
3) Dwelling too much in the past when what colleges are mostly trying to figure out is who the student might be in the future.
What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
Shelley: The biggest mistake is to write what you think someone else wants to hear.
What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
Shelley: Ask five admissions officers, get six different answers! I used to look at transcripts first, just to get a feel for how much of an uphill climb I might be facing when preparing to make my case in the admissions committee room, but I had colleagues who started with the essay, colleagues who liked to start with the counselor’s letter of recommendation, etc. The goal—figuring out how to help this student put his or her best foot forward—is often similar, but the routes taken in pursuit of that goal can vary widely.
What do you think is the single most important thing a student should make sure to present in the best possible way on his or her application?
Shelley: The transcript continues to be the single most important element of most applications. If there is anything about a student’s transcript that he or she is concerned might raise questions, the student should work to make sure that this is addressed somewhere in the application. (Often a counselor can provide clarifying context, but in some cases the student may feel that the information is best coming from himself or herself).
How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
Shelley: Visit, read, connect with current students and recent graduates, and use social media to extend your attention. (As a Twitter fan, I always tell my students they should be following the schools they’re considering on whatever social media platform they’re most comfortable with; learning as much as you can about the schools you’re interested in makes writing those “why do I want to go to this school” supplemental essays a LOT easier later!)
Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions...With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Shelley: Look for at least one school that 1) makes decisions on a rolling basis or offers an early-action decision program, and 2) that you can be excited about attending. There’s nothing quite as calming as having an offer of admission in your pocket early! Then, if you have questions about the finer points of a school’s policies, pick up the phone and ask; admissions offices staff entire rooms full of work-study students who are waiting for your call! One of the defining tensions of this process is the tension between getting your application in early, which often confers an advantage on your application, and making sure the application represents your very best work. Your goal is not to have any regrets... in either direction.
How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
Shelley: Most colleges consider high school grades to be the single best predictor of how a student will fare in college. Standardized test scores are used differently by different kinds of schools, and are in some cases no longer required at all. (See fairtest.org for the most up-to-date information on test-optional schools.)
What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Shelley: Rather than asking teachers outright if they will write a letter of support, students should consider saying something like, “I’m starting to plan for my college application process, and because I enjoyed your class so much last year (or whatever the reason for selecting this teacher is), I’m wondering how you would feel about writing a letter of support on my behalf?”
This subtle difference offers the teacher a more graceful exit if in fact they do NOT feel they would be the best person to write a letter of support, and students definitely want to find that out BEFORE making a final decision about who to ask.
Finding teachers who are excited to support your candidacy is just the beginning. From that point on, your mission is to keep the lines of communication open. Students need to be respectful and grateful; the best teachers pour hours of time (usually their own time) and effort into their letters. Ask if there’s anything you can provide that will make their job easier; some teachers like to look at a copy of student’s résumé, while others might want to have a conversation with the student about his or her impressions of the course that teacher taught. Whatever they ask, do it. Continue to bring your best self to your conversations with your teachers, so that they can continue to feel great about writing in support of you. And make sure your teachers know what college application deadlines you’re aiming for!
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.