Ask an Admissions Expert: Susan Goodkin

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Susan Goodkin is a national college consultant specializing in admission to highly selective colleges such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Brown, and much more. She is a graduate of Harvard University, as well as Oxford University where she was a Rhodes Scholar. Susan has been featured in several well-known publications such as The Washington Post and The Miami Herald. She currently does college admissions consulting at the California Learning Strategies Center.

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

Susan: First, too many students think “working on applications” just means drafting essays. The list of extracurricular activities is extremely important in the application process, especially for schools such as the Ivies. A carefully drafted activities list can help a student strengthen his or her application, but too many students leave that part of the application for the last minute. 

Students can save themselves a lot of stress – and can turn out much better applications – if they start working on the essays and the extracurricular lists (as well as their list of honors and awards) the summer before 12th grade. Once the school year starts, finding quality time to work on applications is a lot harder. Students should also be aware that this year the Common Application will no longer have a “topic of your choice” option for the 500-word essay, but instead will offer five essay prompts. These new prompts have recently been released, so there’s no excuse for not working on them during the summer!

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

Susan: While there are many approaches to coming up with a good essay, I’m going to suggest some easy approaches that have worked well for many of my clients who are stumped. Here’s something that might surprise a lot of students, but I’ve found that parents often have great ideas for essays – maybe because they’ve been focused on every up and down in their child’s life from day one! So, my first suggestion for coming up with an essay topic is to spend time around the dinner table with your mom and/or dad and talk about possibilities. Students can also make a list on their own of the events in their lives that have been important to them. Those moments don’t necessarily have to be big moments. As an example, I always tell my students that an essay talking about the day they won the science fair will often be less interesting to an admissions officer than an essay that tells the story of how they became interested in the topic of their science fair project.

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

Susan: I don’t get tired of any essay topic that tells me something truly unique about a student. But I see a lot of essays written about community service that could have been written by any of thousands of students (“Volunteering at the homeless shelter made me see how lucky I am, and now I realize it’s very important to give back to the community.”). I’ve also read some terrific community service essays by kids who have explained how volunteering shaped their career aspirations, or shaped them in profound ways. One of the cardinal rules of essay writing is to ask yourself if anyone else could have written the essay; if the answer is yes, you need to start again.

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

Susan: Apart from the obvious glaring errors such as an application that includes lots of typos and misspellings, lately I’m seeing students make another kind of critical error. Many students are now applying to well over ten colleges, and too often they try to recycle essays for different colleges. Sometimes that works, but often the recycled essay doesn’t really fit the new prompt. It’s critical that students answer the actual prompt! Relatedly, students often give generic answers to the question, “Why do you want to come to our college?” Students need to do their homework -- the strongest essays include specific details about the college.  A strong “why here” essay helps convince an admissions reader that the student would be a good fit for the college, and vice-versa. For colleges that are concerned with “yield rate” – the percentage of accepted students who end up enrolling – a strong “why here” essay is also important because it suggests that if accepted, the student will likely attend.

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

Susan: The process varies widely depending on the school. Some large state schools, for example, hire outside readers to review the essays. Most schools – including the more elite schools -- will have all parts of the application reviewed “in-house.”  Here’s a tip to find out more about the admissions process of a college you’re interested in: go onto the college’s website and check to see whether there is an admissions blog. At many colleges, admissions officers (and/or students who work in the admissions office) will blog about the process, and applicants can learn a lot of useful information from such blogs.

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?

Susan: By the time a student applies to college, much of the information on their application, including their test scores, GPA, and activities, is pretty much set. Nor can they entirely control their recommendations. The essays are completely within students’ control, and offer students an opportunity to shape their application by telling admissions officers their story apart from the numbers. Students need to think hard about the story they want to tell, and make sure they tell it in a compelling way.

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

Susan: There’s no substitute for visiting a college when school is in session. Once there, students must do more than just take the college tour. They need to sit in on a class (preferably in a subject they’re interested in as a major); check out the flyers posted on campus, which will tell a lot about what causes and activities students are interested in; eat in the cafeteria, and while there, chat with the some of the students about what they like and don’t like about the college; check out a dorm room; and read the student newspaper. In addition – or when a college visit just isn’t feasible – students should go onto the college website and read the student blogs, as well as perusing the Facebook pages of student groups they might be interested in joining. I’ve learned that you can glean a lot about campus culture from the web! 

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

Susan: Applying early decision generally will increase a student’s odds of being accepted -- particularly at selective schools that routinely lose some of their most-impressive admitted students to even more selective schools – because the colleges know all students admitted through early decision have committed to attend if accepted. However, students shouldn’t apply early decision if they’re not absolutely sure their ED school is the one they want to attend; if they want the opportunity to compare financial aid offers from a number of schools; and if they aren’t a solidly competitive applicant.  

Applying EA won’t help your odds of being accepted as much as applying ED, but there are fewer drawbacks since you don’t have to commit to the college. Unless students think they will increase their odds of acceptance by applying later (perhaps because they think their senior grades, or some other achievement, will strengthen their application), I generally encourage them to apply EA to one (or where possible, more) of their college choices because it’s always a relief to hear early in the process that you’ve been accepted. 

Along those lines, I also advise students who are applying to schools with rolling admissions (that means the school reviews the applications, and makes decisions on them as they come in, so students can learn of the decision relatively shortly after they apply) to try to get their applications in early in the year. Again, hearing early in the process that you’ve already been accepted to one or more of your schools makes the long wait to April decisions much less stressful.

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

Susan: The importance of grades and standardized tests varies greatly between colleges. Large state schools are most likely to focus more on grades and standardized test scores, while giving less weight to activities and recommendations (some schools don’t even require recommendations at all). At the most selective schools, unless you’re a star quarterback or the like, great grades and test scores are merely a minimum requirement to be competitive for admissions. Many a valedictorian with impressive test scores is rejected. On the other hand, an increasing number of excellent schools no longer require SAT or ACT scores.

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

Susan: Teachers’ recommendations can play a critical role in bringing students to life for the admissions committee. Colleges are looking for recommendations that say more than that the student is a hard worker who got an A in the class. Ideally a teacher recommendation will address topics such as the genuine interest the student showed in the class, what the student contributed to the classroom, and how he/she stood out from other students. Students should ask for recommendations from teachers who know them well, and who can share anecdotes that will illustrate the student’s strong points. It also helps if students give the teacher a resume, so the teacher has a sense of the student’s accomplishments and interests outside the classroom. 

You can reach Susan by visiting or by calling 805-642-6686.

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