Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Whitney Bruce has been helping students succeed in the college admissions process for over 15 years. Her experience on the admissions boards for both Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Michigan have led her to develop a true expertise for this subject and prepare numerous students for the lengthy process. Whitney currently counsels students as a team member of Accepted, a premier admissions consulting service.
VT: How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Whitney: Students can begin working on their college applications during the summer prior to senior year of high school. More than 400 colleges are members of the Common Application (commonapp.org), which generally releases its current application on August first of each year. Some students aspire to complete their essays, or personal statement earlier than fall of the senior year, but I’ve found that for many students, the maturity that comes with the extra few months between the end of eleventh grade and the beginning of twelfth grade leads to better essays.
VT: What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Whitney: The most important approach is to let go of the idea that your essay topic needs to be based upon an earthshattering experience. It’s true, students write very impactful essays about overcoming chronic illness, the death of parent, or other personal tragedy, however I wouldn’t wish those circumstances on anyone just for a compelling essay topic. The best essays often spring from a small moment; it’s what the writer does with the topic by adding his or her own personality and viewpoint leads to an effective college admissions essay.
VT: Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
Whitney: A good essay is more about the perspective a student shares than it is about the topic. When I was an admissions officer, there were several themes that made trite or impersonal essays. The first is the travelogue: I went, I saw, I did. The second essay springs from the athletic team- kicking the winning soccer goal, or learning that winning isn’t more important than being a good teammate. It doesn’t mean that you can’t write about these topics, but again, it’s about your thoughts and point of view as the applicant, not the nuts and bolts of the soccer game or trip to Costa Rica.
VT: What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
Whitney: Procrastination. Good writing takes time and personal reflection. Essay writing is also quite different from the writing most students work on in high school English class, so writing a personal essay can be really hard for many students. For most of the students I work with, their final essay is dramatically different from the first draft, even when the topic is essentially the same. That process takes time, and a student who sits down to write his essay at the 11th hour just can’t put the same effort into the revision process.
VT: What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
Whitney: The evaluation process varies dramatically and I encourage students to look carefully at the information for each college to which they are applying.
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?
Whitney: So much of a student’s application is complete before he or she even applies. Grades and curriculum choices are already set, and for most colleges, those are the most important factors in determining admission. I recommend that students control what they can in the process, by putting their best foot forward on their application forms and choosing teacher recommenders with care.
VT: How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
Whitney: The best way is to spend some time at the colleges you are considering. Campus tours are a great overview, but adding time for a visit to the cafeteria, sitting in on a class, an overnight in the dorms, or just an afternoon on the quad can be very telling. Do the students look happy? Stressed out? Are they hardworking? Intense or laid back? You can also talk to students from your high school who have attended these colleges.
VT: Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions...With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Whitney: Which application plan a student utilizes truly depends upon his or her academic record, whether his profile is likely to be stronger later in the application season, the need to compare financial aid offers or seek merit scholarships and a host of other factors. It’s a very personal decision based upon the student and the colleges under consideration.
VT: How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
Whitney: It is going to vary by college. For example, at some state universities, a specific rank in class and test score combination guarantees admission. At some of the most highly selective colleges, almost the entire applicant pool is capable of academic success at the institution, and those applicants all present stellar grades and test scores, so their personal qualities, extracurricular accomplishments, and recommendations take on a greater level of importance.
VT: What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Whitney: First of all, most colleges that require teacher recommendations are seeking a letter from a teacher who has taught you in a solid, academic course, during 11th or 12th grade. While there are some exceptions to this, for example, an art program seeking a recommendation from an art teacher, the following the statement above will ensure that you submit an appropriate recommendation. Academic courses are in the disciplines of English, Math, Social Studies, Science and Foreign Language. At many colleges, religion is not considered a traditional academic course for this purpose. Identify a teacher who will be able to give a strong endorsement to your academic performance in the classroom. It doesn’t always mean the class in which you received the highest grade, rather, which teacher understands you best as a student? Think in terms of your written work, class participation, group projects, your enthusiasm for the subject matter, or your ability to overcome challenging material or struggles in that classroom. It is polite to give your recommender as much lead time as possible to write your recommendation. Consider this scenario: I was a college counselor at a small, private school which offered two AP courses to most juniors, AP US History and AP English, with approximately 30 boys enrolled in each course. Most of those students asked at least one of the two teachers to write a letter of recommendation, with each teacher devoting time to writing 15-20 letters of recommendation in addition to all of their other responsibilities. It was very time consuming for them, and advance notice was critical for the teacher to write the most specific and supportive letter possible. While you might not have a solidified list of colleges and deadlines at the time you first request your letter of recommendation, it is polite to ask for an opportunity to sit down with the teacher to discuss your college application plans and your recommendation. After your teacher has written his or her recommendation, follow up with a thank you note. As the applicant, it is always in your best interest to waive your right to see the recommendation.
Visit Accepted.com for further information on Whitney and the rest of her team’s admissions counseling services.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.