Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Abby Siegel is a College Entrance Consultant at her self-started firm, Abby Siegel & Associates. After graduating from Vanderbilt University, she went on to graduate school at Loyola University Chicago where she directly worked in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. Abby has worked in college guidance counseling for over a decade and was a recipient of the University of Miami’s Excellence in Counseling Award. See what she had to say about the college application process:
VT: How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Abby: The earlier the better! The Common Application, the online application that is currently used by over 488 colleges and universities in the United States (and France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy and the UK), goes “live” on August 1st of a student’s senior year. At that time a student can create an account and begin the application. Colleges that do not use the Common Application also go live during August so it’s important to monitor their websites. Starting earlier allows students to take their time and not rush through the application, essays and individual college supplements. Most early and rolling deadlines are on or around November 1, so that gives students approximately three months to complete the entire application.
In addition, it’s really imperative to plan ahead in case of an emergency. For example, when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast on October 29, 2012, thousands of high school students lost power, and therefore their ability to use a computer. Those students who had procrastinated and waited until the end to finish their applications found themselves panicking, causing much unneeded stress. Having their applications done at least a week or two ahead of time would have saved many students a lot of undue aggravation. Also, what happens if a student gets sick or there is a family emergency, leaving one unable to complete his or her applications by the deadlines? It’s best to plan ahead and adhere to all deadlines….one never knows what could happen.
VT: What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Abby: Generally, colleges will present students with a few choices for the essay topic. When writing the essay it’s important for students to pick a topic with which they feel comfortable as that usually results in a more genuine piece of writing. Do not write an essay stating what you believe a college or university wants to hear. Instead, pick a topic that gives the reader a better idea of who you are, what makes you unique and whether that college or university is a good fit. The essay is the one place on the application where a student can really let the Admissions office know who they are as a person. It’s an excellent opportunity for students to share information about themselves that otherwise the Admissions office may not learn through other parts of the application. Take your time – brainstorm, outline, write several drafts. Remember to use distinctive detail – it will make the essay stand out and get noticed.
VT: Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
Abby: There are several topics that are best to avoid. Students need to remember that they do not know the values or viewpoints of the person(s) reading their applications and it’s best to not offend the people they are hoping will accept them for admission. Avoid controversial topics of a religious or a political nature. Other topics to avoid include, but are not limited to: How Volunteering Once Changed My Life, My Travel Diary, issues regarding substance abuse, The Big Game, listing your successes and rehashing tragic events. The essay is an important part of an application, and students should focus on topics that best demonstrate who they are as a person that otherwise wouldn’t be evident from other parts of the application. The most important thing is to be honest and authentic.
VT: What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
Abby: There are a lot of mistakes students can make to limit it to just the “biggest.” Several examples include misspellings and grammatical errors, exceeding the recommended word-limit for essays, not answering the essay topic(s) at hand, using acronyms when describing extracurricular activities, submitting extra documentation that doesn’t add to the overall application, forgetting to proof essays, fast-forwarding through directions and missing small details (such as listing credits for senior year courses), applying online and not hitting the SUBMIT button (there are three areas on the Common Application that have to be submitted and students commonly forget to submit at least one, resulting in an incomplete application) and being careless with social media. Colleges are looking for reasons not to accept you – don’t give them any!
VT: What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
Abby: College admissions offices are looking to find students who will comprise a well-rounded class. An application is considered complete once all supporting documents are received. This includes the application and essays, high school transcript, counselor and teacher recommendations, official test scores and any other material required by the college.
How the process works depends on the individual college. Most selective colleges will take a holistic approach and consider all parts of the application while at some colleges only the hard numbers (GPA and test scores) are considered. Many schools report having only 15 minutes to read an entire application while at some colleges an application may get as many as three reads. Each process is different and several variables are considered depending on the nature of the school.
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?
Abby: Demonstrated interest. Colleges want to know why a student wants to attend their university. Admissions counselors encourage students to reach out and start a correspondence with them. Ways to do this include meeting with counselors when they conduct high school visits, attending college fairs, scheduling an interview and definitely visiting college campuses when possible. When admissions officers are reading applications there are certain things that are harder to lift off a piece of paper, like fit and enthusiasm about a school. If you’re interested, let the college know! If the admissions counselor knows you it makes a difference when reading the application. It’s also important when answering a supplement question “Why X College” that students be very specific and not generic in their answer. List detailed things about the college that attracted you to apply in the first place.
VT: How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
Abby: VISIT! Whenever possible, it is highly recommended that students visit prospective colleges to see what they’re all about. When students visit a college they should take a guided campus tour, attend an information session, have an interview if that option is offered, sit in on a class and stay overnight in a residence hall with a current student. While on campus also eat a meal in the cafeteria, pick up and read a copy of the campus newspaper, meet with a professor in the department of your potential major(s), talk to students about their experiences and visit the Career Center. Whether or not students are able to visit a college campus they should also research college websites to see what is offered at each school - majors, extracurricular activities, internship and research opportunities, residence life and food options, and cultural and athletic events to see if the colleges on their list are really the right “fit” for them. Students can also attend college fairs, high school visits made by admissions officers and regional receptions offered by colleges to show demonstrated interest and learn more about the college.
VT: Early-Action, Early-Decision, Binding/Non-Binding, Regular Decision. With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Abby: It really depends on the individual student and his/her situation. If a student has a clear first choice college then applying Early Decision is advised. Students must be sure that this is the school they really want to attend as they are making a binding commitment to that school, and if accepted they are expected to attend. Several colleges are starting to take a higher percentage of their students through ED, so applying ED could, but not always, give students a better chance of being admitted. It really depends on the individual college. There are a few downsides to applying ED. If a college is a huge reach for a student then applying ED usually won’t make a difference in admission. Students can only apply to one college through ED, thus limiting their chances to receive various financial aid packages by not applying to other colleges. There is also the option of applying Early Action, which is a non-binding agreement between a student and a college. This is a great option for students when available, because if they are accepted EA they will know early on in the process that they have a college to attend. Students can apply to more than one college EA unless they applying to a college that has Restrictive Early Action, in which you can only apply to one college early although the agreement is non-binding.
If a student wants to apply to additional colleges aside from those through ED and/or EA then they should apply Regular Decision. These applications are usually due on or around January 1 or 15. If a student is not entirely sure on a first-choice option, or wants to have more financial aid options available, then it is recommended they wait and apply RD.
Finally, there is Rolling Admission, which is when colleges start accepting applications early in the senior year and “roll over” applications as they are received. In Rolling Admission it is imperative that students apply earlier in the process (and meet any Priority deadlines) because colleges with Rolling Admission will fill their class as applications are received. Students increase their chances of gaining admission by applying sooner than later.
VT: How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
Abby: Most colleges will tell students that the most important thing considered in the admissions process is the transcript. This is not necessarily just the grade point average but the strength of the curriculum the student has taken. Colleges want students to challenge themselves and take as demanding a curriculum as they can handle. Admissions counselors will look at the courses offered at the high school the student attends and see if the student is taking advantage of the curriculum that is available.
The importance of test scores really depends on which college to which students are applying. Many colleges, especially those with extremely competitive admissions, still care a lot about test scores. However, there are approximately 850 colleges that are now “test-optional” (see fairtest.org), meaning that a student is not required to submit any test scores so the focus is on other parts of the application. One thing to consider is that many colleges, whether test-optional or not, will use or require test scores to be submitted in order to be considered for merit aid, which is financial aid based on merit and not need.
VT: What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Abby: Students are encouraged to ask teachers for letters of recommendation in the spring of their junior year. When choosing which teachers to ask it is preferable that they ask one from Humanities subjects (English, Social Science or Foreign Language) and one from Math/Science. Students don’t necessarily need to ask teachers whose classes they aced, but more teachers who they are confident will write them a POSITIVE letter of recommendation. Remember that writing recommendations is not required of teachers nor is it their obligation, so please be respectful during the entire process. Ask your teacher in private and without friends around. Be sure to ask, “Would you be willing to write me a positive recommendation for my college admissions?” If the teacher says yes, then provide them a resume or “brag sheet” with your accomplishments and contact information. Don’t forget to send a thank you note that says you appreciate their willingness to write the recommendation letter. Thank you notes go such a long way!
Once students return to school for their senior year, they should follow up with their teachers to make sure they have all the information they need. Make sure teachers know how to submit their letters, whether it is through the Common Application, snail mail or using non-Common Application forms. Make the process as easy as possible - your teachers are doing you a HUGE favor!
Check out Abby Siegel & Associates, LLC for more information.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.