Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Amy Jasper helps students navigate the college admissions process through her admissions consulting service, My College Fit. She has worked in undergraduate admissions at a number of institutions including Duke University and the College of William & Mary.
VT: How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Amy: The Common Application and individual colleges do not release their updated applications until the summer before senior year. I encourage students to get the general information sections completed as soon as possible to get them out of the way. The Common Application essay topics are remaining the same for the class of 2015, so work on the personal statement can begin at the end of junior year (many English teachers will have juniors do one in class).
I believe the best time is summer. The workload of junior year is in the past and, quite frankly, a student is more mature. Work on your essays, put them aside for a bit, and then revisit them. You can do this when you have time on your side. However, if you begin an application the day before it’s due, you are not going to produce your best product even if you feel you work well under pressure. It’s great to begin senior year with basic information on applications completed and a final or close to final draft of the personal statement completed. The college application process can be like having an additional class in the fall, so seniors should use summer to their advantage.
VT: What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Amy: I find that many students are looking for a life-altering experience to write about, of which most don’t have. Oftentimes, the best topic is really right in front of them. There are many things in your everyday life that you feel strongly about that could actually be quite interesting to someone who doesn’t know you. And that’s the key. You want to attract and maintain the admissions officer’s interest. A student should think about what they want the college to know about them and work backward from there. Ask yourself questions about your likes, dislikes and passions. What’s fun to you? What makes you laugh? Was there a moment when life seemed particularly difficult?
VT: Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
Amy: Of course the good old sports essay is a deal breaker for me. My two children are athletes, and my husband was a high school and college athlete. I do understand the importance of sports and how an injury, big win, or a big loss is impactful. I really do. But what students need to realize is that it is difficult to convey anything unique or interesting about any of those things.
Perhaps the worst essay topic choice I ever encountered was an applicant discussing a very personal experience with his girlfriend. No way ever is that appropriate!
The key is to remember that admissions officers are people; therefore, how they respond to an essay is going to be subjective. If an essay is boring (sports injury) or pushes the envelope way too far (boyfriend/ girlfriend TMI), it is very difficult to respond to that with, “I definitely want to put this kid in the yes pile.” And of course that is the response an applicant is working for.
VT: What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
Amy: Although it can be difficult to believe, admissions officers really can tell when someone is not being authentic in his or her application. Make sure your essays are in your voice and your passions come through. Another big mistake is not answering questions correctly. If a college asks, “What tweet would best summarize your day?” (and I did see that question this year), your answer should be 140 characters or less, because that is a tweet. If a school didn’t want a specific answer, they wouldn’t ask a specific question.
VT: What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
Amy: Typically, the process begins by reviewing an applicant’s transcript and counting the number of years they have in the core subject areas: English, math, science, social studies, and foreign language. Then the admissions officer will look at the grade made in each course. Weighted GPAs are often not the best representation of grades, therefore many schools look at each grade received in each course. Some colleges recalculate the GPA so all applicants are on the same scale. They would then count the number of honors, AP, or IB classes to reflect strength of courses. The order of the next three items is usually done based on the reader’s personal preference. The admissions officer would now review a student’s activities and involvement, highlighting anything found to be particularly stellar or interesting and also looking for commitment. Next they note the student’s SAT or ACT scores. Finally, the officer would read the applicant’s essays. Most officers write a few notes or take-aways from the essay like, “Great story about climbing favorite tree as a kid.” “Excellent writer.” “I want to meet this kid.” “Didn’t get anything about him from this.”
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?
Amy: It is important to tell your own story about something that can be perceived as negative. If you leave things unexplained, people will make their own deductions, which may not be correct. Bad grades one semester? Show an improvement in the next semester. Made a bad social choice? Explain what you have learned from your mistakes. Involved in no activities or sports after school because you have to work or take care of your siblings? List those as commitments on your applications - because they are!
VT: How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
Amy: The best way, of course, is to visit a campus. Prospective student events are definitely planned to create a wonderful showing of all that is good at college, however, they do give you access to professors, students, and organizations that you may not experience on a regular visit. Use it to your advantage and ask questions that are important to you and that will give you a more realistic view. Follow your gut. If you feel like you don’t belong there, you probably don’t.
If you visit a campus for an information session and tour, be certain to ask questions that can’t be answered on the website. Ask your tour guide the name and size of her smallest class her freshman year, as well as her largest. If professor interaction is important to you, ask for examples they have had with their professors. Social life? Ask him what there was to do on campus last Friday night. Do remember that tour guides are people and people sometimes have a bad day. Don’t blame the college for a bad tour guide. Try to see beyond him or her. After the tour, eat on campus or hang out in the student center. Grab a school newspaper. Again, follow your gut.
VT: Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions...With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Amy: ED, which is binding, is a huge commitment. Not only is a student saying they know what their first choice is in October or November, they are also saying that if they are admitted, they will attend. I only encourage students to apply ED when they are confident in the decision and not applying because it is perceived as an acceptance strategy. ED is not the right choice for a family that will need to weigh their financial aid options from various schools. Early action, which is non-binding, has become quite popular with many colleges and applicants. Early action application deadlines allow a student to get a decision early in the process. What makes early action attractive is that if the student is admitted, they are not bound to go. I recommend this to students who are happy with their grades and do not need first semester senior grades to strengthen their application. The good news is there are still many schools with deadlines in January and even February, so students still may have deadlines spread over a few months.
VT: How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
Amy: Grades are definitely important. Many times, students think a low grade in, say, an AP or IB class is okay because of the strength of the class. The reality is, in the applicant pools at selective colleges, there are plenty of applicants who will have taken the same class who received a high grade. Better grades make a student more competitive.
Although test scores are never usually the most important factor in the admissions process, they are a factor. If colleges require SAT or ACT scores, then it is important to them. If they did not value scores, they would not require testing.
VT: What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Amy: Choose a teacher who knows you well. It’s best if the teacher is from an academic subject in your junior year. Ideally, you have been an active participant in their class and have done well. You want a teacher who can speak to the type of student you are. If you ask a teacher and they suggest that you perhaps “choose another teacher who may know you better,” don’t be hurt. Be thankful that they were honest with you. That is much better than if they had said yes and sent a mediocre letter.
When asking a teacher, be polite and follow-up with an email. Also be certain to understand your school’s policies around recommendations. Are they sent electronically? Do you need to provide forms or envelopes? What information does your counselor require from you? All schools have their own way of doing things, and it’s your responsibility to know and follow the rules. Lastly, remember to thank your teacher after they’ve completed the letter.
Check out My College Fit for more information.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.