Ask an Admissions Expert: Bari Norman

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Dr. Bari Norman earned her undergraduate degree at Barnard College and her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the Co-Founder and Director of Expert Admissions, as well as a former admissions officer at Barnard College and Columbia University. At Expert Admissions, Dr. Norman assists students with all aspects of the college search, preparation, and application processes, and has been featured in Good Morning America, The Today Show, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and others.  

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

It depends on which part of the application you’re referring to. I think it’s a good idea to work on the activities grid at the end of junior year, as well as to gather information like your parents’ graduation years (i.e. things you don’t tend to know off-hand). But I’m also a strong believer that there is such a thing as too early when it comes to essays. I find that students are truly ready to begin in August, after their summer activities have come to a close, and they’ve had time to reflect. There’s tremendous growth that occurs over the junior-to-senior summer, and so the better essays come after that. I also find that students who wait until that point tend to go through fewer drafts and write stronger essays overall.

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

I advise students to think about the things that they truly care about and that they feel define who they are. Most importantly, do not let the question, “What would be a good college essay topic?” guide you! A good brainstorming session goes a long way in thinking about yourself, and the traits and experiences that define you. Also, your essay doesn’t have to be about a massive life-changing event; in fact, the best topics often reside in the everyday details of life.

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

In theory, there’s the possibility of doing any topic well, but I find that writing about getting injured and then coming back from it (or some variation of that theme) rarely generates a truly unique piece of writing that gets the job done. I’d also think long and hard before writing about a summer service trip.

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

Students overthink their applications, and, in the process, make themselves seem more generic than they really are. I find that applicants don’t let go enough. When you’re tense and trying so hard to perform well, it shows – and that’s not a good thing in the college admissions process.

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

Typically, admissions officers read through the Common Application, page by page, in the same order that you see it on your Print Preview. They then review the transcript, recommendations, and any other supporting credentials, and, as they go, they record their thoughts, impressions, and evaluative remarks on some kind of evaluation card, electronic or otherwise.

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?

Your goal as an applicant should be to present your authentic self to the committee. You get to choose which aspects of yourself to share, but whatever you select, be genuine in your presentation.

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

I always encourage students to stop “regular” people on campus who are not tour guides or otherwise affiliated with the admissions department. Ask them what they like and dislike about the college, why they chose to attend that school, and what they would change about it. If you can, it’s also a good idea to stay overnight with a current student and to pick up a copy of the student newspaper.

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

While Early Action and Early Decision programs tend to have more favorable admission rates, it really depends on the student and the school. The real key lies in picking the right school to potentially apply Early Action/Decision to (assuming there’s a place you love enough to do that).

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

They’re both really important, as is the rigor of your curriculum. Rarely does a student get into a college where he or she was really off the mark academically, assuming there are no extenuating circumstances coming into play. Grades and scores serve as a guidepost for the student to determine what is a likely target, and what is a “reach” versus “out of reach” school.

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

Ask a teacher who has seen your mind truly stretch – don’t just pick the teacher in whose class you did the best, or in the subject area that comes most naturally to you. The teacher recommendation is supposed to be more an assessment of your intellectual capability, not a character reference, so think about that when choosing between teachers. It also doesn’t matter if you think or know whether the teacher is a “good writer.” You want someone who is going to be able to comment positively on your intellectual abilities, and who will be able to give concrete examples to support that.

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