Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Brittany Maschal has held roles in several admissions offices and areas of student services including those at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University. Additionally, she acquired her Doctorate in Higher Education at The George Washington University and currently runs her own consulting service, B. Maschal Educational Consulting. See what she had to say about the undergraduate admissions process:
VT: How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Brittany: “Better late than never” is not applicable when it comes to beginning the work that goes into crafting a strong application. If you have your sights set on college, begin jotting down all of the activities you take part in and start speaking with your counselor about charting out your coursework in grade nine. This may sound a bit early, but you will be happy you did so come junior year. Nothing is set in stone, and changes can always be made on an as-needed basis. Though filling out actual applications won’t begin until the summer before senior year, familiarizing yourself with school-specific and Common App requirements well in advance will certainly take some of the stress out of the process come crunch time.
VT: What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Brittany: Essays are a very important component of the application package. Think of them as an avenue through which you have the opportunity to really “wow” the admissions committee. What constitutes a “terrific” topic may vary from reader to reader, but choosing an experience where you are able to highlight what the rest of your application may not convey or convey strongly is essential. More important than the topic, terrific essays utilize a positive tone, are insightful, and should demonstrate a candidate’s ability to be reflective. They focus less on the what and more on the how and why of an experience, situation, or process.
VT: Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
Brittany: Avoid cliché or overused topics such as the “big win,” divorce, or death, and those that may lead the reader to believe you are making an excuse for poor academic performance or lack of participation in extracurriculars. Taboo topics and anything that could be perceived as inappropriate should also be avoided at all costs. Very few applicants are able to craft an essay on a topic of this nature that is well received. Play it safe - you never know who your reader will be and what they may feel crosses the line.
VT: What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
Brittany: Starting the process too late! I am a huge advocate of making the application a priority early on. Think of it as an ongoing project throughout high school and one that the applicant has the power to excel in, if they so desire. Organization and self-motivation are key here, and the time and effort one puts into their application and supplementary materials (essays, resume, rec’s) shows. The biggest mistakes I have taken note of are in the form of simple errors such as grammar and spelling. I’ve seen instances where applicants mistype their own name! One way to avoid these fatal application flaws is to reach out for support during the process, ask a friend, family member, or mentor/advisor to help you spot check your work. A few sets of eyes are always better than one, so don’t be afraid to reach out to others for support.
VT: What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
Brittany: It depends at what point an officer receives/evaluates the application (Pre-read, 1st read, 2nd read, Committee), and this may vary from university to university. Generally, test scores and grades will be reviewed first. Essays, letters of recommendation and support, if applicable, and then extracurriculars/resumés are reviewed in detail, in addition to any other information that may be in the applicant’s file – perhaps an interview report. How each component of the application is rated or factored into whether or not an applicant’s file moves on is different at every school. The admissions websites of many schools make clear what they take into account when evaluating applications, so be sure to review this information if it is available.
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?
Brittany: Students need to demonstrate that they are capable of undertaking the level of academic work that will be expected and required of them at the collegiate level and at that particular college or university.
VT: How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
Brittany: Fit is a two-way street. Do your research – online and in person by visiting the campus if possible. Make contacts with admissions officers, current students, and alumni. Ask questions, take notes and reflect. Can you see yourself at university X? Will you be successful and happy there – academically and socially?
VT: Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions...With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Brittany: Do what is best for you taking into consideration your own unique situation. Dead-set on a certain university? Have you visited, done your homework over time, don’t need to compare financial aid awards, and decided it is a great fit academically and otherwise? Then apply early decision. Really like a few schools but maybe aren’t so sure of which one you like best? Maybe your essays need work or maybe you need the fall semester to get your grades up a bit. Then apply regular decision. If you find yourself somewhere in between, early action could be an option. Either way (ED or EA), make sure you are very clear to differentiate between binding vs. non-binding agreements.
VT: How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
Brittany: Extremely important. From my experience they are the foundation of the application, whether a school wants to be transparent regarding this level of importance or not.
VT: What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Brittany: Ask so far in advance that you think it may be too far in advance to ask. Life happens (recommenders have lives, too!) and you want to make sure they have enough time to complete and get the letter to the admissions office prior to the deadline. If you hesitate to ask early because you want them to “get to know you more or better,” well… you are probably asking someone who does not know you well enough, and I would suggest finding a more appropriate recommender. Ask in person (self-explanatory), and if they say yes, set up a time to meet with them to go over your academic record, choice in major, essay topics, and any other information that may support your cause and may be important for a recommender to have, such as future plans (academic and extracurricular). Be sure to let them know the importance of making the letter detailed and unique to you – general form letters add nothing to your candidacy.
Visit B. Maschal Educational Consulting for more information.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.