Ask an Admissions Expert: Cara Ray

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Cara Ray attained her Master’s in Higher Education from The University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education and went on to become the Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at The University of Colorado Boulder. She spent a great deal of time recruiting students all over the country, reading thousands of applications, and even chaired one of the application reading committees. Currently, Cara is a member of the Great College Advice team, an organization dedicated to consulting with and guiding students through the college admissions process.


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

Cara: There are plenty of opportunities for students to start work early on their college applications. While many students think they need to wait until their senior year, junior year is actually a great time to start. In the junior year students can develop a testing plan for standardized tests, identify teachers who would be ideal to write their letters of recommendation, start brainstorming essay topics, create a college list, go on campus visits, and collect general information needed for their application.

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

Cara: Selecting an essay topic is difficult for many students. Students often get so stuck on the question being asked of them, and trying to interpret the best answer they think the college wants to see, that they don’t select the best topic for themselves. I often take a different approach and encourage students to work backwards. I ask them to think about what it is that they want the college to know about them and what they feel is important in their life that they aren’t able to get across in another part of their application. I also tend to do a lot of brainstorming sessions, and a lot of digging, with students when it comes to selecting their topic. Students should think about what it is that sets them apart from their peers.

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

Cara: I think one of the warnings I would give to students is that writing a college essay is very different than an academic paper you write for school. It is easy to spot the students who are afraid to deviate from the standard five-paragraph essay that they write for their high school English class. The college essay is a time to be creative, take a risk, write from the heart, and make it personal. Students should remember that admissions counselors read hundreds of essays. They have seen all the standard “my grandfather is the most influential person in my life” and the “my trip to Costa Rica for a service project changed my life” essays. Give them something fresh.

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

Cara: One of the biggest mistakes a student can make on the college application is to not proofread.  There are often small silly mistakes that are made by students that have big consequences when it comes to their admissions decisions. Students should take the time to proofread their essays and applications carefully. Have a family member, teacher, or counselor read over everything before submitting. As an educational consultant I have caught everything from a student marking the opposite gender on their application to forgetting to indicate that they are a legacy to indicating a major of interest that the college of they are applying to doesn’t even offer. When working in admissions, one of the worst proofreading mistakes I would catch was a student putting another college’s name in the essay. No college admissions officer wants to think you want to go to “x” school over them. Double-check your work!

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

Cara: The important thing to remember in the college admissions process is that every admissions office has a different way they review applicants. You should always check with each individual school to determine how they review and evaluate applications and what elements are most important to them in the process. In general, colleges will ask you to submit an application, essay (or multiple essays), standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, application fee and a school report along with an official transcript. Admissions counselors will evaluate your application once all materials are received. Some colleges use just one reader to make a decision while others operate in the form of committee where multiple individuals may weigh in on the strength of your application. Some colleges have certain formulas that they use to determine an applicant’s strength while others use a very thorough holistic review process to evaluate all aspects of an applicant. Reading the policies on the college’s admission website or attending an information by the college will help clarify their process.

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?

Cara: Wow, it is hard to pick just one thing. Think about this though. There are certain things you can control in the process and certain things you cannot. When you get to your senior year you can’t change your academic past or GPA too much, you can’t change the test scores you have already received, and you can’t change who else is applying. However, you can make sure to show the colleges learn who you are both inside and outside the classroom. Don’t speed through the activities or extra-curricular section on the application or the short “activity essay” in the Common App. Take time on your personal essay. Be selective with who you request to write good letters of recommendation. Elaborate on who you are as a person, aside from just numbers and make sure you make the most of the space allowed.

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

Cara: Every student has their own way to determine whether or not a university is the right fit for them. However, there are a few things I suggest. First, it is important to do plenty of research on the college. Just like when writing a research paper, it is important to use a variety of sources and examine the subject from numerous angles. Read the website, read student blogs, participate in online chats, take a virtual tour, go for a campus visit, look at the course catalog, look at the student groups and clubs, talk to admissions representatives, talk to current students, and ask lots and lots of questions. Think about your own personal values and goals and determine whether or not the university will help you satisfy those. Weigh all of the factors that may be important to you - geographic location, academic major, scholarship offers, research opportunities, school spirit, study abroad, sports programs, professor interaction, alumni satisfaction, etc. Then see how all of those fit together. I strongly recommend a campus visit and taking the time to walk around by yourself as a student, away from your parents. Picture what it would be like to go there as a student. Sit and observe a class if you can, eat in the dining hall, talk to multiple people. The more research you do, the better you will be able to determine a fit.

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

Cara: There are lots of different deadlines floating around out there and the most important part is that you understand which one is right for you. In order to do so, make sure you understand the differences between binding decisions and nonbinding decisions. If you are entering into an early decision process that is binding, note that you are agreeing to attend that college if accepted. Therefore, I recommend that students only apply for an early decision, binding program, if a college is truly your first choice and your family is willing to forgo the possibility of comparing prices between colleges. You must be willing to let go of all other admissions decisions and financial offers. For students not at that stage, early action can provide an opportunity to submit the application early and receive a decision at an earlier date without a binding agreement. For those students who may need some extra time on their applications and essays, or are retaking a standardized test, regular decision might be the right fit.

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

Cara: Grades and standardized test scores are extremely important when admissions decisions made. For many colleges, they are the most important part of a college application. However, as I have stated before, each college is different. For example, remember that there are colleges out there that are test-optional that may be good for students who feel that standardized tests do not represent their academic talent. Also, if you feel that your scores or any part of your transcript is not a good representative of your ability, you may want to address this either in an interview or additional essay in your application. When I worked in admissions I would often tell students that unless they provided an explanation, we were left to make assumptions when reviewing their application. Perhaps something significant happened in your freshman year of high school that impacted your grades. It is important to let the college know this.

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

Cara: Once you have identified the teachers you want to ask for a letter of recommendation it is time to “pop the question.” First, make sure you are allowing plenty of time for your teachers to be able to write the letter. Do not approach a teacher with the request right before it is due. Second, it is important to find a time to ask your teachers where they aren’t rushed and when they actually have time to focus. Teachers are incredibly busy and asking them during the first week of the school year or during finals may not be the best time to capture their attention. Consider asking them to set aside some time to talk with you. Third, once you are ready to ask your teachers you should also be prepared to give them some additional materials. These may include a resume, a copy of your transcript and possibly even your personal statement.  You may want to also give the teacher a reminder of some of the highlights you had in their class. Your teacher’s letters should focus on who you are in a classroom setting so if you had a project you were particularly proud of or a presentation you thought you did well on, remind them. You will also want to make sure you are familiar with how your high school sends letters of recommendation. Some schools still use paper and want to send these through the mail. In this case, you will want to provide your teacher with self addressed and stamped envelopes to the admissions office colleges you want them submitted. For high schools that use Naviance, or have the ability to send electronic transcripts, make sure you have filled out any specific request forms that will allow your teacher to upload their documents.  No matter what, you should always remember to thank your teachers for writing your letter!

Visit the Great College Advice website for more information on the services offered by Cara and her fellow college admissions consultants.

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