Ask an Admissions Expert: Dr. Oliver McGee

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Dr. Oliver McGee served 5 years on the Faculty Admissions Committee of The Ohio State University. Working in admissions for the largest public university in the U.S. provided him with incredible experience to become an expert on the college application process, as well as a widely known STEM education mentor. He is currently an American Council on Education Fellow at UCLA, where he has gained further insights into all areas of admissions. Dr. McGee has additionally mentored several students who have went on to receive extremely prestigious fellowships.

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

Oliver: A student must begin working on his or her college application about a year in advance to gain insights into themselves and their desire for a college education through advice and counsel of parents, teachers, student colleagues, mentors, and extracurricular activity counselors, coaches, and coordinators. The application process falls into 3 buckets of work: 

1. High School Classes – always select challenging classes. Admissions counselors will read your transcripts very carefully to identify what classes were offered to you and what classes you ultimately chose. If you don’t choose advanced courses, but do well on the SAT or ACT, you appear intellectually lazy because you didn’t challenge yourself day-in and day-out in your classes.
2. Summer Activities – make sure to spend your summers wisely: volunteer, work, attend college and university summer programs, be a camp counselor, or take summer school classes. Admissions counselors are eager to understand how you spent your time, because they want students who will contribute to their college or university.

3. Researching Colleges – plan to spend quality time the summer before your junior year, using tools like Naviance to research colleges and universities. It is fun and the filters make it very easy. You can also get a good introductory sense of colleges and universities by looking at their websites.

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

Oliver: Know thyself before thy write! High school is about developing one’s deeper skills in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Use this liberal education and development process to learn more about oneself through the minds of absentee teachers in great books and great conversations taking place therein. From these great conversations, one can observe and absorb more about one’s desires in living a good life and about one’s aims in contributing to a good society. A terrific essay must be fully authentic about one’s young life lived full out – and colleges are interested in young people who aim to “turn up the volume in their lives” inside their college environment, which can be thought of as “parks of beauty,” featuring varied longstanding questions and truths taught and researched by excellent faculty and scholars supported in bountiful goodness of extraordinary staff and administrators.

Write an essay that tells the reader about YOU as a person. Remember that admissions counselors will already have seen your grades, test scores, and accomplishments. They want to get to know you on a deeper level with the essay. At some colleges, you will be required to write multiple essays. So, make sure they each reveal another aspect of who you are. Make the essay interesting to read. It is the story of YOU. So, think of it as the first few pages of a novel. Know that writing the essay will take far more time than you expect. So, allow for this. Let a teacher, counselor or parent read your rough draft and listen to their feedback. Don’t be offended or feel overwhelmed, because it will all be worth it!

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

Oliver: Stay away from inauthentic essays submitted, which are far away from how a student will be transformed into the clearing of possibilities possibly achieved from a possible college education, in order to take advantage of what President Obama recently stated in his second inaugural address that “possibilities are limitless in America.”

Avoid writing about how someone inspired you, because the risk is that you will spend most of the essay writing about that person rather than about yourself. This won’t help the admissions counselor get to know YOU.

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

Oliver: Lie. Why start out one's college career with academic misconduct? College is a momentary detour of thought and reflection on the journey and game of life. Why rest one's generous thought and reflection on a lie? It’s unstable ground.

Also, avoid these 4 additional mistakes:

1. Submitting the application on the deadline. For many colleges, the application deadline is December 31st. Why would you wait until 11:59 pm to press the “send” button on your application? This just increases the likelihood for problems as colleges and university admissions teams must print your entire application. And, given many others students procrastinate, why place your application inside that “last minute company.”

2. Writing less than the maximum number of words on the essay. If the maximum number of words is 250, then don’t write 100 words!

3. Skipping the Optional Essay. Why miss the opportunity for the admissions committee to get to know you better?

4. Forgetting to proof read! Have your parents read your essay backwards to look for spelling errors. And ask your parents to read your essays a couple of times for grammatical errors.


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

Oliver: Generally, there is an extensive reading committee of each application. Not only in consideration of meritorious excellence alongside diversity and participation goals of the college/university mission and strategies. But also, in consideration of a seven-step flow process with automatic applicant-qualifying typical seven-exit points into direct early admissions, with the last exit point falling into a more extensive review by a centrally-based faculty review committee on admissions. The final decision of this committee determines whether an application is finally accepted or denied admission. Of course, a plethora of varied appeal processes may and often do exist, consistent with the American principles, rules, standards, and values of complete fairness and due-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?

Oliver: The essays are king. Please know that all essays are read by the reading committees very carefully these days. Especially so given the growing number of applicants that one must compete with for a valued-seat in the freshman class of an American college or university.

Write the essay in your own voice. Admissions counselors can quickly spot the voice of an adult. Also, make sure that you meet as many people who will evaluate your application as possible. Personally meet with the admissions counselor within the scope and geography of your colleges and universities of interest. Attend local presentations by the colleges and universities of your interests. If an interview is offered either on-campus or off-campus, do it.

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

Oliver: Visit the college or university campus. I call them “churches of higher education” or “open parks of quiet beauty enjoyed by surrounding communities and neighborhoods.” Some colleges and universities are actually “cities within a city” with all the amenities and public works enjoyed inside most urban centers across America. College and universities nowadays are widely branded online. Also, they have a sense of place that must be experienced by parents, teachers, counselors, and students. Because, above all, a higher education is as much an experience in its diversity and participation, as it is a mission of service of philanthropy to the American experience. This must be felt by parents, teachers, counselors, and students – physically, in person – not just virtually online. Remember, a prestigious, often highly selective, freshman class is an implicit promise of a four-year annuity to a college or university that must be taken as an intangible goodwill of the college or university brand. Parents, teachers, counselors, and students must experience the goodwill and implicit promise on the promise of what I call a “dream-paper” awarded to a student upon experience and completion of four-years of a “higher education” on how to live a good life.

Trust yourself. You will know if there is a fit. If possible, visit the college, spend the night in the dorm, and spend the day with a student in his or her classes.  

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

Oliver: Do it all – respect the process – participate in it all – early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions – if one wants something in life, one must not wait until it is given to you. One must in life, know thyself, next go for what you want, make your case, establish your support, and then ask for something in life you want. A higher education in life is a wonderful moment when it is all about you. And, what you want and need to fully prepare oneself for a good life is all about how to make a difference in other’s life through one’s life and the lives of others. This is why college, as a uniquely American experience, is so beloved an institution of this country. Inasmuch as the university is such an interconnected American institution alongside family, church, state, corporation, and philanthropy. Applying to a college or university embarks students along the path of respect for American institutions. So, respect the process. It’s fun! And, the process is full of enlightenment for parents, teachers, counselors, and students.

Early decision is binding, while early action is not. So, you can only apply early decision to one school. Applying early decision significantly increases your chances of acceptance. If you need financial aid, your parents must submit paperwork on early decision timing. Your acceptance letter will include specifics of your financial aid package contingent upon final tax documents. Not all colleges offer early action, but many schools have a rolling decision process. So, it is always best to submit your application as early as possible.

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

Oliver: Grade point averages and standardized test scores are extremely essential in respecting the process of college and university application and admissions. Such application and admissions are, in consideration as stated earlier, of the meritorious alongside diversity and participation goals of the college or university mission and strategies. And, these application and admissions are, in consideration once again, of a seven-step flow process with automatic applicant-qualifying typical seven-exit points into direct early admissions.

Your grades and test scores are very important. But, the classes that you choose are also extremely important (refer to my answer to question #1). Don’t make the mistake of getting so involved in extra-curricular activities that you neglect your grades. Admissions counselors want to make sure that you can do college-level work.

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

Oliver: Do not ask teachers for letters of recommendation that have little idea about you as a person, your scholastic achievements, your extracurricular interests, intermediate goals in college, and your long-term goals in life. Ask teachers to shape questions for you to examine that are related to varied fields of study, not only you desire to explore deeply in a college education, but also you desire to do as a vocation in life. If what you plan to do in life does not match your inner desires in life, then how can you “turn up the volume in your life?” I believe college is a place where one can turn up the volume in one’s life in order to make a difference with integrity and trust, responsibility and accountability, and self-expression and generosity. Forasmuch as college does works as partners with government, industry, and philanthropy to contribute knowledge. So, young people can come out well-prepared to embark upon a good life of understanding others. And hopefully, read, write, listen, and speak to persons of wisdom. And, eventually become a wise man or a wise woman in the grace of one’s almighty in spirit. So, be sure to ask teachers for letters of recommendation, who have shaped your questions into your truths, beauty and goodness to achieve more knowledge and fuller understanding about your path to wisdom. This takes a lifetime to do. Ask carefully from your teachers a letter of recommendation, not just about your college admission, but also about your life path to wisdom. Those letters I assure you will definitely shine through the many others read by the college or university reading committee. Such letters, I assure you, will spiritually move these reading committees. They will accept you.

Select teachers who know you well and ask them to write your letter early in the semester. You want to make sure they have enough time to craft a quality letter so don’t wait until the last minute when they are besieged by other requests.

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