Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Drusilla Dee Blackman has had a long and varied career in the field of college admissions. She is the former Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid for Columbia University, as well as the former Dean of Graduate Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard University’s School of Arts and Sciences. She has a B.S. from Brown University and an M.A. in psychology from Yale. She is the founder of The Ivy Dean.
How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Dee: It is never too early to begin. We advise our students to begin the process at least two or three months prior to their first deadline. This provides them with sufficient time to research colleges, brainstorm ideas, and have each section of their applications reviewed by multiple individuals—particularly the essays.
The key is to never procrastinate, as colleges will notice. Students should plan to submit their applications at least two weeks before the deadline. Then, if any unexpected challenges arise, or if any requirements were missed, students have a few weeks to make changes and fix mistakes.
What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Dee: Often, selective colleges make their final decisions based on a student’s essays, as many qualified students have similar grades and test scores. To pick a terrific topic, the student should start by asking, “How am I different from my classmates?” By searching for differences in his or her background, experiences, current activities, and future interests, the student can discover unique topic ideas.
Then, the student should meet with his or her guidance counselor to discuss the list of ideas. A counselor works with dozens (if not hundreds) of college-bound students each year, and he or she will be able to offer advice on which topic is the most unique and noteworthy.
Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
Dee: In my opinion, topics never get boring. Rather, it is the presentation style. While Dean of Admissions at Columbia University, I read thousands of essays that all sounded the same. Many students directly answer the question and fail to creatively include details that distinguish them from other students.
Successful essays are those that are introspective. After the student selects a topic for the essay, he or she should then focus on answering three questions related to the topic: “Where have I been? Who am I now? And what do I hope to accomplish in the future?” This develops an insightful, compelling story. As every student’s personal story is different, this approach ensures that the essay is interesting—regardless of the topic.
What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
Dee: Being vague. Students often lack depth in their essays and materials. For any application, students only have a few hundred words to stand out, and it is important to make every word count. For example, merely stating that you were the president of an organization, completed volunteer work, or participated in a sport is not enough information. Colleges want to know about the context surrounding each experience. Why did you participate in the experience? What did you learn? Did the experience impact your way of thinking? What did you accomplish?
The scenarios are endless, but as long as the student answers this series of questions for each statement, the student has the best chance of standing out.
What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
Dee: Each college has a unique process, but there are a few basic similarities. First, colleges check if a student can handle their academic rigor. If a student surpasses the college’s threshold for grades and test scores, then the admissions officers want to learn how he or she will contribute to their student body. This information is found within a student’s essays, letters of recommendation, activity and honor lists, and short-response answers, which display how a student differs from others in the applicant pool.
Often, two or more admissions officers review each application. Once a majority opinion is made, the application will go to a committee for a final decision.
As you can see, almost the entirety of the process is subjective; it is important to seek assistance from a teacher, counselor, or independent firm to extensively review each component of your application. Any detail may make a difference in the committee’s final decision.
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?
Dee: Fit. Regardless of the specific questions, all admissions offices are (actually) seeking the answer to only one question: “Is the student a good fit for our college?” To properly answer this question, students must extensively research the college to learn about its curriculum focus, values, campus culture, and opportunities. Then, the student should convey how he or she will contribute to the college’s unique characteristics.
How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
Dee: When possible, students should visit colleges to experience the campus and speak with staff, faculty, and students. College is an expensive investment, and nothing surpasses a first-hand experience to determine your fit. However, visiting a college is not always possible. For the colleges a student cannot visit, he or she should review their website, read student newspapers, and research the college from various sources to learn about the college from different perspectives.
A student’s happiness at a college is an important determinant of academic performance and future success. Students should look past ranking, prestige, and social pressures to find colleges of genuine interest to them. In most cases, a student will naturally gravitate toward some colleges over others.
Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions...With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Dee: Often, students spend a significant amount of time debating between these application types. However, in many ways, the different applications are artificial, and solely used to spread the flow of applications. Students should view them the same way.
We recommend that students first finalize their college lists. We then tell students to list each college as a reach, target, or safety school. Once organized, students should then apply to at least one college from each category for the early round and spread the rest out—completing at least one application a week—until the regular decision round. This results in a nice, relaxed pace throughout the process.
Students should only apply to a binding option if they know with 100% certainty they would attend the college upon acceptance and want to find out their decision earlier. If not, this type of application has no other advantages.
How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
Dee: Grades and test scores are very important for students to get their foot in the door. As mentioned earlier, these quantitative factors are used primarily as a baseline to determine which students can handle the college’s academic rigor. Then, the essays and other sections are used to make the final decision.
Many students believe that there is a formula that consists of one’s grades and test scores to determine admission, and this is simply not true. Each year, students with perfect test scores and GPAs get denied. Strong, well-written essays and supplemental materials frequently carry more weight in the process.
What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Dee: The importance of these letters is regularly overlooked. Unfortunately, many letters are useless to an admissions committee, as they are vague and lack details. To avoid this, students should carefully select the teachers who write their letters, and you should not pick a teacher solely due to a high grade in his or her class. Colleges want to learn specific details about how a student contributed to the class (to assess how the student will contribute to their campuses). Therefore, students should select teachers who can write about their specific in-class projects, presentations, papers, and other classwork.
Then, the student should provide the teacher (either by email, in a letter, or in person) details regarding these in-class accomplishments to remind the teacher. This provides helpful content for the teacher to use in his or her letter.
The student should take a similar approach for guidance counselors, except this summary should include a mixture of accomplishments over the student’s entire four years of high school, including academic highlights, prestigious extracurricular involvements, and noteworthy community contributions. Colleges look to the counselor’s letter to determine how well a student can balance academic and extracurricular work, while also contributing to the campus as a whole.
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The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.