Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Eddie LaMeire has worked in higher education since the late 1990’s. His direct admissions experience began at Loyola University where he read approximately 500 applications every year. Later on, he worked for the University of California San Diego in undergraduate admissions as well as the outreach and student recruitment programs. Eddie currently coaches students through the college application process at his own firm, LaMeire College Consulting.
VT: How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Eddie: Let me start by saying this: A perfect college application won’t make up for subpar grades, test scores, activities, and so forth. But, a poorly put together application can kill an otherwise strong applicant’s chances. With my students, we begin laying the groundwork for the application over the summer; most of the supplemental essays for colleges don’t come out until August, so we can’t get everything underway too early. Add to that the fact that most competitive applicants will do some sort of summer program, and mid-August is probably the earliest we would get started anyway.
All this being said, there are really just three parts of the app a student would need to work on over the summer after determining her list of schools: the essays, the resume of activities (to refer to for application Extracurricular Activities sections), and the bragsheet (a document highlighting their most salient accomplishments for their recommenders). So, it’s not as though it’s a massive amount of material. But, beginning any later could put the student behind schedule.
VT: What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Eddie: There are entire sections in Barnes & Noble detailing this, so let me try to make this response a bit different and interesting while still being accurate. I find that there aren’t any great essay topics in and of themselves. What makes a great essay, in my opinion, is not the “storyline” of the essay, but the reflection that the student takes on the storyline. In other words, it’s not what happened, but how the student reacts to and thinks about what happened.
Now, this all being said, it’s much easier to accomplish this with interesting content than mundane content. That is, it would be a lot catchier to write about learning a lesson while taking an airplane out of a nosedive than writing about learning the same lesson in Honors Pre-calculus. But, in my opinion, it’s the “thinking” that drives the quality of the essay.
So, to directly respond to the question, one of the better ways that a student can select a topic is to ask herself this: How have I changed in recent years? Why did I change? What precipitated the change? Employ this central concept as the backbone of the essay and build around it.
VT: Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
Eddie: Like I mentioned, it’s the student’s perspective rather than the content of the essays that really counts. But, there are still some topics (usually the clichés) that will just not get the benefit of the doubt. The “three D’s” as they’re called (death, drugs, divorce) are generally considered overused, as is the “last second shot” or any variation thereof. That all being said, I’ve read some fabulous essays on all four of these concepts, so they shouldn’t be ruled out a priori.
Let me address an interesting concept, though, that’s asked at least once each year: What about problems with drugs? Alcohol? Delinquency? My position on this is the following: You’re safe to use these as subjects as long as A) they happened far enough in the past that they wouldn’t seem to be matter of immediate concern for a university, and B) the student makes a compelling case that he’s surmounted the problem.
VT: What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
Eddie: Assuming that they’re a list of accomplishments – a resume – rather than a person. USC has a great slogan. It goes, “A college isn’t a trophy. It’s a match.” Students need to be aware of this about themselves, too: colleges are not necessarily looking for the “trophies.” They’re looking for the kid that will thrive in the environment offered. So, don’t make the essay look like a list of awards; don’t spout off a litany of accomplishments in the interview; and, for younger students, do an activity because you like it, not because it seems coveted by colleges. What’s coveted by colleges is what’s rare, and right now honesty is rare.
VT: What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
Eddie: I think that most people in the profession will tell you that there aren’t many universal commonalities between admissions offices. The admissions offices I worked in had processes that were not remotely similar to one another. You can find commonalities within certain types of schools, though. In elite private schools, which most people think of when they think of college admissions, you will usually have at least two readers who need to come to an agreement on a student. A third reader can break a tie. But, it’s not like this is information you can do anything with.
Just about everything with the process is variable. I’ve worked for a school where I spent a half-hour reading the essay, and a school where I took two minutes; a school that had “comprehensive review,” and another that was on a points system; a school where I was expected to write up a full defense of the student for review, and another where I bubbled in a Scantron form.
In short, there’s a lot of overlap between what schools are looking for, but not a ton of true “universals” in the 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?
Eddie: To repeat, and this is especially the case for the top-tier schools, I feel that personal growth is the best quality to showcase. You could make the argument for academic passion, but this can be a bit one-dimensional. Presenting growth shows several things:
-The student’s life through a series of vignettes.
-A student’s thought process and her ability to reflect.
-Maturity and an understanding of her place in the world.
Again, academic passion (as well as innumerable other aspects of a student’s character) is certainly important, but growth, maturing, confrontation of obstacles, and the like can provide a kaleidoscope of personal information in comparison to the former quality.
VT: How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
Eddie: There are so many ways to access information out there that it’s probably easier to say what they shouldn’t consider. I'd say the least reliable way to get info is through hearsay, followed closely by the college’s own marketing materials; the latter are designed for sales, not information. Clearly, the best way to get to know a place is to visit, sit in on a class, and spend the evening in a res hall. But, some other pieces of advice:
-Look through college papers. They’ll give an idea of the issues that are important to students, as well as how the place functions as a community.
-Along the same lines, look at independent student papers, like the Florida Alligator. They’re less beholden to the marketing arm of the school (i.e., admissions).
-Find a way to get in touch with current students. Again, try to stay away from the ones who’re hand-picked by admissions; they’ll usually have a slight agenda. Look in chatrooms, to the extent that it’s welcome and wouldn’t come entirely unsolicited, email students on Facebook who would like to talk about the school, and so on. Just be polite (this is their free time), don’t overwhelm them with questions, and use your common sense. (Don’t be creepy, weird, and overbearing.)
Finally, I’ve been using Unigo as a good source of information for the last several years. Even though you're getting subjective input, at least it's from current students, and it helps to have a wide enough array of voices to balance out any rogues. In the interest of full disclosure, by the way, I work for Unigo as a “featured counselor.”
VT: Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions...With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Eddie: Set your interests and priorities first, then consider the decision plan.
Early Decision (ED), for instance, will offer far higher acceptance rates than Regular Decision (RD), sometimes double the RD rate. But, just because you can get into Johns Hopkins (for instance) easier through ED, do you want to? After all, with ED, you have to go if you’re admitted. I’ve seen far too many students do this, thus putting the cart before the horse. They think, first, “What is the best school where I can use the decision plan as leverage?” rather than thinking, “Where would I be most successful?” Students with this mentality might wind up at a school a few notches higher on the U.S. News rankings, but they could regret a commitment that they didn’t make for the right reasons.
Just something else about EA/ED and the early plans in general: Students who have low test scores or have had a poor 6th semester (second semester junior year) should probably think twice about applying early, even to their top choice. The statistical benefits of ED, in this case, can be outweighed by, for instance, a slightly downward grade trend or lower than desired test scores.
VT: How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
Eddie: In terms of absolute importance, they’re always the most important part of the application, with the transcript in first place followed by the test scores. In terms of relative importance, it varies. To clarify, no one is considered for HYPS (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford) without near-perfect numbers (what I’m calling grades and tests). This is the “absolute importance” part. However, no one will be admitted to HYPS on numbers alone. This is the “relative importance” part. The further you get down the selectivity ratings of the school, though, the more the “relative importance” of the numbers goes up. For instance, although no one can ride a 4.0/2400 into Yale, they can certainly do so with San Diego State, who cares almost exclusively about the numbers.
So, long story short, the numbers are always important, but students shouldn’t expect to impress top-tier schools on the basis of GPA and test scores alone. For the lower level schools, though, they can.
VT: What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Eddie: In all cases, you want your recommender to be the person who can write about you in the most glowing fashion. However, this doesn’t always happen. Coaches, club advisors, and the like, one would think, would write wonderful LoRs. But, you simply can’t use these folks for this function! In most cases, I use the following cheat sheet:
-The recommender should be a teacher in an academic class. Auto Tech and AVID, for instance, are out. Math, science, and the humanities are in. Elective teachers, art instructors, and similar profs can go either way, although there are some selective schools that accept LoRs from art teachers only if the classes taken from them were AP level or similar.
-You should have studied under the recommender for a full year. In other words, an instructor that you’ve had for just a semester won’t work. Remember: in just about every LoR form, there will be the question, “How long and in what context have you known the applicant?” A one-semester teacher reflects weakly on you.
-Stay away from freshman year teachers, unless you’ve taken courses with them after freshman year.
-Stay away from teachers whom you will have had only for senior year. There’s not enough time for them to get to know you!
-If, after all of this, you still have a large number of potential LoR writers, this would be the tie-breaker: Who can write you the most glowing letter?
-The final tie-breaker? All other things being equal, choose one math/science and one humanities teacher. It’s nice (although usually not required) to show “both sides of the brain.” Keep in mind, by the way, that you will need two recommenders for most private school applications.
Finally, build a “brag sheet,” which is really just a heavily annotated resume that highlights the student’s most impressive attributes, areas of involvement, activities, and skills. It helps to both remind and guide the recommender.
Check out Eddie’s website, LaMeire College Consulting, for more information.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.