Ask an Admissions Expert: Hanna Stotland

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Hanna Stotland is an educational and career consultant with a unique understanding of the admissions system – she was accepted to Harvard College with a G.E.D. Hanna worked full-time for two years before she returned to school and enrolled at Bryn Mawr College. She transferred to Harvard College and later attended Harvard Law School. In 2008, she left the legal field to make her consulting business her full-time focus.

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

Hanna: You don't need to work on it until, at the earliest, spring of your junior year. But you should be thinking about it as soon as you begin high school. The choices you make about what courses to take, how to get involved, and how much effort you put into your grades are a lot more important than your physical work on the application.

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

Hanna: Ask your best friend why he or she is best friends with you instead of anyone else. The things your best friend likes about you are probably the things colleges will like too. Also think about the funny stories your parents and siblings tell about you at family gatherings. Sometimes those old stories shed light on your character and make great essays. Whatever you write about, make sure that it is about you and what makes you unique. Anyone who knows you should be able to read the essay and say, "Only you could have written that!"

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

Hanna: Yes! Overused topics include themes like: "My sport taught me this important character trait," "My mission trip/soup kitchen volunteer position opened my eyes to poverty," and, "When I volunteered, I received so much more than I gave." It's also a mistake to write a whole essay about how much you admire your mother or your teacher. Colleges need information about you, not your mom.

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

Hanna: The biggest mistake that I see students make is failing to find a financial safety school they can love. That's a school that you know you can get into and that you know you can afford. Remember, it's not a safety if you aren't willing to go there! This school may be hard to find, but it's the most important school on your list.

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

Hanna: At most selective schools, one officer is responsible for all the applications for one geographic area or set of high schools. This officer is the primary reader of the application and will evaluate everything you submit: your transcript, test scores, essays, letters of recommendation, interview report, etc. Typically, your officer will make an initial recommendation (admit, wait-list, or deny) based on the file, and will write up a brief summary explaining the choice. At least one, and often several, additional staff members will look at the file before a final decision is made. At some schools, the file goes from the primary reader to the dean, who approves or overrules the decision. At others, groups of officers meet as a committee and vote on each student.

Larger and less selective public schools may have something close to an automatic process: certain GPAs or test scores guarantee a yes or a no, and it's only the students who are borderline who get a close read.

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?

Hanna: If you are 17, be 17. Don't try to sound like a 45-year-old with a PhD. Colleges are looking to admit high schoolers, not middle-aged professors. Write the way you speak, and then fix the grammar.

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

Hanna: If you haven't visited any colleges before, and you don't have parents or older siblings who can guide you, start with a big, thick college guidebook. As you read the essays about different schools, you will start to recognize qualities that resonate with what you're looking for, as well as those you want to avoid. Based on your research, you can plan to visit schools and meet students in person.

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

Hanna: Binding early-decision programs are for students with a clear first choice who do not need to compare scholarship offers. If you do have a clear first choice, and it will be affordable for your family, there is usually an advantage to applying under the binding option. Non-binding early-action programs usually do not carry an admissions advantage, but if you can get your application ready in time, it's a big plus that you can get the decision sooner and do less waiting.

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

Hanna: Instead of grades, I talk about the high school transcript, since which courses you took can be as important as what grades you got. Your transcript and test scores are extremely important at almost every school, but fine distinctions usually do not tip the balance. Your transcript and test scores determine whether you will be in the running at a given school. If one or both are too low, that school may be out of reach. But the difference between a 4.1 and a 4.2 GPA, or between a 31 and 33 ACT score, is unlikely to be the reason why one student is chosen over another. After they determine that you have the academic qualities they are looking for, other factors come into play.

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

Hanna: Ask early – even months early! Don't disrespect the teacher's time by asking at the last minute. It's not always the best choice to ask the teacher who gave you an A. You want the teacher who loves you and knows you well. Also, you don't need to open the conversation by asking for the letter. Ask for the teacher's advice for your college planning. You can ask several different teachers for advice and observe who seems invested in your future and interested in spending time helping you. Those are the teachers you want writing your letters.

Visit Hanna Stotland, Admissions Consultant for more information.

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