Ask an Admissions Expert: Hope Murtaugh

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Hope Murtaugh is a Princeton University alum who later went on to join the Princeton admissions office as an Admissions Officer before eventually being promoted to an Assistant Director role. She has been an independent college admissions consultant with Dunbar Educational Consultants since 2011, a unique group of 20 consultants around the world who draw from a collective 340 years of expertise in education.


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

Hope: There is usually a learning curve associated with writing effective essays for college applications. It takes multiple drafts and possibly several attempts at different topics for a student to find his or her voice in the essays, a voice which speaks in an emotionally compelling way to the reader. I recommend that students begin drafting their primary personal statement as soon as they’ve caught their breath after finishing their junior year. An early start is especially important for students who are applying to colleges on an Early Action, Early Decision, or early rolling admission plan. 

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

Hope: The best essays are those which immediately go deeply into a student’s intellectual processes and emotional intelligence. As long as the essay responds to the prompt that is asked, it can be on any topic that reaches these depths. As you consider topics, ask yourself questions like these: ”What inspires my enthusiasm to the point that words pour out of me when I begin to talk about it?”  “What do I care most deeply about?” 

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

Hope: I hesitate to say that any topic is off-limits to a good writer, but one area to stay away from is any discussion of teen romance—it simply isn’t an appropriate topic for applying to an academic institution. It is also very difficult to reach back into early childhood and write about something from that time in your life without sounding immature. This would include talking about children’s books.

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

Hope:The biggest mistake would be showing negative emotion or hostility toward others in your community, whether it is prejudice, judgment, criticism or defensiveness. A college application is not a therapy session, so don’t use it to vent. Another mistake is to fill out an application hastily due to procrastination; admission officers see through that immediately. A hasty application says that you, the applicant, didn’t care enough to spend your time on it—so how can you ask the reader to care more than you did?

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

Hope: Each college has their own process, but a subjective, holistic review usually starts with a summary of the applicant’s academic and non-academiccredentials and may involve the calculation of an in-house rating which roughly categorizes the applicant with others who present similar credentials in that college’s applicant pool.

Next, the first reader will read the entire application, making note of items of particular interest along with subjective evaluations of the content and context of the application. For example, a note about an essay might say, “Rich use of language; unusual insight into prejudice. Perceptive about group dynamics in her class.” Another notation might highlight the fact that the applicant has unusual family or work commitments, or that the high school has an unusually rigorous grading scale—anything that is particularly relevant to understanding the student, his or her context and the case for admission. Each piece of the application (recommendations, essays, non-academic activities, etc.) will be reviewed and notated. 

Finally, the reader will attempt to make a judgment call on whether this student is to be admitted, denied, or tabled for further consideration later in the reading process, when more of the applicant pool has been evaluated. The first reader probably has a daily quota of applications to consider, and this read takes the most time to complete.

Most selective processes would continue along the same lines with a second, more experienced reader and then the application would proceed to whatever group of people will make the final call. In many cases, this is a sub-committee or the Dean of Admission. At all points in the process, the eye is on the individual applicant, what makes this particular student’s best case for admission, and whether that case is compelling enough to stand out in the applicant pool of that college in this particular year. 

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?

Hope: If I have to pick one thing, it would be intellectual passion and initiative. Emotional intelligence and maturity would be a close second.

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

Hope:There are many characteristics to consider about colleges, most of which fall under the category of “the usual suspects” such as geography, class size, campus environment, and caliber of the student body, faculty, and administrators.  However, all college communities reflect the human shortcomings of their members. So, students should recognize that no college will be ”perfect”, however they may define that word. 

Show me a college with 4,000 people and I will show you 4,000 pathways through that college and 4,000 unique sets of experiences with and opinions about that college. There is no substitute for a prospective student’s own feeling about the culture and fit of a college. Prospective students should visit campuses during the school year, if at all possible, rather than relying on guidebooks and Internet discussion boards. While visiting, remember to suspend judgment until the end of the day and try to meet and observe as many students and faculty as possible. Eat a meal in the dining hall and eavesdrop on a few different groups of students. Strike up a conversation with a faculty member, if you have the opportunity. Ask open-ended questions and listen well. Don’t base impressions on a single tour guide.

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

Hope: I cannot make a blanket recommendation because each student’s situation is unique. However, some general rules apply. Remember that binding Early Decision is like getting married—you are walking down the aisle with a college and you are committed to attending there if they admit you. This makes Early Decision inappropriate for anyone who needs to compare financial aid offers between colleges, or for anyone who is not absolutely sure that they want to attend that college.

Early Action programs are good choices for students who have a strong, consistent academic record through the end of the junior year and who will have completed any required standardized testing by November of the senior year. 

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

Hope: Again, every student’s case is individual, but in general, these academic credentials will sort the applicant into a layer within the applicant pool from which his or her admission becomes more or less likely. If you fall into the top portion of the applicant pool academically, then you are much more likely to be admitted than if you fall into the very bottom portion of the applicant pool. 

A good example of this is available on Princeton University’s website. Here you will see the layers of their applicant pool as determined by GPA and SAT scores.  While the overall admit rate for the Class of 2016 was 7.9%, 10.4% of the students with a 4.0 high school GPA were admitted and only 2.7% of the students with a GPA less than 3.5 were admitted. And while 18.7% of students with SAT scores over 2300 were admitted, virtually no one with an SAT score below 1500 was admitted.

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

Hope: Ask your chosen teachers right before the end of the junior year. Select teachers who meet the requirements of the colleges to which you are applying--sometimes they specify that you must ask a science or math teacher if you are applying to an engineering school, for example. When asking, do it in person and have a resume available. Ask them if they “feel comfortable writing a positive recommendation” for you for admission to college. If the answer is yes, offer to meet with them after school to discuss your activities and your hopes for college and to answer any questions they might have. This is also a good offer to make to your school guidance counselor who will be writing the school’s recommendation for you. Be sure to follow up with a nice thank you note!


Check out Dunbar Educational Consultants for more information. 

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