Ask an Admissions Expert: Joan DeSalvatore

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Joan DeSalvatore is the founder of college admissions consultancy College-Bound Advising Today. Joan previously served 17 years as an Assistant Dean at Columbia University and five years as the Associate Dean and Director of Undergraduate Programs at Lehigh University’s College of Business and Economics. As an insider and a parent of three recent college graduates, Joan has unique awareness and understanding about the college application process. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Barnard College and her master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from Columbia University’s Teachers College.

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

Joan: This year the Common Application has already released the list of essay topics.  That means you have the summer to begin thinking about and writing on one or more of those topics. Most colleges have their application ready by mid-August.  The more progress you can make before the start of your senior year, the better.

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

Joan: Ideally, you want to find an essay topic that resonates with you – this will allow you to use this as an opportunity to reveal a part of your personality through the essay.

I suggest that you write a brief draft essay on more than one topic. This can be helpful in two ways:

  1. Not every college will allow you to select your own topic. Since they may specify a topic that you have not prepared, drafting more than one will give you an edge.
  2. Beginning work on more than one topic will allow you to step back and compare your responses. Which one is more genuine and less forced? Which tells the better story? Which will give the reader greater insight into who you are?

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

Joan: I would rather not read about your mother being your personal hero or a family vacation. With that said, even those topics can serve as the basis of a good essay if it really means something to you and you have found a way to express that with depth and feeling. Beware of clichés in topic or wording, overuse of adjectives, and using too many words to describe simple things.

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

Joan: Each college wants to know that you really want to enroll in their school. When there is an opportunity to mention particulars about that school, you should.  But…be aware that you have done that. So, when you go to use the same sort of comment in the application for another school, don’t simply cut and paste. The biggest mistake you can make is forgetting to change those particulars. You could be a wonderful candidate for admission but if you mention how much you love the dorms at college A in an application for college B your chances of being admitted can be greatly reduced.

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

Joan: That is going depend on the type of college. For some of the larger state colleges that rely almost entirely on high school grades and standardized test scores (SAT/ACT), their process is fairly simple.

The majority of colleges take into account all components of the application. However, by in large, they are still going to review the numbers – GPA and test scores – pretty early in the game. No matter how wonderful the essay and résumé of activities, most colleges want to know that you have the ability to do the work.

Most schools assign their admissions officers to specific territories. That usually means that your regional representative will be the first to review your application. Their greater potential familiarity with your high school, the courses, the activities, the athletics, and the advisors helps them evaluate your application.  

The essay is the piece that gives them insight into you. They are looking to know if you are a fit for their college and if there is something about you that they have missed in the rest of the application.

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?

Joan: The short answer is you! That is why we put so much emphasis on the essay.  Another important piece of the application that is often neglected is the “résumé” portion. This is more than simply a list of employment; it is another opportunity for you to show more about your personality.

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

Joan: The best way to really learn about the culture of a school is to visit. While you visit, make sure that you visit the places where the students spend their free time, the lounge areas and eating places. Take the student-lead tour and ask the student questions about his or her activities: Where do you go to study? Where do you go/What do you do to have fun? What do you like best about this school?

You can also visit your high school’s guidance office to find out if any other students have attended the college. See if you can get in touch with one of them to get a sense of the place, too.

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

Joan: Is there a college that you absolutely want to attend no matter what? If so, then apply early-decision even if it is binding. If your college list does not have one absolute #1, then I recommend regular decision for all.  

I do suggest that you aim to have all of your applications done and submitted as early in the school year as you can. Get them in and off of your mind before Halloween. That way you can get on with your life and have a great senior year.

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

Joan: Again, that depends on the school. Grades are always going to matter particularly when paired with the level of the class in which it was earned. Colleges want to know that you can handle their coursework and high school grades are really one of the few ways they have to gauge that.  

Standardized test scores are harder to generalize about. Some colleges are test-optional, which means that they have much less influence on the decision. For colleges that require tests, it depends on the policy at that particular school.

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

Joan: Find a teacher who really knows you – preferably someone who not only likes you but has also seen the value in your work and participation. So, ask a teacher of your favorite subject or a teacher who has had you in his or her class and who has also been the advisor of a club of which you are a member.  

When you ask a teacher to write a recommendation you might also offer to provide them with information about yourself. See what they would like to know and write it out for them.

Also, give them time to write it. Provide the teacher with all of the information he or she needs well before the deadline.

Visit College-Bound Advising Today for more information.

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