Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Joie Jager-Hyman is known internationally for her expert advice on the college admissions process. She is a graduate of Dartmouth College and served as the Assistant Director of Admissions for the university later on. Joie is also the author of Fat Envelope Frenzy: One Year, Five Promising Students and the Pursuit of the Ivy League Prize, a book on college admissions that was positively recognized by the Wall Street Journal, and has another book that is planned to come out in 2013.
VT: How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Joie: I suggest that students start working on their common applications in the summer before their senior year of high school. July is a good time to work on the main personal statement and the short answer. August is a good time to start the supplements for Early Decision/Action schools.
VT: What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Joie: Understand the application components—grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation—and ask yourself, “What is missing?” What can you say about yourself that will add something to your application? Don’t just write about your activities because those are already in your application. Think about what makes you unique and go from there.
VT: Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
Joie: Very few topics are off limits but there are certain topics that are very common and writing about one of them will make your essay a little less likely to stand out. These topics include: sports (especially “I won the big game”), community service, and trips/vacations. Because these are so common, it can be hard to write something original about them.
In no circumstances should you write your college essay about writing a college essay. The only thing the admissions officer knows about you is that you are applying to college so that does not add anything to their understanding of who you are and how you will contribute.
VT: What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
Joie: Not working on it enough. One draft isn’t going to cut it here. Really think about how you are using the space and make sure that you are making the best possible case for how you will contribute to a campus.
VT: What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
Joie: Academics—grades and test scores—are most important. If a student is qualified academically, then the question becomes: how will this person contribute to the school? What will he or she add to the community? What makes him or her unique?
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?
Joie: Academics are the most important part of the application.
VT: How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
Joie: If possible, it is always great to visit. However, I truly believe that the best way to get to know a campus is not just to go on a tour but to talk to real students. They’ll give you the scoop on the college’s pros and cons.
VT: Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions...With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Joie: Early Decision can give students who a nice “boost” in the application process. So if you have a first-choice college, it’s always good to apply Early Decision, especially if you don’t need to “shop around” for financial aid. Students who do want to compare financial aid offers should consider applying to some schools early action, which is not binding.
VT: How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
Joie: Academics are the most important part of the applications.
VT: What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Joie: It’s always a good idea to keep a folder of “excellent” work throughout your junior year of high school so that you can go back and reference what you have done when you ask a teacher for a letter of recommendation. The more details, the better the letter so feel free to communicate with your teachers about how you feel you have excelled in the classroom.
Visit Joie’s website, College Prep 360, to check out her admissions consulting services.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.