Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Kim Glenchur helps young applicants navigate through the college search and perfect their college applications every day through her admissions consulting service, CollegesGPS. She has years of experience in admissions, including being an application reader for the University of California-Berkeley. Kim has also presented many college admission workshops and is a member of the Higher Education Consultants Association.
VT: How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Kim: Most applications aren’t available until the late summer, such as the Common Application, which is posted online around August 1st. Late June, however, is a good time to begin working on application essays because that gives a breather after the end of junior-classes and standardized tests, and senior year is only vaguely on the horizon. Colleges often post essay prompts by early summer for the following application season. Procrastinating essay-writing until the fall after school resumes only increases stress.
VT: What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Kim: Selecting a terrific essay topic actually begins on the first day of high school. Get involved in extracurricular activities. Broaden your world. Taking charge of a project teaches leadership skills as the time and efforts of others must be coordinated. Colleges that require essays are not only looking for great students but also great campus citizens who will contribute to the community and network with their peers.
Exploring careers or increasing depth in an area that you like is another way of finding out what makes you tick. If your idea of college is restricted to studying in the library, eating in the dining commons, and sleeping in the dorm – and you have no plans for participating in the life of a residential college campus – you might want a degree from a commuter or online college instead.
No one says that they want to go to college because they want more school after high school. School should reflect a maturation process where neurological abilities are matched by what is being taught. For example, in first grade, one learns to read. By about the fourth grade, one reads to learn. Similarly, mandatory education includes high school. After that, people pay for what they want to learn. This search for an adult role after high school should provoke some questions. What am I good at? What do I like to do? How can I develop my skills and abilities to a level do to what I want to do whether I’m hired for a job or become an entrepreneur?
By your senior year, having something to talk about makes great essay writing easier. Which activities you do in high school doesn’t matter so long as you make the most of the resources available to you. Record the details of any honors or awards received. Keep a journal (not shared on Facebook) with personal reflections or musings, and to remind you about your experiences later for writing those terrific essays.
VT: Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
Kim: An Internet browser can quickly identify “essay topics to avoid,” though exceptions exist depending on how the writing is handled by the student.
Many students lament that they have not had to overcome adversity and often end up writing an essay about the life of a forebear, usually a grandparent, who made good despite all. This tells the college application reader nothing about the student. For students who have not had to overcome hardships, a good read is Bill Gates’ 2007 Harvard commencement address in which he states, “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.” Carpe diem is Latin for “seize the day.” Avoid passivity and shape your own world.
Another topic to avoid is vaguely saying that you want to go to college to get a job, please your parents, or get into medical or law school. Where is the student’s identity in this? It’s hard to learn when either your heart is not into the subject matter or you have hell to pay at home for not getting an A. While high school is hard, college will be even harder. Many students never finish college. Motivation is everything. College-level academics means being able to think on your feet, appraise situations with no obvious right answers, being open to new fields of learning, networking, and recognizing opportunities to realize a dream. Life is a journey of personal growth, and the only certainty is change. For some thoughts on motivation and learning, Carol Dweck’s Mindset provides a good place to begin.
VT: What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
Kim: The biggest mistake is not applying to a range of colleges where the student can thrive. It happens, but some students every year are not accepted anywhere.
With respect to applications, the biggest mistake is not allowing ample time to complete them. Too often, students forget that the admission decision is based on the application itself, and is not meant as an evaluation of the student as a person. Rushing through an application means not following directions when college admissions officials are happy to answer questions; not answering the prompts to talk about themselves as people beyond the grades, test scores, and activities; not thoroughly proofing the essay, such as editing distracting grammatical errors or naming another institution as being most desirable; or not noticing that the end of an essay was cut off because it exceeded the maximum word limit. Consider the application form as a piece of real estate and make maximum use of each section as is applicable.
VT: What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
Kim: There is no typical process. Some like to read the student’s biographical information before getting to the rest of the application. Some prefer to zero in on the numbers. Still others begin with “small talk” questions if they exist on the application, such as favorite foods or music. What is important is evaluating the student’s accomplishments in the context of their environment.
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?
Kim: In order to evaluate applicants who have a wide variety of experiences, information is standardized to the extent possible. Some information is no longer requested such as class rank because many schools no longer determine it. Some high schools lack counselors, can’t schedule more than five courses per academic year, or don’t bestow awards for extraordinary academic merit. Disabilities and events beyond one’s control can affect high school performance too. If unusual circumstances exist, be sure to mention them on your application. Applications that require essays usually provide a section for such explanations.
VT: How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
Kim: Online student reviews of colleges and professors, college catalogs, and college newspapers are good places to begin. Geographical terrain and local attractions provide clues on what students do outside of class. If politics matter to you, study national red-blue-purple voting patterns. Visit colleges, notice what is posted on the walls and what people are wearing, eat in the dining commons, and ask admissions about sitting in a class or overnight stays. Narrow the possibilities by April of your senior year because it is unlikely that you can schedule the Open House events of all colleges that accepted you.
VT: Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions...With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Kim: The NACAC explains the differences between application pathways in its Students’ Rights and Responsibilities brochure. Use your Internet browser to find the pdf.
If a student’s record will not significantly improve during the senior year, and their test scores are available to meet the early deadline, then an early application is possible. An early application signals interest in a college, or can make a student eligible for institutional scholarships. Many highly competitive colleges do fill a good portion of their classes with early applicants, but this may be a chicken-or-egg phenomenon because early applicants tend to have better records than average. Some colleges, such as MIT, say that it makes no difference whether an application is submitted by the early or regular deadline. Know that if you are not accepted, early applications may not necessarily be deferred to the regular pool for further consideration.
The most restrictive type of application is Early Decision (ED), which requires the applicant to accept the college’s offer of admission. Before applying ED, it’s best to decide 1) whether this college is indeed the student’s most favorite college ever, and 2) if any differences exist between financial aid for ED and regular admittees.
VT: How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
Kim: Aside from arts colleges, which may have portfolio or audition requirements, grades in a rigorous curriculum matter the most. Admissions officials do notice whether a student has taken academically challenging classes. High school transcripts with all A’s in non-challenging courses – that is, when challenging ones are available – may reflect a reluctance to develop to the next level instead of a real interest in academics. Doing well in challenging courses is important, however. Perhaps the most common question asked of admissions officers is whether it is better to get an A in a regular course or a B in an AP course. The answer is an A in an AP course. That may be your level of competition when you apply to your favorite college.
Some colleges are test-optional, which can mean that in lieu of submitting test scores, the college may require other evidence of academic ability. The most competitive colleges or programs may require SAT Subject Tests or a first course in calculus.
VT: What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Kim: Every year, try to get to know a few teachers. Participate in class, do your homework, and ask for help when needed. Many teachers also act as club sponsors.
If procedures for requesting a letter are provided by your high school, then follow them. These procedures often include a small packet of information about you and the colleges requiring letters to help the teacher write your letter. Some teachers limit the number of letters that they will write, so ask early, say towards the end of the junior year.
You will likely need two teacher letters at the most, depending on the requirements of your colleges. You will be trusting your recommender to write a fair yet positive recommendation and to complete and submit the letter on time. This means that a teacher teaching you for the first time in your senior year does not know you well enough to write you a letter. If you are afraid of what a teacher might write about you, then ask another teacher; a bad recommendation means that the student cannot read people very well.
Politely make your request in person outside of class time. Give the teacher an “out” for not writing your letter just in case the teacher knows that his or her letter may not be in your best interest. If a teacher declines to write you a letter, quickly and graciously thank the teacher for considering your request, quietly leave, regroup, and ask another teacher.
Usually in recommendation forms, you will be asked to waive your right to review written submissions from counselors or teachers. This “right” pertains to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Use your Internet browser to learn more about FERPA. By waiving your FERPA rights, the credibility of the letter will be enhanced because the recommender will feel free to write his or her opinion of you. Thus, rather than fret whether you will receive a good recommendation, ask people whom you trust.
Visit CollegesGPS for more information.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.