Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Stephanie Klein Wassink is a graduate of Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. She also holds years of experience on the Kellogg School of Management admissions board and runs her own consulting business, Winning Applications. Stephanie’s expertise lies in many areas of admissions, but shared her insights on the undergraduate application process with us below.
VT: How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Stephanie: Regardless of where I speak or with whom I speak, parents always ask one question: When should we start the college application process? Start it too soon and you unnecessarily step into a pressure cooker. Wait and risk being at a disadvantage when your child’s application is read last and he has to make himself stand out against the last 5,000 applications an admissions counselor just read.
Unfortunately, when to start is one of the most difficult questions to answer. Arguably, a family could start the process before their first child is born. After all, paying for college can certainly take 18 years of saving.
The reality is that the application process starts with a few small, seemingly inconsequential steps. Here are a few places to start:
Talking: Parents are verbally preparing their children for college and even graduate school constantly. They sing old college songs and make statements like, “When you go to college…”
Visiting: While noting what you like in your high school (size, location, teacher student ratio, etc.) can be important, visiting colleges enables a young person to envision him/herself on a college campus. Visits enable them to determine if they prefer rural/urban, large/small, warm/cold. Opportunities to visit college campuses include:
-Your alma mater’s alumni weekend or homecoming can be a great way to give a young person a glimpse of college life.
-Trips to local college campuses in your town or distant campuses while on vacation are instructive.
-Overnights with an older cousin or family friend who is currently in college provide another good opportunity.
Save: While some of the writing assignments high school teachers assign might seem annoying, save them. Why reinvent the wheel? If you’ve written something that might, with a few edits, satisfy an application‘s essay question, use it.
SAT/ACT: One of the most onerous parts of the application process is the standardized testing. Many schools require the SAT/ACT with writing and at least two SAT/ACT subject tests. While most students wait until their junior year to take the tests, some students opt to start a little earlier. Sophomores should go to www.collegeboard.com and try working on the practice tests. If the tests prove easy, then keep studying and plan to take the exam(s) early.
VT: What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Stephanie: Ask others! One of the best ways to differentiate yourself (the bottom line) is to ask your friends how they would describe you and tell them to give specific examples. It might surprise you to learn that they think you are so organized, that you have the oddest sense of humor, or that they admire the way you stand up for what you believe in, the combination of which could generate quite a few essays.
VT: Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
Stephanie: While I hear “my mission trip” and “my sports injury” essays are overdone, the best way to get a GREAT answer to that question is to ask it at college fairs and on college visits. It is particularly smart to ask it at your top choice schools.
I would discourage gimmicks. Your essays are meant to demonstrate your sense of sound judgment. I have spoken to admissions directors who have seen students write their essays in blood, on an old pair of jeans, in a made up Elfin language, and backwards, so the admissions officer would need a mirror to read it.
VT: What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
Stephanie: Making mistakes before the applications process begins!
Last fall, I had the opportunity to hear Dean James Miller, the head of Brown University Admissions, speak. One of the most surprising things he said was that every year a number of acceptances are rescinded due to an applicant’s poor judgment on a social media web site. It got me thinking about whether or not social media sites are a good thing or a bad thing with respect to the college admissions process. Then, of course, what about the internet as a whole? Not only will this impact kids as they try to jump the first of many hurdles in order to get into college, but more importantly, indiscretions on the web can follow a student or prospective employee for a long, long time. After all, when does correct, incorrect, and/or incomplete information on the internet expire?
With respect to the admissions process, there are certainly shades of gray:
-Certain admissions officers allow prospective students to “friend” them on Facebook. That connection can provide prospective students with salient information about the admissions process.
-Colleges have started Facebook groups for admitted students.
-Many high school students use Facebook for appropriate fun, and have enabled their privacy settings and can control the content that is uploaded to their accounts.
-The Common Application – certainly better than ordering applications from 12 schools via mail.
-Tufts’ YouTube optional essay is one in which a student can demonstrate his/her superior equestrian skill.
-“Frienemies” used to make an anonymous call or send a letter to alert an admissions office rep that “little Billy” did not deserve to be admitted because of inappropriate behavior; now they use Facebook to prove it.
-Most schools do not have enough time to check their applicants’ Facebook accounts, but they do have a responsibility to check when they receive a tip.
-Internet marketers have started bogus sites, marketing to, for example, college alums.
-Email and texting may be an issue too. The BBC recently reported that Dr. Ari Juels, the Chief Scientist of the RSA, an Encryption and Network Security firm, has made clear that the internet is hardly anonymous (http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/maggieshiels/2010/03/the_end_of_anonymity.html).
-Tufts’ optional video/YouTube style essay in which one student chose to rap about Tufts in her living room in front of her Christmas tree…I am not sure if it could hurt her chances, but I am pretty sure it did not help.
One thing is clear: the internet makes most of the college application process easier. However, many students may not have the foresight to know that their past, as far as the internet is concerned, does not disappear. Parents who are not on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc., really should be.
VT: What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
Stephanie: Given the fact that there are over 4,000 colleges in the United States, it is safe to say that the evaluation process differs not only from school to school but also between admissions committee members. Because many applications are read at the admissions officer's home, what is important to note is the number of distractions that surround the reading process. Those distractions oblige the student to make the essays interesting and engage the reader from the first sentence.
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?
Stephanie: We have all come across the oft cited study indicating that students learn more outside of the classroom than inside. If that is true, then think about the admissions committee’s mandate. The single most important thing a student should make sure to present in the best possible way on his application is that he can educate the student body and actually will teach other students when he matriculates.
VT: How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
Stephanie: The answer is easy. The execution is not. No one knows a college like the student body and its RECENT alumnae. Getting to know those students and alumnae, given the nature of high school students, is not always easy. Visiting campus, arranging to stay overnight, talking to students (who are not affiliated with the admissions office) are the best ways to get in touch with a college’s culture. I also suggest students and parents grab the college newspaper (if it is available); it gives a broad sense of what’s being discussed on campus.
VT: Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decision...With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Stephanie: When students have a clear first choice and their scores are where they need to be, I recommend applying early decision or early action. A recent study quoted in the 2012 National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) State of College Admissions noted that applying early has the same impact as adding 100 points to the student’s SAT score!
VT: How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
Stephanie: IMPORTANT! According to the 2012 NACAC survey, 84% of colleges feel that grades are the first and most important determinant of a student’s. success. While grades are #1, grades in college prep courses are #2, standardized tests rank #3.
VT: What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Stephanie: I would implore families to recognize how busy teachers and guidance counselors actually are. Not only do guidance counselors only spend approximately 25% of their time on college admissions, the ratio of students to guidance counselors in the US is 1:473. One way to make sure that all or many of your facets are represented in your recommendation is to sit down with your “recommenders” and talk about what you do. Given the aforementioned ratio, if they do not have time for that, send them an email with a detailed resume. Make it easy for them to use quotes/descriptions from you in their recommendation write-up.
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The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.