Ask an Admissions Expert: Stephen Black

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Stephen Black is a 2007 graduate of Harvard University. He kept in touch with the university and soon after, acquired a role conducting applicant interviews for the admissions office. Stephen is an extremely experienced mentor for students and has put that expertise together with his experience on the Harvard admissions board to be an admissions consultant for Admissionado, where he helps college applicants get into schools all over the world.


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

Stephen: In the literal sense, a student should begin filling out his/her applications just before senior year begins. That leaves plenty of time to devote to each application, where 10-15 applications is a healthy number. In the figurative sense, students should be “working” on their applications all throughout high school. Ideally, you don’t want to start figuring out the big-ticket items, like essays and letters of recommendation, as you start filling out the application. By the end of junior year, you should have picked your recommenders, and you should have a few solid ideas for essays. A strong essay is packed with emotion and shows evidence of maturity and growth, and this should be in the back of your mind throughout your high school career. You want to avoid the scenario where you are sitting down to a blank screen weeks before the deadline with zero ideas. Before you begin physical work on your applications, you should have a firm notion of how you’re going to present yourself, especially in the essays. 

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

Stephen: There really isn’t a “best way” to select an essay topic. If a “best way” or some magical essay secret existed, then all students would end up with identical essays, and that’s a bad thing. It truly comes down to who you are as an individual. Ask yourself these questions: what are my strengths and weaknesses? What are the experiences that have defined me? What is my unique perspective on the world? Everyone can answer these questions differently, and individuality is key. Admissions committees hate to see uniformity amongst essays. They want to read a piece of your writing that reveals something about you and differentiates you from other applicants. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve accomplished something incredible—like winning the National Science Fair or saving lives in a third-world country. It simply means that there’s something about your experiences, perspective, and/or personality that is totally unique. Discover what this is and write about it! 

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

Stephen: There’s not one topic per se, but I would caution students against using “tricks” in essays. This means trying to cleverly write about something that is actually not very interesting. It’s often best to use your regular writing style, so unless part of your personality is that you’re wacky and creative, I would advise sticking with your normal style. Also, I would definitely warn students against writing about topics that don’t directly relate to them. For example, it’s never a good idea to invoke a tragedy, such as the recent school shooting in Newtown, only to tell us that you’re sympathetic and it affected you emotionally. It doesn’t reveal anything original about you, and it’s a cheap tactic to elicit emotion from the reader. If the tragedy in Newtown inspired you to start a local campaign about gun control, or you led a school fundraiser for families of the victims, then that’s a different story.

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

Stephen: The biggest mistake students make on college applications is to treat them like brag sheets. Even if you have a 2400 on your SATs and a 4.0+ GPA, you will still be rejected from great schools if you fail to show personality in the application. Remember that admissions committees are made up of intelligent, real people, not thoughtless automatons who chew up and spit out applications. The college application is your chance to show who you are as a person—your likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, character and perspective. You must engage the reader and help them understand who you are. This, of course, is mainly accomplished in the essays, which serve as windows into your personality. Practice the art of emotional narrative, where you tell a story that evokes a response from the reader, from empathy to fascination to laughter. The best essays are memorable emotional journeys.

The less common, but more severe mistake that should absolutely be avoided is deceit. Do not lie on your applications, do not embellish your stories, and do not plagiarize. These are the quickest ways to get your application tossed in the trash without question.

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

Stephen: It generally depends on the university, but most people look at Ivy League admissions committees as paragons of the process. In the interest of brevity, here’s an oversimplified explanation of a highly complex process. Typically, an admissions officer will be assigned your application, and he/she will spend about 5-10 minutes on an initial read. Yes, this might seem harsh, but keep in mind there are usually tens of thousands of applications. Also, it’s quite easy and generally takes less than ten minutes to weed out the bad applications. Comparatively, it’s much more difficult to decide who is worthy of admission, so after this initial round, an admissions officer is usually assigned several “cases.” The officer will greatly familiarize him/herself with a group of applications and then present the cases to the entire admissions committee. The admissions officer will offer an unbiased perspective, and the other officers will be allowed to view the candidate’s application during the presentation. After a number of rounds of voting, the admissions committee as a whole will decide who to accept and reject, with some borderline cases ending up on the wait list.

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?

Stephen: Students must first and foremost present their personality in order to ultimately humanize themselves. Faced with an array of facts and numbers on paper, an admissions committee can easily forget that the applicant is a living, breathing human being. Your job in writing the perfect application is to remind them of this. Prove to them that you’ve had memorable experiences, you’ve grown and matured in your 18 years, and that you have a unique perspective on the world around you. Remember that an admissions officer is going to be reading this and hopefully making a case for your acceptance, so you want to emerge as both three-dimensional and memorable. Boring, safe essays that rehash the facts of your achievements are losing propositions. Don’t be afraid to take risks and show who you really are, weaknesses and all. After all, self-deprecation is a sign of maturity, and it also humanizes you.

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

Stephen: If you have the chance to visit universities before or after applying, by all means do so. Admissions offices are often generous and accommodating to prospective students, but they usually encourage you to attend the typical campus tour. While many tours are fun and informative, they’re also sales pitches for the university, and thus might not offer a complete perspective. The best thing to do is talk to current students and pick their brains with all of your burning questions. Encourage them to be honest. Ask them what they like best about the university, but also what’s the one thing they would change. What are academics like? How about student life? This is the one true way to get an insider’s perspective. Talk to as many students as possible, since a larger sample size will produce a broader view of the university. Lastly, sit in on a class or two, perhaps in your intended major. College academics are very different from high school academics and they vary across universities, so a firsthand glimpse is always helpful.

If you don’t have the chance to visit before or after applying, ensure that you make full use of the university’s website. In this digital age, college websites are highly interactive and include virtual tours, course catalogues, and student testimonials. Again, these will almost exclusively skew towards the positive, since just like campus tours, school websites are partly sales pitches. However, you should take initiative and call the admissions office, arranging a time to speak with an officer or a current student. You’d be surprised that you can get a decent feel for a university even from across the country. Finally, ask the admissions office to put you in contact with alumni in your area. While meeting a current student is optimal, meeting a recent graduate is also extremely helpful.

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

Stephen: Statistically, both early-action (EA) and early-decision (ED) carry a higher rate of admission, meaning you have a better chance at getting into the university, whether immediately or after deferral. However, only apply ED to a school you’re 100% positive you want to attend, since there’s no backing out if you’re offered admission. Apply to as many early-action schools as you’d like, but I’d also say to make sure that you put a ton of work into each application, specifically showing that there’s a reason why you are applying early. For example, if you’re simply applying EA to Harvard because it’s available and also on the common app, that’s going to become clear to the admissions committee. In applying EA, you should have a vested interest in the university and be able to show that their program is right for you. Admissions committees are pros at sniffing out who really wants to go to their school and who is applying EA just for the sake of it. In terms of regular decision, apply to as many schools as you want, just as long as you can devote a meaningful amount of time to each application. Applying EA or applying ED and getting rejected will NOT hurt your chances for regular admission to other universities. It’s a common conspiracy theory that admissions committees share applicant information with other schools, deciding who gets in where (“Why don’t you take student X and we’ll take student Y?”), but it’s not true. First of all, it’s illegal. Secondly, a university is concerned chiefly with you as an applicant—whether or not you’ll be a good fit and add value to their community.

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

Stephen: They’re important, but the application is more than a numbers game; it’s a holistic appraisal of you as a candidate. If you have perfect scores and grades but lackluster recommendations and dull essays, you can easily be rejected. With standardized test scores, it’s mostly important that you meet the university’s minimum, which can be found on their website or through other ranking services. If you’re above the minimum, you’re fine. Admissions committees aren’t going to debate between two applicants just because their SAT scores are 100 points apart. Even if you haven’t hit the university minimum, you can still be offered admission if the rest of your application is strong.

As for grades, you ideally want to have a GPA that’s solid across the board. However, a strong improvement over time can be impressive, while a steady decline in GPA speaks ill of you as a student. Even if you don’t feel your GPA is up to the level of a certain university, you can make a case for yourself in the optional essay. Perhaps you had some unusual circumstances that were a factor in your low grades (i.e. your family moved often, you were the primary caregiver for younger siblings, you’ve dealt with health issues, etc.). If you feel that your GPA doesn’t accurately reflect your abilities, by all means explain why to the admissions committee. Above all else, they want students with potential, so if you can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you will excel in college and add to the university community, you’ve got a much better chance at admission. 

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

Stephen: Ideally, asking a teacher for a recommendation is easy, since you should already have a strong relationship with him/her. The letter of recommendation is an important part of the application because it’s the chance for an adult to vouch for you both personally and academically. If there’s a possibility that the teacher would give a negative assessment, choose someone else. For the teachers you do ask, make sure to be polite and let them know how much it means to you. You should not try to influence what they write, nor should you write the recommendation for them. If a teacher requests you do the latter, then they’re not the right teacher for the job. It should be in their words and their words only. Also, never ask to read the recommendation before the teacher submits it. If the teacher insists on showing it to you, then you can read it, but it’s not your place to suggest changes. Most importantly, once he/she submits the recommendation, send a nice thank you note. Writing a recommendation is a significant task, so make sure to show your appreciation.


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