Ask an Admissions Expert: Tira Harpaz

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Tira Harpaz is the Founder of CollegeBound Advice, an admissions consulting firm that aids many students in the college admissions process. She is a graduate of Princeton University where she also served as an alumni interviewer.

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

Tira: Most students will not look at an actual college application until late August/early September of their senior year of high school. However, students can and should be thinking about parts of their application before that date. In terms of a main essay (which can be used for Common Application schools, as well as many other schools), it is generally a good idea to brainstorm and begin writing the essay in the late spring or summer before senior year. Developing a topic can be time-consuming—it can take several drafts to craft an essay you are satisfied with, and the process should not be left until the last minute.  

In addition, as you go through high school, you should keep a list/develop a resume of your extracurricular activities. That way, you will be mindful if you are doing too many one-time activities rather than having meaningful and in-depth interests. While you should never engage in an activity for the purpose of building a resume, sometimes noticing that you lack leadership or that you have not sustained many of your interests will allow you to rectify those gaps. 

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

Tira: I believe the most effective essays are ones in which the reader not only gets a sense of the student, but also feels that the student was emotionally involved with the subject. So, my advice is to brainstorm about what makes you happy and what makes you tick. Think about a time when you felt engaged—e.g., have you always loved inventing things? When did your fascination with music begin? What did it feel like when you threw your first pitch? In addition, sometimes it's helpful to think about the weaknesses in your application and see if there's a way to address them in an essay. For example, if your extracurricular activities are strong, but your academic performance has been spotty, try and think of times you went the extra mile in a class or got fascinated by a particular subject, and see if you can write about it.

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

Tira: Although I personally have topics I dislike, I think almost any topic can work depending on how well you write. That said, there are a few topics I would be careful about using, including a summer community service/travel program that you paid for, a sports story about winning the big game, and a personal narrative about a hardship or illness in the family, unless it is truly meaningful. In addition, anything that smacks of prejudice or entitlement should be avoided.

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

Tira: The biggest mistake is to send out a rushed application, which does not convey the student's personality or ideas or interest in the college in question. The second mistake (which I see frequently) is not proofreading the application. Typos and sloppiness leave a bad impression, and sometimes there are inconsistencies that should be avoided. For example, if in your activities list you mention that you've been involved with your school band all four years, but your essay says you've just started band, the inconsistency raises unnecessary questions. And finally, of course, lying about activities is just plain foolhardy.

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

Tira: The process for admissions offices is different depending on the school. Some very large state universities only consider standardized test results and GPAs while making a decision. For many other schools, at least one admissions officer will do an initial read of the application, looking at essays, recommendations, grades, test scores and activities. These reviews can be relatively short, sometimes only 15-30 minutes, and so your goal should be to make your application stand out in some way and make the admissions officer your advocate.

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?

Tira: I always tell students they need to answer any underlying questions raised by the application. If a student has few extracurricular activities, the admissions committee might assume the student isn't active and won't participate in the life of the college. That student needs to show, if possible, how he or she engages in activities or pursuits that are purposeful and interesting. If a student has a serious academic weakness, the student must explain how they have worked to improve in that particular subject.

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

Tira: Students should make a checklist of factors that are important to them. Although some of these preferences may change, many will not, and such a checklist is helpful in deciding which schools will ultimately land on your college list. After that, visiting a school, if at all possible, is useful to determine whether it would be a good fit. Try and interact with students other than tour guides. Are students friendly, helpful, morose, inattentive? Sit in on a class, eat in the cafeteria and visit a dorm room if you can. 

If you can't visit (or even if you can), go online and access a virtual tour. Reach out to students who attend the school, through emails, texts etc. If you're interested in a particular subject, see if you can correspond with a professor in the department. Some schools offer online chats with the admissions office, and some admissions officers have great online blogs, which can be informative.

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

Tira: To a certain extent, the question of whether to apply early will depend on a student's profile. I generally recommend that a student apply to at least one early action or rolling admissions school that is likely to accept the student. The goal is to have an early acceptance in hand so that your stress level will be lower over the next few months. If, however, a student's grades have been problematic, I might recommend that the student wait until hopefully stronger first semester grades are available before submitting an application.

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

Tira: A student's four-year academic record is by far the most important factor in admissions. Generally, no extracurricular activities or exceptional essay will outweigh your coursework and GPA. In addition, schools will look at the rigor of courses the student has taken. If you're applying to a selective school, but have only taken the easiest courses available, it will be very difficult to gain acceptance. After that, for schools requiring standardized tests, test scores are looked at carefully. Finally, all the other components of an application—essays, recommendations, and extracurricular activities—are reviewed.

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

Tira: Near the end of junior year, students should pick two academic teachers as potential recommenders. You should then ask each teacher whether he or she can give you a positive recommendation. Once a teacher has agreed to give you a recommendation, ask whether there's any information they need. Even if they say no, I would suggest giving the teacher a brief description of why you enjoyed the class and any specific activities or projects you excelled in, as well as a list of your outside activities or your resume.

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