A few quick tips for the college admissions process
VT: How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Kofi: Truthfully, you should begin work on your college application from the moment you start high school as the process of achieving exceptional grades, amassing standardized test scores, and participating in extracurricular experiences that will comprise your application begins. In terms of actually completing the online or paper application, we recommend getting started as soon as applications are released – generally sometime in August. We also encourage students to familiarize themselves with the Common Application during junior year, including a practice run at essay writing.
VT: What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Kofi: When beginning the essay writing process, think initially of breadth of topics rather than depth. There is a time for brevity in writing, but the idea-generating stage is not it. We have students brainstorm possible topics by reflecting on people, experiences, events, etc. that have shaped their lives. We additionally encourage them to cull through old photos, thumb through old books, and talk to people who have been an integral part of their lives in order to spark some ideas about possible topics. In general, we advise students to avoid topics that may be too intimate, controversial, or publicized. Many of the most eloquent and memorable essays I have ever read are about mundane topics with a personal spin.
VT: Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
We tire less of particular topics and more of unsophisticated writing. Too often, applicants write generic essays that fail to differentiate them as candidates. We also warn students against pursuing the controversial topics which are difficult to effectively manage in a college essay. It’s one thing to take a stand on an issue; it’s another thing entirely to take that stand in your essay only to offend or alarm the gatekeepers of the university. There will be plenty of opportunities for debate once the student has earned admission.
VT: What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
Being disingenuous. This could be in the form of a blatant lie or in a more subtle manner: assembling an application that is incongruous in different parts.
VT: What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
Admissions processes vary widely, especially depending upon the number of applicants, size of admission committee, selectivity of the institution, etc. But, in general, colleges will review the hard data: GPA, class rank, standardized test scores. In addition to the statistics, admission committee members will read supporting documents: student essays, recommendations, resumes, portfolios, etc. In general, the statistical information and supporting documents are the driving force behind some sort of group classification: Admit; Deny; Undecided/Possible. Many schools prefer for each application to be given multiple reads to ensure that candidates are accessed thoroughly and equitably. Unfortunately, some schools, particularly larger institutions, do not have the capabilities to employ such rigorous efforts for large applicant pools and therefore rely on an automated system based on statistics for admission.
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?
By the time students apply to college, much of the data students will report is already fixed (GPA, class rank, standardized test scores), however, the essay remains very much in a category of its own. This is the one element of the application over which the student can exercise control up until the moment of submission. As such, view the essay as potentially your greatest advocate and a true differentiator.
VT: How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
To the extent possible, make the visit as authentic as possible: visit while classes are in session, attend an information session, take a tour, and sit in on a class. And don’t be afraid to deviate from the script. Student ambassadors and tour guides are trained to highlight the assets of a university, so try to engage students beyond the formal part of your visit. Stop students in the cafeteria or on the green to get a different perspective. One question to always ask on campus visits: If you could change one thing about this school to make it better, what would it be? Every college has areas of weakness, and this question encourages students to hone in these areas.
Also, during your visit, be mindful of whatever visceral reaction you have to the campus. Did you immediately fall in love with the campus? Were the students warm and engaging (and not just the tour guides)? Did the students seem miserable or stressed out? Were the students dressed in their Sunday best or still in their pajamas as they headed to class? The more campuses you visit, the more the experiences may start to bleed into one another, so take notes and pictures to help the experience last beyond your visit; limit visits to two maximum per day.
Finally, reach out to students you may know who attend schools in which you are interested. Ask them about their experiences, both positive and negative. And ask them if they had it to do over, would they choose the same school?
VT: Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions…With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Early Decision should be reserved for students who have a clearly defined number one choice school. It is a binding agreement and should be treated as such. Students should also be aware that Early Decisions are made well in advance of financial aid packages being awarded, and if the cost of college is an issue, ED candidates generally have fewer financial aid options given the timing of ED acceptance and aid letters.
Early Action provides students with far more options, as acceptances under this provision are not binding, and students have the peace of mind knowing they have been accepted well in advance of decisions that are mailed under regular admission.
We never suggest that the type of application, i.e., ED, EA, etc., be the driving force behind a candidate’s school selection, but rather they should consider the overall fit as the top priority. That being said, we do encourage students to consider applying to schools that will be a good fit and have some sort of Early Action admission. This early planning allows for more application work to be completed early in the school year, decision letters to be mailed earlier, and more time to enjoy some of senior year without the stress of waiting for every decision to come in the spring.
VT: How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
For many schools, they are the two most important criteria considered for admission, with the nod of importance given to the former considering it measures performance over a number of years and not just a single test sitting. If possible, we encourage all students to take some sort of test prep course; not doing so will almost always place students at a disadvantage considering the number of students who now take these courses, particularly if applying to competitive colleges.
One thing to keep in mind regarding grades: colleges don’t just want to see a strong GPA; they want to see that you have maintained a strong GPA while taking a rigorous course load.
VT: What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Foremost, don’t be afraid to ask teachers if they are able to write a strong letter of recommendation for you. A lukewarm letter of recommendation can certainly undermine your candidacy. Also, we encourage students to provide teachers with a copy of their resumé as well as samples of work that they have completed in that teacher’s class. This will aid the teacher in writing a more personalized and comprehensive recommendation. Once the letter of recommendation has been submitted, remember to send the teacher a hand-written thank you note.