Here at AcceptU, we receive a lot of questions about the college admissions process from high school students and their parents. Below, we have compiled answers to ten of the most frequently asked questions – as well as responses from our team of former college admissions officers.
1. How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?
Students should begin working on their college applications in July or August. Most college apps do not go live – including the Common Application – until August 1 or later, but the questions on the Common App (and on most college-specific apps) do not change from year to year. (One exception: next year’s Common App will not include a “Topic of your choice” option.)
College applications are not as complicated as students assume: they include demographic information, extracurricular activities and work experience, and essays. Some colleges will have no essays; others will have just one essay, and more selective colleges tend to have two or three additional short essays.
It is possible for students to complete most of the essays and applications before September 1 of the senior year. Other parts of the application – teacher and counselor letters of recommendation, counselor forms, and transcripts – will be sent from the school separately.
2. What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?
Students should choose topics that reflect themselves – where the admissions office can learn how the student changed, learned, or grew from a given situation or experience. Sometimes the problem is not the student’s writing but instead the question asked –students should avoid those questions that do not let the student talk about himself or herself.
With respect to selecting a terrific essay topic, students should consider any event, no matter how large or small. Students want to come across as interesting, unique and likable in their writing.
3. Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from?
Students should avoid topics that reveal risky or unethical behavior. They should probably also be cautious when writing about religion, politics, or significant others – since they never know who is reading their essays. Any of these topics can make for an excellent essay, but students tend not to write very good essays using these topics. Students should also never substitute a poem for an essay unless the essay prompt specifically asks for creativity or a poem.
4. What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?
The student should try to minimize the number of errors in the application – in the essays and in the extracurricular activities section. Admissions officers do not expect to see a flawless application – in fact, they rarely do – but several errors (typos, spelling, grammar) on an application can draw negative attention.
5. What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?
It depends on the university – some colleges might have two or more admissions officers read every application, while others might have pre-screening of applications. With pre-screening, those apps that are simply not competitive with grades and scores will not move on to the next round. The admissions officers each will have their own methodology in approaching an application; some might prefer to look at the transcript and scores first, while others will dive right into reading the essays, and still others might want to read the recommendation letters.
Typically, applications will be read by at least two admissions officers, and often will be read by a committee of people, before a decision is made.
6. 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?
The essays are the voice of the applicant; very few colleges require an interview, and thus the essays allow students to present information about their academic interests and their extracurricular passions, and demonstrate to a college how he or she will contribute to the campus community.
7. How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?
The most important way to learn about a campus culture is to visit! Students should preferably visit during the school year and during the week to sit in on a few classes and possibly meet professors. While there, students should feel free to stop random students to ask about their experience at the university. Prospective applicants might also consider staying overnight in a dorm if the college has an overnight hosting program, or eating in the dining hall, or returning for a second visit many months after the initial visit.
8. Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions… With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students?
Students should learn the rules of early action, early decision, and single-choice and restrictive early action. If students have visited all the colleges on their list and have a top choice and will enroll if admitted, then perhaps early decision – a binding agreement – is appropriate. But, the student should only apply early decision if the school is somewhat within reach – if the school is too far out of reach given the applicant’s test scores and grades, then the applicant might want to reconsider, since students can only apply to one school early decision.
9. How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?
The grades and rigor of curriculum are always the most important criteria in admissions, with the only possible exceptions for portfolio- or audition-based programs (like architecture, fine arts, drama, voice, and instrumental performance). Standardized test scores will likely be important at very highly selective universities, but at these same schools, the essays will be critical as well. There are a couple very selective universities, and many more highly selective liberal arts colleges, that are test-optional. Obviously, for these schools, testing is not nearly as important as other facets of the application – the grades, the essays, the interview, the recommendation letters, and extracurricular activities profile.
10. What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?
Students should ask for letters far in advance of the deadlines – possibly even at the end of junior year of high school. Students also might want to provide their teachers with their academic profile or extracurricular résumé, as well as a list of colleges to which they are applying, and academic areas of interest. Students should consider asking teachers whom they know well or who taught them in multiple years, if possible. Students might also want to look towards teachers from junior and senior years, not to mention teachers in academic areas that reflect the students’ interests (for example, a prospective engineering student might want to ask her physics teacher for a letter).