September 03, 2008
Overall, well-played, Lukasz, even if getting into 17 selective colleges is totally trophy-hunting.
Once you’ve taken the SATs, written your essays, requested recommendations and mailed your applications, you’ll probably do a happy dance—and say, “It’s out of my hands, now.” False.
You should play an active role in your application process until you hear the college’s final decision. Admissions officers are not faceless computers, they’re people. They have personalities, information, and e-mail addresses. Many, in fact, are so eager to talk to high school students that they visit schools and neighborhoods to run information sessions and college fairs.
Admissions officers want to admit good students as much as you want them to admit you. So what does that mean? Cue bold, italics, and underline: Contact admissions officers at the schools you want to attend.
Why Contact Admissions Officers?
There are two reasons to speak with admissions officers over e-mail and in person. First, they’re great resources. Second, they may consider their personal interactions with applicants when making admissions decisions.
Choosing a college is a big deal, so you should hoard information about the schools you’re considering. Don’t forget that just as admissions committees are making decisions about you, you are deciding whether you want to attend their schools.
Brad Flora, who worked as an admissions officer at Princeton University from 2004 to 2006, emphasized that admissions officers are excellent resources for high school students choosing between colleges. “Students spend so much time fixated on, ‘will they take me or will they not?’ that they forget that they have some bargaining power,” Flora said. “You need to have as much information as possible at your disposal in order to make that decision.”
The second reason—speaking with admissions officers can make you a more favorable candidate—is a little more controversial. Some college counselors believe that reaching out to admissions officers is crucial. Bev Taylor, founder and director of an independent college consulting firm called Ivy Coach, tells her clients to maintain contact with regional representatives of the schools they’re applying to. “Sometimes it’s too early for a student to even know that they’re interested in that particular college, but it’s really important for students to meet these people and then follow through,” Taylor said. “Keep that dialogue going. That’s really important.”
She explained that admissions officers are much more likely to recommend an applicant if they can match a face and a personal interaction with the paper submission. “Admissions counselors are human,” she said. They’re likely to favor candidates they are familiar with over candidates they have never spoken to. “They’re told by their committee they can select one. One person they know; the other they don’t. I just think it’s always in the student’s best interest to get to know the geographic representative from admissions.”
Other college counselors think that while personal interactions with admissions counselors can help you, they are not of utmost importance. Evan Bailyn, the CEO and founder of The Penn Group, a college consulting company, estimates that five to 10 percent of an applicant’s chances are rooted in these communications. “It’s definitely a good idea. It’s not nearly as important as other things, like your test scores or your essay,” Bailyn said.
According to Flora, Princeton’s admissions committee tried not to be influenced strongly by personal interactions with applicants so as to concentrate on these more vital factors. “At Princeton, it wouldn’t have a whole lot of impact,” Flora said. “There were students that sent me a handwritten, hand-stamped card and I certainly remembered those students, and I thought it was funny.” These students, Flora said, often got an extra second or two in committee discussions, but officers’ interactions with students never radically shifted their decisions. “There were other factors that were much more central,” Flora said. “Still, an extra second is an extra second.”
Even though Princeton admissions officers don’t choose candidates based on personal communications, said Flora, speaking to admissions officers never damages an applicant’s chances. “I met thousands and thousands of youngsters, and I would either remember them or not remember them,” Flora said. “But I rarely remembered someone poorly.”
Bari Meltzer Norman, a former Admissions Officer at Barnard College/Columbia University and currently the Director of Expert Admissions, a college consulting company, explained that an interaction alone will not convince an admissions officer to accept one student over another. But the information applicants glean from interactions with admissions officers likely will strengthen their applications and indirectly boost their admissions chances.
“It’s not going to help you just because you spoke to them,” Norman said. “You write a better application the more information you have about a school and the better sense you have of a place.”
How to Contact Admissions Officers: What to Do, and What Not to Do
Often, admissions officers hold information sessions or attend college fairs to attract applicants. The most effective way to build relationships with admissions officers is to attend these programs, either at your high school or in your community, and speak to the admissions officers. Their purpose is to advertise their college, so they will stay around as long as high school students are there.
In addition to speaking to admissions officers at college events, e-mail them updates on your achievements, even if the information is being sent to the school. E-mails will draw attention to your accomplishments and remind officers about your application, according to Taylor. Also e-mail questions about the school to continually build your store of information.
There are several mistakes to avoid when contacting admissions officers. First, e-mail admissions officers enough to maintain their attention, but not so much that your interactions become petty. E-mailing about what you “had for breakfast,” said Taylor, is not effective. “At Princeton, the idea of being a self-starter was really important to us,” Flora said. “We want to hear about something you’ve done that may be a little different.”
Second, do not ask questions that you could easily find on a school’s website. Do a little research beforehand—your questions should reflect well on you in addition to garnering information about the school. “You don’t need to have encyclopedic knowledge of the school you’re visiting—no one expects that—but you should have a few questions prepared,” Flora advised.
Third, remember that you, not your parents, are the applicant. College admissions officers are not impressed when students are mute and their parents take charge. “That is probably one of the worst things a student can do, is have Mommy or Daddy call on the student’s behalf,” Taylor said. She recommended that parents who feel they must contact the admissions office do so anonymously.
“It’s not so much the parents doing too much as the parents filling a void that the students create,” Flora said.
Finally, be confident and pleasant, but don’t brag. “The same thing that makes you get along well with anybody will go into your interactions with your admissions officer,” Bailyn said. “They’re looking for people that are upstanding, and nobody likes kissing up. Nobody likes a bragger.”
The Bottom Line
Communications with admissions officers are not nearly as important as your grades, your recommendation letters, your essays or your test scores. But talking to officers will rarely damage your application and might make you a more memorable candidate. Remember, you have to decide on a school, too, and admissions officers can help you make a thorough decision—and give you the tools to write a strong application.