Hana R. Alberts
June 30, 2010
The competition to get into college is getting tougher every year. This April Harvard University accepted less than 7% of the 30,000-plus students who applied for freshman admissions. The number of applications to the University of Chicago shot up 43% over last year. Even a well-respected public university like UNC-Chapel Hill admits just 30% of its applicants. It’s no surprise students and parents are overwhelmed by the admissions process.
Applying to college seems like it should be easy: Fill out a dozen forms–which, for the most part, contain the same basic questions–and you’re done. But as winning admission to the top schools grows ever more difficult, students need every bit of advice they can get. So Forbes polled four college admissions consultants and compiled their words of wisdom.
Many of their tips center on how students can differentiate themselves from counterparts at their high schools, in their towns and across the world.
In Depth: 21 Application Tips From College Admissions Experts
Admissions officers are “social engineers, and they are looking for that kid from Montana who has potential, and they know that Harvard will rock his world,” says Denver-based college consultant Mark Montgomery. “They are going to have a certain number of kids who come from the Deerfields and the Dalton Schools. That’s great–we want them, too, but they are looking for that kid who is genuinely different.”
“The boy who lives on a ranch in North Dakota,” he adds, “is not judged by the same standard as the private school kid in New Jersey.”
So how can you best stand out? Contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s more important to show that you spearheaded original and creative initiatives at home, than participated in a pricey public service trip abroad. “Show that you’ve got other people involved, that you did something great in your own backyard,” says Bev Taylor, founder and president of New York-based college counseling firm Ivy Coach. “You didn’t have to go off to Guatemala to build houses.”
The experts also agree that essays are the most crucial part of any application, because it’s one of the few chances students have to bring their application to life–otherwise it’s just a laundry list of academic and extracurricular credentials.
“Make sure that every time you have the opportunity to write an essay, that it’s about some different aspect about you,” says Katherine Cohen, founder of the New York-based college consulting firm IvyWise. If a student’s résumé says she is captain of the soccer team, and her coach wrote an extra letter of recommendation, then turn to another topic. Says Cohen: “Maybe I don’t know that you’re a vegetarian. Tell me about that.”
Montgomery recalls one student who wrote an essay about ironing shirts. “It’s not ‘I won the championship by throwing the Hail Mary pass’; it’s an unusual aspect of the person’s personality,” Montgomery says. “How can I communicate the whole of me to someone who’s never met me?”
When brainstorming what to write, it’s important to steer clear of taboo essay topics. There are certain subjects–national disasters, homeland visits and sex–from which applicants should steer clear, unless they have a unique and personal perspective. “People are going to write about the oil spill now, or they used to write 9/11 a lot … It’s sort of hard to write about something in the public consciousness,” Cohen says. “Stay away from writing the ‘trip to the homeland’ essay. It’s a hard essay to do well, and it happens to be cliché and kind of common.”
Almost every school asks applicants to write a few sentences about why they are interested in that college. The trick, counselors agree, is to make the essay more about you and why you are a good fit for the school, rather than about the school itself. One of Montgomery’s students was struck by a particular sculpture outside a science building, and was able to seamlessly explain why it symbolized the way art and science interacted in her passions and at the school.
There are also some tactical strategies to keep in mind. Many schools have special admissions deadlines, with earlier ones around November and final dates in January or beyond.
“Don’t wait for regular decision. Be decisive. Your odds are vastly increased and generally you’ll get as much [financial] aid,” says Michele Hernandez of Hernandez College Consulting. “Beat the crowds.” The downside, however, is that many colleges will require you to enroll if you are accepted under an early program. So applicants who are dead-set on their top college are in good shape–but those who aren’t might wind up committed to a school they’re unsure about.
An added challenge for today’s technologically savvy students is managing their online identities. Cohen advises removing most personal information and photos from social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. College admissions officers aren’t really searching for you, but they do get anonymous tips from other people, and they have to follow up on any tip they receive,” she says. “If its not something you want your grandmother to see, take it down.”
There are ways to use social media to your advantage. “If you’re a dancer, put up all your recital videos,” says Taylor. “If you’re an artist, let’s see what you’ve done. Your portfolio can be up there.”
Logistical details matter too. Cohen recommends her clients start working on their essays in early summer. Though the latest iteration of the so-called Common Application, which is used by more than 150 schools, isn’t available until Aug. 1, there is a preliminary version available. Things that are always required: a résumé; a shorter essay on a meaningful extracurricular activity or work experience; and a longer personal statement based on five prompts or another topic of your choice.
Applicants, it’s time to get to work.