In Depth: 21 Tips From College Admissions Experts

Hana R. Alberts

June 30, 2010

Forbes.com

Acing Your Application
Applying to college seems like it should be easy: Fill out a dozen applications–which, for the most part, contain the same basic questions–and you’re done. But in an environment where competition is intensifying and winning admission to top schools is more difficult than ever, students need every bit of advice they can get. So Forbes polled four college admissions consultants and compiled their wisdom. Read on for their tips.

Match Up Grades and SAT Scores
A mismatch between GPA and class rank and standardized test scores is just one warning sign of a weak application, according to Bev Taylor, founder and president of New York-based college counseling firm Ivy Coach. Some other pitfalls: sending in a list of activities without any explanations to bring them to life, and penning essays on subjects like napping, which paint a picture of a passive student.

Improve Teacher Recommendations
Instead of giving the teacher writing the recommendation a laundry list of extracurriculars, Taylor suggests students impart a more nuanced sense of their interests and motivations. “Remind them about how you were in their class, what you did and accomplished, what you found exciting about the class,” she says. “So few students will go to that extreme, because it takes a lot of work.”

Leadership in the Community
It’s more important to show 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,” Taylor says. “You didn’t have to go off to Guatemala to build houses.”

Take Advantage of Social Media
Though stories of college admissions officers scoping out applicants’ credentials on Facebook is exaggerated, it does happen. Applicants should be careful about what information they make public. Says Taylor: “If you’re a dancer, put up all your recital videos. If you’re an artist, let’s see what you’ve done. Your portfolio can be up there.”

Don’t Be Redundant
“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 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, the student should turn to another topic. Says Cohen: “Maybe I don’t know that you’re a vegetarian. Tell me about that.”

Don’t Send In Too Much
Deciding how much information to send in is a tricky balancing act. “[Some students] will send in copies of every award they’ve won since sixth grade and repeat all their test scores on their résumés as well as all of their senior-year courses,” details that are already listed on the application, Cohen says. In addition, letters from influential people or notable names may hurt more than they help, if the person writing doesn’t really know the applicant well.

And Don’t Send In Too Little
“Some kids will shortchange themselves on their résumés or activity lists. They won’t think about the number of hours per week and weeks per year they spend,” Cohen says. And there are times when supplemental letters are appropriate, she adds, such as “from a coach or an employer or someone you’ve worked closely with over a long period of time, who you think would share new and different information about you.”

Start Early
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 short essay on a meaningful extracurricular activity or work experience; and a longer personal statement.

Become a Specialist
“The most selective colleges aren’t really looking for well-rounded students. They are looking to create a well-rounded student body made up of specialists,” Cohen says. ” Pick a focus–academic or extracurricular–and try to dive deep. Instead of being a ‘serial joiner,’ focus on those couple of things that you enjoy and can do well.”

Avoid Taboo Essay Topics
There are certain subjects–national disasters, homeland visits and sex–which applicants should avoid 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.”

Manage Your Online Identity
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.”

Get To Know Your Teachers
Ensuring a recommendation letter that isn’t generic entails more than just turning in perfect homework. It takes “showing up to class every day on time, being respectful, participating in class, raising the level of learning for your peers and making the classroom a more dynamic place,” Cohen says. “It’s not that you can get an A in English; it’s how you get an A in English.”

Nailing the “Why This College?” Essay
Almost every school asks applicants to write a few sentences why they are interested in their school. 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. “It can be anything from a specific program that you’re excited about … or it could be a particular kind of extracurricular activity, like the kayaking club, if you know it’s really strong there,” says college consultant Mark Montgomery. “Showing that match is important.”

Connect With Faculty
Montgomery recalls a student who, after writing an in-depth research paper about the Cold War, effectively reached out to a professor who taught the subject at a school he wanted to attend. “Is that sucking up, or is it being genuine?” Montgomery asks. “The kids that can pull it off–admissions officers know it when they see it.”

Show All Sides of Yourself
Montgomery points to a student who wrote an essay for his college application 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? We are multifaceted human beings, and you want to take every opportunity to make sure you show this.”

Scrutinize Admissions Statistics
Colleges will often emphasize several barometers of their selectivity and prestige: the percentage of applicants admitted; the yield (or percentage of students accepted who chose to enroll); the SAT scores and class ranks of enrolled students. But it’s important to take them with a grain of salt, because an applicant is judged in the context of his or her high school environment.” The boy who lives on a ranch in North Dakota is not judged by the same standard as the private school kid in New Jersey,” says Montgomery.

Emphasize What Makes You Different
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,” Montgomery says. “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.”

Consider Financial Aid
It’s not just for the neediest families. “If you want financial aid, then you need to think carefully about where you apply and develop a good strategy–not only for admission but for that merit money,” says Montgomery. “Some of the results can be astounding, even for wealthy families that don’t need the money.”

Apply Early
Many schools have different admissions deadlines, with earlier ones falling around November. “Don’t wait for regular decision. Be decisive. Your odds are vastly increased, and generally you’ll get as much [financial] aid as you would in regular,” says college consultant Michele Hernandez of Hernandez College Consulting. The downside: In many cases 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 could wind up committed to a school they’re unsure about.

Be Realistic
Some students don’t properly research the schools on their list, and end up applying to places that are “way out of range given the average scores and grades” of enrolled students, Hernandez says. Resources like The College Board and the Department of Education’s College Navigator are helpful in educating applicants on where they stand in terms of class rank as well as SAT and ACT results.

Pay a Visit
Hernandez recommends visiting as many schools as possible in order to glean a real and genuine reason for applying. “Find out as much as you can about the academic area you are interested in,” she says. “Most students don’t give good reasons for why they want to attend. Colleges want students who have a particular reason for wanting to attend their school, besides the fact it’s a top school.”