Ask Admissions, part I

For our Ask Admissions series, we’ve reached out to some of our favorite admissions and college guidance professionals for answers to very important and popular questions regarding college applications.

Our first blog-guest is Bev, who spent time as Assistant Director of Admissions at Rhodes College before transitioning to an independent high school in Memphis to serve as Associate Director of College Guidance. She is currently earning her Master’s of Science in Education at the University of Pennsylvania while also reviewing undergraduate admissions applications as an Admissions Specialist for the College of Wooster and holding positions of Arts & Recreation fellow at UPenn and Diversity and Inclusion Consultant for an independent college preparatory school in Tulsa (so basically, she’s a multi-tasking wizard genius).

What are great questions that potential applicants should ask you (but they usually don’t)? What are some great admissions resources that many students are not taking advantage of?

Potential applicants are often so concerned with making a good impression or being ready for an interview that they don’t ask questions at all. So I would say they should ask ANY questions! Don’t rely on your parents to do it for you. If you’re curious about student life, ask what a typical Tuesday is like versus a typical Friday. Be sure to grab a college newspaper so that you can get a sense of hot topics on campus (and campus safety, since schools are required to issue that information and that’s generally where that is released). Interested in double majoring? Ask that process, the latest you can declare, what you can do over the summer to prepare for that. If the admission officer is an alum, I would absolutely ask them how they felt about their experience. What they loved, what they would change, and why they chose to work for their alma mater.

As for great admissions resources, very few people use the Rugg Guide, and everyone should! I am not a fan of rankings; very few admission professionals are. They are arbitrary and mean very little in terms of…well, anything. But the Rugg’s Guide is divided by major and then sorted by selectivity of the college, so that you can find the schools that have your possible major, and who does them well. That is far more pertinent to a college search than arbitrary rankings.

What advice do you have for students preparing for college interviews? What are great ways for a student to make a good impression during an interview (this can also include how they dress/present themselves)?

I would make sure that they do a mock interview with a discerning adult beforehand. Have them record it on a phone so you can watch yourself. The answers don’t matter as much as what you do. Are you a fidgeter? Do you sit with your legs crazy? Do you keep touching your hair, or messing with something around your wrist? I had a student who did all of the above, but was not aware of any of it. For her interview, she wore ¾ length sleeves (so she couldn’t touch them), pulled her hair back, and wore a skirt so that she was mindful of how she sat. There are easy ways to ameliorate your nervousness, which is where a lot of the fidgeting comes from. Practice makes perfect—over-rehearsing and prepared answers do not. You should not sound like a robot, or answer anything right away. Be thoughtful about your answers and then go for it. Know that if you wear a suit, it is highly likely that you will be better dressed than the person with whom you are interviewing. Business casual is perfectly appropriate; be sure to wear comfortable shoes so that you can tour comfortably and easily. Bricks are not kind to brand new dress shoes or heels—and none of it is kind to your feet. Make eye contact, focus on the things you’re passionate about, and don’t forget to smile—it’s supposed to be a conversation, not an interrogation!

What are the most commonly used essay topics that you’ve seen?

I have read dozens, maybe even hundreds, of essays about how someone made (or didn’t make) the big catch in the big game. I used to read applications from the Southeast, so there were a lot of essays about football, God, or football AND God. All wonderful things, but not distinctive whatsoever. Same goes for the regurgitation of the résumé. All well and good, but rather forgettable when I read 30-40 essays a day.

What makes an essay memorable? 

If you are funny, be funny. Most of the essays I read are either unremarkable or terribly sad. It is always refreshing, and such a nice break while reading, when someone has a funny essay. The essays I remember most are the ones that make me laugh. If you are not funny, however, do not try. If I have to explain to someone else how something is humorous, it’s actually not. The same goes for sarcasm—it’s not universally understood. So even though you may know your admission rep well, and know they’ll find your sarcasm hilarious, their 65-year-old dean may not.

When a student is answering supplemental essay questions that ask why the student is especially interested in your institution (if applicable), what aspects of the college/university should they focus on? How can students avoid having generic or broad answers for these questions?

They should focus on anything specific. Mention a certain professor or class that seems appealing to your interests, or clubs you’d like to join. Use the college’s website as your guide for this—it’s full of valuable information that can make your supplemental essay distinct. If I can read your supplemental essay and replace my college with another college and the essay still makes sense, then you haven’t done your job as well as you could have. For highly selective universities, this is imperative, as they weight these questions more than most other colleges.