Insider Insight: Tips from Former Admissions Officers

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

A group of students sharing their works

Insider Insight: Effective Admission Tips from Former Admissions Officers

Former admissions officers are the ultimate professionals to seek out for tips on the college admissions process. They are the ones who review student applications from start to finish. Though the admissions process may vary from school to school, college admissions officers can speak to the specific expectations at their former schools and to the general expectations of admissions officers in general. Listening to the professionals for college admissions tips makes sense and can be one of the best ways to start compiling your college applications.

College admissions tips can range from answering “how can I stand out for college admissions?” to “what should you not do when applying to college?” The college admissions experts at Admission can help you figure out answers to questions like “how do I get into the college I want?” as we are experts in that area. Hearing straight from admissions officers can be an effective way to figure out what looks good on college applications.

College Admissions Tips from Admission Officers

When asked for tips to give high school students as they move through the college application process, admissions officers give a wide variety of answers that all boil down into a few hard and fast rules. These rules address everything from academics and extracurriculars to personality and character traits.

Here are six college admissions tips from former admissions officers:

1.Number of rigorous classes taken relative to number offered

When an admissions officer looks at your high school transcript, they first look at the level of rigor of the courses you took. This includes noting any AP classes, IB classes, and Honors classes. Then, they look at the context or environment of the courses that you were offered or that were possible for you to take. If your high school offered a significant number of advanced courses in AP and Honors, and you took advantage of this, then your transcript would be considered sufficiently rigorous.

three students studying outside

If your school offered a wide variety of AP courses, but you did not take any of the courses or only took one or two throughout your high school career, then this would have an overall negative effect on the rigor of the courses on your transcript. This would mean that you had the option to take more advanced courses at the college level, and you chose not to take these courses. You may have your reasons, but this would not demonstrate your intellectual capability and curiosity.

At the same time, a student who only has access to just a few advanced courses and takes advantage of all of them, their transcript will be seen as more rigorous. They had less access, but still managed to complete the advanced courses that were available to them.

The student with this transcript would absolutely show greater academic potential than a student who had more access to more advanced courses but elected to take the same number. Admissions officers have to think about not only your academic context, but the context of other applicants in the same pool.

2. High school classes within intended college major

Another pattern admissions officers want to see in your transcripts is the subjects of the high school classes you took and how they align with your intended college major. An important college admissions tips is to be sure you are applying to schools with majors that you have shown an interest in throughout high school.

If your  school offered AP courses in science and math, then you should have these courses on your transcript when applying for majors in STEM. That includes biology, chemistry, and physics. If your school offered environmental science and computer science, then taking these courses for the associated college major would look great on your transcript.

Female students smiling while writing on the board during an activity.

It would show you had a vested and consistent interest in the subject of your college major over the duration of your high school career. If your school offered AP language classes, then taking these courses would demonstrate your interest in a foreign language major.

Admissions officers look closely for consistency between your desired major and your high school academic record. While there are some majors that don’t require specific high school coursework, you can better show you have an understanding of the subject matter through taking a year or more of courses in that subject.

3. Summer extracurricular activities

College admissions officers are very interested in how productive students are during their summers. They want to see that students have spent time over multiple summers exploring their interests and passions, especially in the area of subject interests, extracurricular interests, and employment.

You’ll want to have a few programs that you participate in over at least two summers. This might be a recurring camp counselor role, a part-time summer job at a local retail store or fast food restaurant, or even science or writing summer program.

Young woman standing near a shelf.

The goal is to demonstrate that you used your free-time, your time off to take a break from school, to seek out further enrichment in areas that interest you. This sort of dedication to your interests over the summer shows clearly that you are passionate about the subject and that you are willing to spend your own time investing in learning more about it.

4. Insatiable appetite to learn for the sake of learning

This college admission tip is related to everything you will do and submit as you are going through the college application process. Admissions officers want to admit students who have an insatiable appetite for learning, not for any other purpose or goal, except to learn. This means having passion projects and winning awards to highlight the areas where your talents lie.

You want to be open and honest about your obsession with music theory and learning to play multiple instruments when applying for a music composition or musical performance major. Your obsession with learning about business administration and running a business on your own are what you’d emphasize when applying for a business major.

The important thing is to make it so clear what drives you and what your long-term objectives are that the admissions officers have no choice but to see how your goals align with what the school offers and seeks at the same time.

5. Sponge for knowledge

Beyond having a strong and visible desire to learn and grow, you also want to be someone who thirsts for knowledge. This is demonstrated through not just your transcript and your test scores, but your essay and your letters of recommendation. All the parts of your college application come together to highlight the aspects of your personality and character that are always seeking after learning new topics and new skills.

UChicago students inside the campus

The part of you that is nerdy and brainy and thinks nothing of reading a book for hours or tinkering away at a project for days. That’s the part that soaks up knowledge and swells with all the potential uses and applications of that knowledge.

The college experience is all about knowledge making and knowledge building both on your own and in groups of your peers. College admissions officers want you to show in every way how you are someone who thirsts deeply for knowledge.

6. Embrace your weirdness

College admissions officers may be responsible for identifying applicants to admit from a particular state or group of states in a region. They may review applications in a third, fourth, or even fifth or sixth round of the process.

Their applicant pools will usually feature only the strongest applicants, which means that even excellent students might seem mediocre among some of their peers. A good college admissions tip is for you to embrace your weirdness. You’ll want to bring to the forefront and shine a light on what makes you different and unlike anyone else.

This doesn’t mean only being smarter or having a longer list of extracurricular activities. It means showing through your essays how your perspectives and your personality are unique, how you have a different opinion on common topics, or how your experiences have been unlike those of any other applicants.

a group of students from a private school lined up while sitting and taking their exam

You don’t want to appear outlandish or inappropriate, but playing up everything that you’re shy about or get embarrassed about with your friends may be just the thing that differentiates you from every other applicant.

What the Admissions Experts are Saying

Jennifer Duran

In an interview with Jennifer Duran, a former admissions officer from Columbia University, she enthusiastically admitted that she always looked for students who wanted to be in the city. She was in charge of recruiting and reviewing applicants from Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, as well as locally from Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Bronx. Eventually, she was also tasked with recruiting and reviewing applicants from Latin America.

The goal of diversity recruiting was often to bring in students from a wider variety of racial, ethnic, economic, and linguistic backgrounds.

When reviewing applications, Jennifer gave the tip that she looks for transcripts that have the more advanced courses. She wants to see “how much they’ve pushed themselves.” Students who have more challenging academic records will stand out across academic areas, especially testing, GPA, and making sure they’re taking the most rigorous courses.

Jennifer also said that demonstrated interest is another way to gain interest. She recounted a fellow admission officer who kept track of how often they encountered a student’s name. Whether they were inquiring about or attending a college admissions event. She said it becomes obvious when a student wants the school to know that it is their first choice, and they want them above all others.

Jennifer says she looks for consistency that will show “how intellectually curious, how they stay busy, how they engage the world around them.” By looking at all four years together, she also wants to be able to track and “understand how their interests have progressed” over time. You’ll want to have begun activities in your freshman and sophomore year that continued throughout your junior and senior year.

Avoid starting new activities each year or throughout a single year. You never want admissions officers to think you are misguided or directionless. It’s okay to not know exactly what you want, but the stronger applications will never show aimlessness or complete confusion.

Jennifer was adamant that “To say ‘I don’t know what I want to do’ is way too vague and could definitely hurt the student. Be as specific as possible.”

Nick Strohl

In a discussion with Nick Strohl, former senior assistant director of admissions at Yale University, he revealed his desire to admit applicants who are self-aware and collectivist. Nick shared that he looks for students who already “have a sense of what the school is looking for…and how you are a good fit for that school.”

You want to have done your research for every school where you apply thoroughly enough to know that your application both meets their minimum requirements and offers something exceptional and extraordinary that aligns with the schools vision and community.

When thinking about the admissions officers at Yale, Nick said, “They value students who they know are going to get involved in activities and not just focus on their classes.” These are students who have strong academic records while also holding leadership positions in several clubs. Nick offered this college admissions tip: “Become a leader in one or more high school activities.. That’s the best way you can demonstrate that you are someone who likes to get involved, to meet with others, [and] that you can work with others.”

He even admitted that oftentimes during the admission review process, there would be “excellent academic superstars who did not have those personal qualities.” These students likely had perfect academic records and top test scores, but nothing about their essays or other materials showed how they worked with others in groups, how they contributed to or gave back to the community. More than super smart students, Nick admitted students who “wanted to make a difference in the Yale community.”

This is so important, that Nick reiterated his college admissions tip: “Choose two or three significant extracurricular areas or activities that you can become a leader in in some way by your junior year… if you do that, you would be competitive at Yale and at other places… be able to explain how those activities fit together and say something about who you are and what you want to study in college, and why studying at a place like Yale would be a good place to do that.”

Don’t let this make you pick a jumble of activities just to say you participated in them. You should show your commitment by earning leadership roles. But Nick wants you to remember that “There’s no sets of activities [that] are better or worse. If you give your best effort and you’re doing things you’re passionate about, you’re going to stand out.”

Judi Robinovitz

In a conversation with Judi Robinovitz, a certified educational planner who studied at Harvard University, Rutgers University, and University of Connecticut, she spoke freely about her tips for college applicants drawn from her travels across America to assess colleges, boarding schools, and therapeutic boarding schools and wilderness programs.

Judi wants to be honest with students that college admissions start long before your senior year. She says, “It starts with knowing…as early as 8th or 9th grade, that it is not your GPA that colleges are looking at. Differentiating yourself from others is what’s going to make you stand out. And that doesn’t mean having a higher GPA.” That means preparing for and deciding if you will submit standardized test scores and AP exam scores.

Judi shared that the admissions officers who review your applications are “doing a more granular evaluation of your transcript and are looking for the sequence of courses that you’ve taken, academic rigor, how challenging your curriculum has been.”

Having longevity and leadership in club participation displays your perseverance and ability to commit to something you enjoy. We want students to try out a few activities in their freshman year, and then pick a few of those to stick with long-term. These should be activities that give you multiple opportunities to learn and grow, to lead, and to contribute. The longer you are involved with an activity, the more unique opportunities you will encounter that allow you to differentiate yourself from others.

Judi also offers the tip that students take the essay seriously as one of the best opportunities to get personal and communicate authentically. Judy states that the college essay is “one of the things in addition to your resume that’s truly your voice.

It’s not hardcore numbers, it’s not data, it’s who you are as a person. And giving insight into your character, your values, the things that are important to you, things that don’t show up in other parts of your application.”

College admissions tips with AdmissionSight

Our college admissions experts have all the tips you’ll need to conquer the college application process. We’ll help you find answers to all your common questions like, “How can I stand out for college admissions?,” “What looks good on college applications?,” “What should you not do when applying to college?,” and “How do I get into the college I want?” Our college admission tips have the answers for your most pressing questions. Work with us one-on-one by scheduling a consultation today.




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