Interview rant and advice

I received a slew of questions about an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education on use of interviews in the admissions process. The main points of the VERY long article are:
1) Most interviews are really a sales pitch – a chance for the college or university to improve their chances of getting you to enroll
2) Some interviews do have an impact on the decision, but usually only at the margins
3) There’s no way to know which kind of interview you are getting – the sales pitch or the admissions impact – so you should assume the latter even though it’s likely the former.

I’m torn today between blasting the whole admissions process and offering advice on interviews. Since it’s my column, I’ll do both.

Blast: The whole admissions process is pretty subjective. I’ve found very few offices that have any idea of how to use writing samples, recommendations, or extra-curricular involvement in a way that they can then correlate to student success. As the article explains in some excruciating detail, college interviews as part of the admissions process tend to be even less useful than other admissions factors. You can trace that to all the research from hiring in the business world that documents how even experienced interviewers aren’t likely to learn much about how a prospective employee will perform. Fortunately, MOST of the decisions are made MOSTLY on academic records, so interviews, essays, and the rest count a lot less in the process.

 Basic: dress nicely – no flip flops (I don’t CARE if they’re Manolos – the admissions officer won’t know that!) and please, try not to wear clothing with the logo or name of some OTHER university. Speak clearly, be nice, play well with others.
 Advanced: Get to know the university or college by reading their propaganda (also known as the website and brochures), and be ready to explain with great enthusiasm all the reasons it’s your FIRST CHOICE. Be specific – extra points for obscure details on faculty and academic programs of interest. Practice interviewing skills such as looking interested and laughing at the interviewer’s lame jokes.
 Expert: The schools that really do know how to do this are looking for self-awareness, motivation, and leadership (the same goes for those that know how to use essays well). Hone your public speaking skills as if you’re auditioning for a guest spot on Glee.

Had a good (or really lousy) experience on an interview or advice you’d like to share? Let me know and maybe I’ll feature it in a future column. Be seeing you.


Last minute application advice…just in case you need it

The end of the year (and the decade) always lead to a plethora of top ten lists, and since that terminus falls right in the midst of many application deadlines, my own top ten list of things to keep in mind for your last minute applications follows.

1. Advocate (within reason) – Many applicants have already learned that it’s not all that difficult to contact admissions offices to find out which lucky counselor is reviewing the applications for any particular high school. From there, it’s a short leap to trying to “friend” that same admissions officer in hopes that he or she will look more favorably upon applicants that said admissions officer remembers/knows/enjoys learning about through status updates. There is, however, a reasonable version of this – trying to (briefly!) meet the appropriate admissions counselor when you visit campus or maybe sending a personal note about how much you REALLY want to go that school. Maybe even friend them IF you are very very (very very) careful about your privacy settings and have some confidence that your knuckle-headed friends won’t post something problematic. This week I reached a new level of invasiveness when I received a call from an anxious mother AT HOME. Apparently, and I learn something new every day, I am more accessible than I thought. Bear in mind, there is a fine line between advocacy and stalking – and many of you have already crossed that line and are now flailing in the deep canyon beyond. Yes, I mean you.

2. Quality over quantity – Since you’re already bumping up against the deadline, I’m sure you’ll be happy to be reminded that you are not judged by how MUCH you submit with your application. Actually, in many admissions offices, submitting an over-abundance of support materials is considered a negative. Better one or two really good recommendations, for instance, than a dozen form letters, no matter how impressive the signers.

3. Timing can be everything – Don’t miss the deadline! Get your application in even if other materials are on the way. Admissions offices are used to mail delays, and you may be at some disadvantage if materials are delayed too long, but you can most significantly decrease your admission potential by missing the deadline (Shameless plug: don’t forget – Mason’s deadline is January 15!)

4. Make your list and check it twice (or even three times) – No matter how silly the questions may seem, answer all of them. Every bit as important, EDIT your responses. If the system will let you save an application in process, save it before you submit and get a really good proofreader to look over your work. (Shameless plug – a holiday shout out to Brydin, my tireless, chipper elf who is saddled with editing my musings for this blog – thanks B!).

5. Explanations and not excuses – If your record shows some period of weak performance, explain what happened, but take responsibility for your actions and let the admissions office know why they should believe you will do better. By the way, the worst excuse possible is that the teacher hated you. It leads, even if only in the back of our minds, to the suspicion that the teacher may be right.

6. Still time to show improvement – The best way to show that you can do better is…to do better! If you think you are on an upward trajectory, whether you think your next quarter/semester grades will be much better or your next take of the SAT/ACT is far improved, mention those issues in your application. Ask them to wait for updated records. Many schools do so routinely in any event – so now is the time to REALLY shine.

7. When to stand out and when to sit down – Some of the more bizarre advice I find in other (clearly less honest/accurate) blogs and web sites is that applicants should try to make themselves “stand out.” Have we learned nothing from the geniuses that brought us “High School Musical?” Of course, anyone in high school can tell you that the only safe reason to stand out is some kind of incredible sports or arts success. Standing out for anything else is likely to get your stuffed in a locker, or worse. The same can be said for the admissions process. If you have to TRY to be funny, get noticed, do something outrageously different with your application, you are just as likely to hurt your chances of admission as you are to help. There’s just no way to know if the person reviewing your application has any sense of humor at all (or taste, good judgment, fashion sense…you get the idea). Unless you’re trying to get into a school you consider a total long shot, I’d consider whether standing out is as outstanding as it sounds.

8. Make it personal – Don’t forget to mention how much you want to enroll at the school to which you apply. If that college or university is your first choice, by all means make sure you let them know. Even better, personalize your essay/supplemental statement to tell them (briefly!) why you think you would be a great match at that institution. Be careful, however, when cutting and pasting. As in previous years I have already gotten a couple of applicants with essays detailing how very much they want to go to Cornell University – you can imagine my reaction to such information.

9. But don’t take it personally – Even as I advise you to personalize your reasons for wanted to enroll, try to keep your perspective on the process. The people reading your application probably never met you, and if they did, they barely know you. Their evaluation will largely be based on the materials you submit but mostly your academic record. Once you realize that it’s not about YOU, that the process is designed to focus on a bunch of materials, you may, I hope, be able to take some of the stress out of waiting for the results.

10. Oh the places you’ll go – Most importantly is that the admissions process does NOT, no matter what may hear from admissions officers emails, letters, texts and Facebook pages, determine your success. There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the country, and the evidence says which one you attend has very little to do with how successful you will be. Wherever you are admitted and eventually enroll, it is your talent and effort that will determine your future success.

Finally, my New Years/holiday wish for all of you: I hope you get in everywhere you apply, I hope you get every scholarship you want…and I hope you come to Mason (Shameless plug – application deadline still January 15!!!). Be seeing you!

Hug Your Guidance Counselor

In case I have insufficiently vented about this topic, the winter holidays are inconveniently located in the middle of our application deadline season. While I realize most of you have visions of sugarplum-coated dreidels dancing in your heads, or something like that, your guidance counselors are working desperately to get that last recommendation letter out that you accidentally forgot to request until this week, despite a January deadline. Without sounding overly like a suck-up, guidance counselors are the unsung heroes of the college admissions process. In between lunch and bus duty, class scheduling and discipline issues, they try their ever-lovin’ best to convince students everyday to look beyond the same three schools where every other member of the class is applying, help your teachers write better recommendation letters, and try to get their own out along with meeting hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of transcript request deadlines. They get very little thanks and praise, although they often give up most of their holiday trying to help you achieve your goals, even when they think those goals are wildly unrealistic.

Then, to make matters worse, they get ALL the blame. When colleges send out thousands of letters saying that transcripts and recommendations haven’t yet been received, even when they’re actually sitting in mail buckets in our office just waiting to be processed, it’s the guidance counselor who gets the frantic parent and student calls (over and over and over…). When you get in you celebrate with friends and family, but when you don’t it’s often your guidance counselor that tries to keep you focused on all the other options available to you, or who shoulders incredibly ridiculous accusations of having sabotaged your chances with insufficient support.

So, in the spirit of these dreadfully timed holidays, do something nice for your guidance counselor. It doesn’t have to be big, but it is richly deserved. Be seeing you.

‘Tis the season for paper and whining…

…and for my regular, always much anticipated, blog post on submitting your application materials successfully.


If you follow any of the other admission blogs (no reason you would, since you’ve discovered this one, other than morbid curiosity) you’ll see post after post complaining about all the mail us poor overworked admissions officers receive this time of year as application deadlines approach (cue violins).  If you’re anything like me, your natural response to this is, “stop whining, put on your big boy pants, and go open some mail instead of typing on your blog.”

Unfortunately, the chaos can have a negative impact on you.  Colleges seem to be getting worse and worse at matching documents you send in with your application.  This seems to have several sources:

A)    Most material used to come in with your application, but now that most of you apply online, most transcripts, recommendations, and even many essays come in separately;

B)     This is complicated by the lack of social security number – as a universal identifier, SSN was great. All the identity theft stuff caused universities to stop using them. As a result, we have to go by name, leading to more confusion since;

C)    You all have nicknames, multiple spellings, and worst of all – some of you share the same name!!! Yes, it’s true – you may not be quite as unique as you think.


All of that is compounded by the rapid increase in application volume.  I’ve written about this before, but all the hype about how INCREDIBLY COMPETITIVE college admissions has become has led many of you to apply to more schools, making the process look even more competitive, leading you to apply to MORE schools…you get the idea.
The bottom line is that colleges misplace documents ALL THE TIME.  I hear about this constantly for my own institution, and believe me I understand.  Even though our error rate is incredibly low (yes, I’m enough of a geek to track these things) every lost document leads to round of anxiety for students, parents, and guidance officers.  In the spirit of Thanksgiving, here are a few things to help you avoid these situations:

1)      Submit your application before you start sending other documents. This means you need to get your application in well before any deadlines (Mason’s December 1 deadline for scholarship consideration is almost here! Don’t Panic!).  That may be harder than you think.  Most high schools want you to request your transcript (and teachers want you to request your recommendation) well before the deadline.  Many of these great educators are so on top of things, they get the transcripts/recommendations, etc. right out to us, even while you’re still procrastinating right up to the deadline.  Then your documents come in before your application and go into some scary file called “orphan documents” (shudder), which we check regularly as best we can, and where periodically some employee goes to look for the document your calling us frantically about, sometimes never to be heard from again… This can be fixed if you get your application in well BEFORE the deadline.  Once you’ve gotten that application in, you’ll still have plenty of time to request your other documents, and you can implement idea number two:

2)      If the college or university gives you any kind of student number during the application process, include it on any (and EVERY) document you send.

3)      Try to make sure the name on your application is the same (including first and last name in the same order) as the one that you give for the SAT or ACT and the one on your transcript. If they don’t match, they might not be found.

4)      If you do have different names (hyphenated last names, changed order, used a stupid nickname when you took the SAT) include the other names as Previous Names on your application.

Of course, keep copies of everything you send and a record of the data you sent it, and check in with the college to make sure they get them (please give them TIME – Mason will receive over a million documents around our deadlines – it’ll take a few days to catch up – AT LEAST!!!).

Follow these rules and you’ll be all set – to be considered. Then you just have to worry about being good enough to get in!

Be seeing you.

Admission committees: just who do you think they are?

I’ve been wrestling the last few days with the follow up on essays and recommendations, and finally realized what’s been bugging me. I’ve been answering questions on this blog and on a few other sites that all seem to be wildly misled about who actually reads your application. One site refers regularly to the “ADCOMM” – admissions committee – likes it’s some alien entity that always acts the same way, and not thousands of individuals. Questions like “how do admissions committees look at esays about my trip to Antartica?” are almost as nutty as answers (and this is actually what was posted on one of these garbage advice sites), “ADCOMM’s don’t want to hear about your trips. They hear to many of those. Write about something else.”

Oh PLEASE. There is absolutely no way to predict how any one subject will be read by the many many many different people that might make up decisions at different institutions. To understand that, a quick review on how the admissions process works.

In 2002, my good friends at the Collegeboard published a great review of admission processes called, “Admissions Decision-Making Models: How U.S. Institutions of Higher Education Select Undergraduate Students” (Rigol, 2002). It identified seven basic processes competitive institutions use to evaluate applications. The most selective will tend to start with 2 independent readers. If those two agree on their evaluation, one of them will take the file to the “ADCOMM” – if they don’t, the application will often be referred to a third reader who will bring it to committee, or directly to the committee with both contrasting recommendations.

In that model, at least, every applicant does go to a committee, but only after screening by individuals. In most models, quite a few files never make it that far. Another prominent version has two readers, and the application only goes to committee if they disagree – if not, the decision is made. At others, a single reader can decide within set parameters as to an admit or deny, and only need bring an application to committee if it falls outside those parameters.

Many schools use some kind of scoring system, some done by computer – so the first review is done by your score, before any human even sees your application. The computer recommends a decision to an invidual (who, if he or she agrees, makes the decision) or to a committee. There are even some schools where the computer makes a significant number of the decisions with no human involvement AT ALL.

In other words, it’s not really an ADCOMM that has the most influence on your decision. It’s AN admissions officer, usually the person who reads all the files from your school, state, and/or region. That person is the one most likely to be representing you at committee, if you go there at all.

So stop worrying about some scary committee that is carefully reading every word you share with them. Worry about that one person whose job it is to do so, and hope they are responsible enough to do so thoroughly. You won’t know if that’s a Dean of Admissions with 20 or more years of experience reading thousands of applications, or a first year admissions counselor, just graduated from college, having their first application evaluation experience – and you can’t be sure which one would be better.

You also won’t know that reader’s sense of humor, or what mood might strike that day, or whether (lucky you) the reader thinks travel to Antartica is the coolest thing EVER.

So don’t get sucked in by a lot of the bogus advice about “what works” in an essay. It’s usually shared by someone who got in (or whose kid got in) somewhere and believes (usually mistakenly) that their admission was because of this INCREDIBLE ESSAY. It happens – but it’s not like we call everyone and say, “Finally! I got an essay I LOVE – now if you would all just write like THIS I’d admit ALL of you.”

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, there are a few things that can help. I’ll share those over the next few days – unless I get distracted again. Be seeing you.

PS – not really a shameless plus, but in between blog posts I’ve been working on the recruitment for next year, and we just posted our updated incredibly cool virtual tour at masonmetro. Go check it out and let me know what you think, good or bad. Personally, it gives me a headache, and I think tour guides are a LOT more energetic and exciting when we don’t have cameras on them, but I’m old and often cranky. BSY!

essays and recommendations in college admissions

Once you’re a senior, you start to get the feeling that most of the stuff that will be considered in your college application is increasingly out of your control.  You’re junior grades are already there for the world (the admissions world at least) to see.  You’ve probably already taken the standardized tests at least once (if not several times), and you’ve settled on which extra-curricular/community service/work/habits you’re going to have. 

Then you get to your applications, and you get to the part where you answer some questions and ask some people to say stuff about you, and you realize this is the place you have the MOST control of the process.  Then the panic starts.

Let’s put this in some context.  Essays and recommendations are WAY less important than your academic records.  Your test scores aren’t nearly as important as your academic records, and they (unless you choose a fabulous score optional admissions process like the one at Mason) tower in importance compared to your essays and recommendations.

Yes, every college will read your essays and recommendations, if by read you mean that many many many counselors will first look at your grades and scores and then, mentally placing you in a yes, no, or maybe basket, scan your essays and recommendations rapidly while wondering if drinking one more Redbull will get them through the rest of their reading pile without inducing a stroke.

Of course, there are cases where the essays and recommendations become VERY IMPORTANT – it’s just not the norm. But just in case, I’ll offer some tips.

To start with, bear in mind that most admissions officers are going to read hundreds, if not thousands, of applications. In other words, this is not a volume competition. The saying that used to get sent around is, “The thicker the folder, the thicker the kid.” This really cracks me up, since it’s mostly used by deans who have forgotten that most schools don’t have “folders” anymore – we have these things called “computers.” Anyhow, the basic idea is the same: if you are sending volumes and volumes of justification for your admissions, it may just give the impression that you have SOMETHING WRONG WITH YOU and that they should wonder WHY SO MUCH MATERIAL in the application.

Also, we get bored. It’s a lot of reading, and while most admissions officers just love going on the road and talking about their schools, the same personalities that excel at that task are not ideally suited to sitting in a chair reading (over and over) the intimate details of other people’s lives.

This leads many applicants to try to “stand out”. This takes two annoying forms: clever and humorous. Clever annoying is, for instance, the fad a few years ago when students where putting their essays on cardboard and cutting them out like a puzzle and writing on the back, “you’re school is where I fit in!” Unfortunately, this induced nausea in one out of five admissions officers, according to my very scientific research.

Humor is just plain dangerous. One of my favorite essays was from a young lady who went into detail about all the trouble she caused in high school. It started out mild, but ended with her on her motor bike spraying graffiti across the school, lighting fires, and barely escaping expulsion. And it was all a lie. She ended the essay (which was, I assure you, HILARIOUS) with something like, “I hope you enjoyed my story. I have perfect attendance and have never been in trouble, but that seemed so boring I thought you’d appreciate my sense of humor for trying to liven things up.” I did appreciate it. The other counselor that read the file, however, didn’t. He never got past the first page and had recommended her for immediate denial! So two things to bear in mind on this issue: 1) you can’t assume that the person reading you application has a sense of humor. At all. As you meet admissions officers, put this to the test, and you’ll find out just how right I am. 2) Some of you aren’t funny. Ask your friends – if they’re good friends, they’ll tell you the truth. A good rule of thumb is, if you have to TRY to be funny, try something else.

So don’t write too much, and stay away from the gimmicks. Next up, I’ll offer some suggestions for what you SHOULD write on essays, and what kind of recommendations work best, unless I get distracted (again).

For those of you starting school tomorrow (like my first grader) welcome back and best wishes for a wonderful school year. Be seeing you!

Will low SAT or ACT scores ruin my admission?

As simple as the question sounds, it’s hard to answer. As I wrote in the last couple of posts, by and large your test scores are FAR less important than your overall academic records. They do count, however, and usually a lot more than most of the noncognitive factors (essays, recommendations, leadership, etc). Even so, there are a lot of cases where a low score won’t be detriment at all.
To start, keep in mind that there are LOTS of colleges and universities. A low score in one college’s admission process may be pretty high at another, so don’t just assume that your scores are awful becuase your friend Johnny Testtaker is in the 99th percentile. On the other hand, maybe your scores really are in the sumpster, in which case you may want to consider a place that won’t consider your scores.
There are basically three types of institutions that won’t consider your scores:
Open enrollment schools that accept anyone with a high school diploma or the equivalent – this includes most community colleges and quite a few four year publics.
Competitive schools that just don’t use scores ever – these are pretty hard to find.
Competitive schools that offer a score optional process.

A colleague at one of the score optional institutions (I think it was Mike Sexton at Lewis and Clark) suggested that a student should consider score optional programs if you feel your score is not reflective of your past work, and/or predictive of your future work. It is rare that a student would be considered a reasonable candidate for score optional admission if their academic record isn’t very strong. In addition, at Mason (did I mention we are the largest competitive institution in the U.S. to offer a score optional admission process?), we add more weight to the noncognitive factors, especially looking for evidence of leadership and motivation. You can get the details on our program on our score optional admissions page.

You can find lots of other score optional institutions through the Fairtest website, but bear in mind that not all of the schools they list as score optional offer a fully score optional admission process. I know that’s confusing, but it’s a reminder to carefully check the policies at any school where you plan to apply.

So, one more reason not to stress about the tests – they just might not make that big a difference, and you could decide to just ignore them completely! Be seeing you.

P.S. – even as I wrote this post, the Richmond Times Dispatch was printing this story about an increase in ACT test takers in Virginia that mentions Mason’s score optional program. By way of full disclosure, I’m on the executive council for ACT in Virginia and for the DC/Maryland region.