This interview was originally published on the Varsity Tutors website.

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Evelyn Alexander provides college admissions counseling services to a number of students and their families through Magellan College Counseling. She is an alumnus of Johns Hopkins University where she also served as a volunteer admissions recruiter for 15 years.

VT: How far ahead of time should a student begin working on his or her college application?

Evelyn: College applications are generally available the summer before the student’s senior year. The Common Application, for example, should open in August for the Class of 2015. While I would advise students to start their applications as early as possible, I would also encourage them to start exploring colleges long before the summer before senior year. I start working with students at the beginning of junior year, digging into possible majors and careers, looking at types of colleges and researching a large list of colleges, in an effort to narrow the list down to about 15.

VT: What are the best ways to go about selecting a terrific essay topic?

Evelyn: This is a difficult question, as essay topics can be very personal and very specific. My best advice is to keep in mind that the essay is about you, the student, not about a particular situation. Focus on how you were impacted by the situation, what you learned, how you grew, etc.

VT: Are there any essay topics you get tired of seeing or would warn students to stay away from? 

Evelyn: Keep in mind that everyone writing college essays is about the same age as you. Many people your age have lost a pet or a grandparent, for example. Unless you are able to truly express in a very unique way how you dealt with this unfortunate loss, I would stay away from these topics.

VT: What is the biggest mistake a student can make on a college application?

Evelyn: Not personalizing supplemental essays can be a big mistake. When colleges ask you to write about why they are the right place for you, they don’t want you to submit a generic essay about why you want to go to college. The question is why you want to go to that college. Taking the time to get to know each college to which you apply can help you write a compelling essay to answer this very important question.                                            

VT: What is the typical process an admissions officer goes through to evaluate applications?

Evelyn: Different colleges read applications in different ways. At most colleges that offer a holistic application review, your file will be read first by an admissions counselor who knows your high school and your area. This is good because he or she can put your academic performance into context. Most colleges will also have a second person review your application. Admissions counselors read dozens of files each day during reading season, so your job is to stand out among the hundreds—if not thousands—of files each counselor reads!

VT: What do you think is the single most important thing a student should make sure they present in the best possible way on their application?

Evelyn: Students should use the essay to show themselves as human beings—not use it as an opportunity to repeat a list of their extracurricular activities. In fact, the essay doesn’t even need to be about extracurricular activities! Make your best effort to show who you are beyond the grades and test scores that colleges see. Use the essay to illustrate—in your best authentic voice—the person that you are, and the person that you will be on their college campus.

VT: How should students go about determining the culture of a university, and whether they would be a good fit?

Evelyn: The best way to learn about a college is to visit. Make a reservation to join a tour, check in with the admissions office, and take the official tour. At the same time, keep in mind that your tour guide is likely a paid work-study student who is scripted by the admissions office. If you have time to come early, or to stay after the tour, it’s perfectly acceptable for you to talk to random students you find on campus! Eat a meal in the dining commons. Talk to friends or relatives who attend. When researching online, take a look at the “Student Life” section, and see if any of the clubs and organizations sound interesting to you. All of these things can help you see if a college might be the right place for you!

VT: Early-action, early-decision, binding/non-binding, regular decisions...With so many choices when applying, what do you recommend to students? 

Evelyn: Early Decision is a binding option. So I recommend that students take this option only if they have a clear first-choice college. I am a big fan of Early Action, however—in my book, this is a favor that colleges do for students who can get their act together early, get those essays done, and submit their applications by November 1. Given that you’ll know if you are accepted by about mid-December, when most seniors are freaking out about first semester finals and submitting their college applications, Early Action is a very good deal for students who are organized and disciplined about submitting their applications early.

VT: How important are grades and standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?

Evelyn: Grades are, across the board, the number one thing colleges care about when determining admissibility. Colleges are looking to see that you have challenged yourself academically and that you are capable of doing college-level work. Grades are supremely important! Test scores are also important, but there are some colleges that do not require you to submit test scores.  

VT: What tips do you have for students asking their teachers for letters of recommendation?

Evelyn: Students should ask teachers who know them both in and out of class. Teachers are asked to rate students not only on their performance in their class, but also with regard to leadership, work ethic, and many other aspects. Therefore, you should ask teachers who can speak not only to the grade you received in their class, but also about who you are outside of their class—in detail. 

Visit Magellan College Counseling for more information.

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