Admissions Officer Insight: 5 App Tips from Vanderbilt University

Ashton-Zeben-Vanderbilt
Zeben Ashton, Admissions Counselor, Vanderbilt University

The college application. A summation of your high school experience and a guide to who you think you’d like to become in the future. Naturally, it is one of the more stressful aspects of any student’s final year of high school. While college admissions counselors are telling students to “have fun with the process” and “not to stress” – students are looking at the process knowing that the outcome could have an incredible influence on their future.

That being said, it is an important process and while students really shouldn’t spend sleepless nights stressing about the question “is my application good enough?” – students should be prepared to invest a good amount of time into presenting themselves and their experiences to the best of their ability. How does one go about doing that? Here are five tips for students as they think about preparing their college applications.

1. List your extra/co-curricular activities in the order of importance to you – not in the order you think colleges and universities want to see them.

We are not approaching the application process to find the “perfect applicant.” Almost all admissions counselors working with a holistic mindset will agree, the illusive “perfect applicant” simply does not exist. The point of the application and the reason schools ask you to detail your activities is to learn what you value the most and how you have engaged with your community. The experiences someone has and the lessons one learns at a part-time job are just as beneficial and important as those that one may gain from a summer academic program. We don’t value one over the other, but we certainly value a student’s ability to articulate what they have gained from a given experience. Your list should represent what you’ve done, what you love doing, what you have done well and what you believe is integral to us understanding you and your time in high school.

2. Avoid using acronyms in your college application.

While this may seem silly, it can truly be detrimental to a student’s application and our understanding of their high school experience. Often, high school clubs have creative acronyms that mean something to that community, but do not transfer to the admissions counselor reading your application. One way to make sure that the person on the other end reviewing your application knows exactly what it is you are doing is to tell them the full name of every activity and award. For example, an applicant may be the president of S.M.I.L.E. – which, going by the acronym, suggests that it is a club focused on increasing the amount of smiles in your high school community. What if that club is actually the Symposium of Men Imitating Large Emus? Clarity is critically important to making sure we give students the credit where it is due, which can’t be done if colleges and universities don’t know what the acronyms mean on a college application.

3. Have a conversation with the teachers you ask for a recommendation.

Don’t just send them an email asking them to fill out the form – add a personal touch and ask to have a conversation with them about what is important to you, your goals for college, and any pieces of your high school experience that you’re particularly proud of and why you have decided to ask them for a recommendation. You will most likely never see what these faculty figures write in their recommendations, but you can make a good impression on them by going above and beyond. Remember that these faculty are not only writing a recommendation for you, but also for several other students who may have asked them. Taking the time to show your teacher that you have put thought into your selections will give them more motivation to be thoughtful about their recommendation of you as a student.

4. Follow deadlines.

Missing a deadline can have grave consequences on your application process. Every college or university you are applying to have a responsibility to make their deadlines public and accessible. Applicants need to make sure that they follow the guidelines that are set because they influence the review processes colleges and universities have established to evaluate all of their applicants. Not every school has the same deadlines which can make it confusing, but students should figure out a way to make sure that things are submitted in advance of any posted deadline. Most admissions offices operate on a business week schedule (M-F, 8AM-5PM) and while deadlines may fall on weekends, this means your application materials and emails may not be received for up to 48-72 hours after they are electronically submitted.

5. Do extensive research about the schools to which you are applying or hoping to match with.

You should know more than just a college or university’s rank. Even if you are not able to make it to campus, there are so many resources on an institution’s website that allow you to know whatever you need about who they are and what they offer. When you are thinking about which schools you would like to attend, make sure that you are going to be as happy your first year on campus as you will be at the end of your senior year. Are the majors offered what you are interested in? Does the school have a core curriculum or more of an open curriculum? What is there to do on the weekends? Will you have access to internships, jobs, and research? How is the food? Are faculty available or will you be taught by teaching assistants? When compiling a list, certainly pay attention to admissions rates and the quantitative data that’s reported when evaluating your chances, but more importantly – you should only be applying to schools where you would be perfectly happy to spend the four years. You should be able to tell anyone that asks at least 5 in-depth reasons why you would be happy at every school on your list. Making sure that you would be happy at any of the schools on your list is important in the unlikely case that you are admitted to only one.

In addition to all of the required material that students are asked to compile and have submitted, often there are overarching themes that colleges use to drive their admissions processes. These themes influence the types of students colleges and universities seek, and they vary from place to place. Every school is different, thus every school will have specific things they look for that often are not what students expect.

Most schools will focus part of their evaluation of an applicant around the idea of “fit.” This may be an academic fit, social fit, political or religious fit or an athletic fit. This is not because we are looking to silo students into certain areas of campus, but more so because institutions are attempting to craft a class and community of individuals that will be living and learning alongside one another. Making sure that their interests, experiences and perspectives fit into the larger community is important to sustaining the communities that we work so hard to foster.

Continuing on with the idea of “fit” – residential colleges and universities are not only thinking about academics in their evaluation of an application. The question surrounding a student’s “fit” with a school often turns into the question, “Will this student be a good roommate and community member?” We’re looking for those individuals who will enhance the campus community with the qualitative aspects that are talked about in recommendations and essays. We want every single applicant and admitted student to be happy with their experiences, but more importantly we want all of our applicants and students to be happy collectively. Paying attention to those more nuanced character qualities allows for a more intentional development of a community that allows for productive and positive experiences.

Lastly, one important thing that is often overlooked or forgotten is the overall cohesiveness of an applicant’s completed and submitted application. Like it was mentioned earlier, there is no such thing as a “perfect applicant” but there certainly are interesting applicants that rise to the top of the pack. These are the students who have crafted a cohesive, engaging, thoughtful story about their experiences in high school. Your level of engagement in your community and the activities you’ve experienced up until now are what they are, it is now your responsibility to pull all of that information together and present that in a way that gives an admissions office an easy way to understand who you are.

– by Zeben Ashton, Admissions Counselor, Vanderbilt University