College Admissions FAQ
College Applicants constantly call and email us with a huge array of questions and here we have decided to list some of the most common questions or frequently asked questions about college admissions and present answers from our Former Admissions Officer Consultants.
1. Should I apply early if I’m on the fence about where I want to go?
This is a question that should be discussed with depth of thought, solid statistical reasoning, and clarity of purpose. Because many early programs require you to commit to attending that institution should you be accepted (Early Decision), you need to be more than just comfortable with attending that school – you need to be passionate about it. If you are truly conflicted about where to apply early, then look at options that provide you greater flexibility. Regardless, you should have a robust strategy for applying early to a few key schools, as it provides you greater opportunity to be seen early by colleges and be a stronger competitor in the applicant pool.
There are two main different types of early applications – Early Action and Early Decision. The latter is a binding contract, whereas the former does not require students matriculate if they’re accepted. Because of the flexibility of Early Action programs, they regularly have lower acceptance rates than Early Decision programs. There are some schools that restrict their Early Action admissions, like Stanford, Princeton, Yale, etc. so be sure to check what type of early program your school offers. But yes – you should plan to apply to a few schools early, which gives you a statistical boost. Also, many schools have early deadlines to be considered for merit scholarships (Emory, USC, etc.)
Don’t be rash with applying early, and don’t shoot so far above your profile that you’re wasting your early decision window. Find some schools that fall in a reach/target area that also are schools about which you’re deeply passionate. An admissions consultant can be instrumental here in deciphering your school list and providing you with robust choices that maximize your potential of securing entry into your desired schools.
2. What if I’m undecided and don’t know what I want to do for my college major or career?
Many high school seniors are undecided about what they want to major in. Many are paralyzed by the idea of having to choose one pathway that ostensibly dictates their life’s future. Many aren’t ready to commit to one major because they have too many academic interests. Many haven’t fully considered the question and therefore feel unprepared to answer it. Regardless of your reason, this is a common trait among first-year applicants.
Over 50% of students change their major in Arts & Sciences (humanities) schools, usually because they haven’t had the opportunity to study new academic fields like linguistics, anthropology, public policy, sociology, comparative religion, philosophy, etc. In high school, you’re generally tied to five tracks of classes – math, science, language arts, history, and foreign language. Therefore, most students espouse an interest in majoring in something they’ve already studied in high school. That means they’re missing a number of wonderful opportunities to pursue something that falls outside of that common track.
It’s in your best interest to align your application with a major that allows you to demonstrate true academic and intellectual passion. You should be able to expound on that interest unfettered. Colleges are looking for students that go above and beyond, and also take their learning beyond the classroom. Spend time looking at the schools that most interest you, learn about their programs, and then identify your academic passions and be bold in demonstrating the depth of those passions and why those schools are perfect fits for you. That’s a much more compelling application than a flat, uninspired student who is undecided.
3. What is the main difference between private and public universities?
Public colleges or universities are funded by local and state governments and usually offer a lower tuition rate, especially for students who are residents of the state where the college or university is located.
Private colleges rely mostly on tuition, fees and private sources for funding. Private donations can sometimes offer generous financial aid packages for students.
4. What is the benefit of a two-year college?
Vocational-technical or community or junior college act as a gateway to earning a bachelor degree or offer a two year associate's degree or certificates. Vocational colleges offer specialized training for a specific industry or career. Both tend to be affordable with relatively low tuition.
5. What is a liberal arts college?
The goal of the liberal arts college is to impart broad and general knowledge and develop one’s intellectual capacities that transcends the professional landscape.
Most liberal arts programs are private and offer four year programs that lead to a bachelor degree. They cover a vast area of academic majors such as English, linguistics to life sciences and mathematics. The majority of the faculty at these institutions are student-focused and teaching-oriented.
The college/university decision is not only about getting into the best ranked one but rather going the best ranked one that fits you best. Each of the universities and colleges have specific aims and cultures which should resonate with you and your application should be tailored to demonstrate that you meet their aims and would be a definitive value-add to their campus community.
6. Do you recommend I attend the (college) summer program because I am interested in applying to (college)?
Summer college programs offered for high school students held on campus are often viewed by a prospective applicant as a significant opportunity to demonstrate an interest in attending and are seen as an opportunity to enhance their application.
There are a range of college programs offered for high school students across the country and increasingly online. A college summer program offers you the opportunity to take classes and experience college life during the summer. Typically, these programs range anywhere from one to eight weeks. Many selective private colleges, including Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, and Cornell offer summer programs for high school students. Some of these programs are open enrollment (anyone can attend), and others require admission through an application process. The selective programs typically require teacher recommendations, application essays, transcripts and standardized test scores. The programs are attended by thousands of domestic and international students each year and serve to introduce students to a college campus but as importantly they are a source of revenue for the sponsoring college.
Even though these programs can help prepare you for college, just going to one does not significantly enhance your chance of getting into a highly selective college (admit rate of 20% or less). Mid-tier colleges will pay more attention to your participation in their summer program given the focus on enrollment yield (% of students admitted who decide to attend). Attending a summer college program signals to a mid-tier college a student’s interest.
Highly selective summer programs with a focus on research can enhance your college application because they only admit a limited number of exceptional students and encompass an in-depth research experience with a faculty mentor. Colleges want to see students engage in research and for some the way in which to do so is by attending a summer college program. Program examples include the UCSB Research Mentor Program (RMP), University of Chicago Research in Biological Sciences (RIBS), Yale Global Scholars Program, and Tufts Summer Research Experience.
Summer college programs which primarily involve taking courses and engaging in campus life are not seen as competitive or unique. Students often believe attending and securing a recommendation letter from a professor will enhance their application. Some colleges do not allow for a supplemental recommendation letter to be submitted beyond the required teacher and counselor recommendations and often the professor writes letters for each student which can result in the admissions committee seeing several letters from the same summer program.
If you choose to participate in a summer college program, your primary motivation of attending is not to gain admission but to pursue intellectual interests and to experience life on a college campus. Colleges do like to see students taking advantage of their summers to participate in meaningful intellectual activities. By attending a college summer program, you can demonstrate your interest in academics and show motivation to do more than what’s required to pursue your passions. If you're strongly considering attending a certain college, going to its summer program can help you figure out if it's the right place for you. You'll get a feel for the campus and its location, and you may get the opportunity to interact with current students and professors. You'll come away with a better sense of whether you can see yourself thriving in the environment. If you are going to attend a summer college program it is recommended to do so in ninth and tenth grade and to pursue a more unique summer experience the summer between eleventh and twelfth grade.
Attending a college summer program may in fact hurt your chances of getting into a selective college. If you go to a program at Brown and you apply to Cornell regular decision, Cornell may assume you’re more interested in Brown. Also, due to the cost of these programs, some admissions officers believe that these programs are only available to a limited number of privileged students which may be viewed negatively.
Students can often find more creative and unique ways to explore their passions and enhance their application. For example, conducting research with a local college professor, volunteering to work on a political campaign, establishing a non-profit organization, creating a podcast or interning at an art museum.
A summer program at a selective college or university will not substantially hurt or help your college applications. Additionally, if the program stimulates an academic interest or prepares you to do well in school, it can indirectly help your chances of gaining admission to the most selective colleges.
7. Do I have to and should I take SAT II subject tests?
It’s important to check college websites as each school has different requirements for the SAT II subject tests. Some schools require these tests and some don’t, while others only recommend them. In order to be competitive at tops schools we recommend you take at least two SAT subject tests. The subject tests you choose to take should fit well within your major. Send your scores to the schools that require them and submit them to the schools that recommend them if you have done well on the test. A competitive score for a top school is a 750 and above. Showing schools you are proficient in a specific area within your major will prove to be beneficial and give you the competitive edge over someone who did not take these tests.
8. What SAT/ACT score do I need?
It is undeniable scores continue to be an important element of admissions review and decision making. Since different students have different college goals there is no single answer to this question. The scores an applicant needs are those which fall into the top 25% or higher admit range for the colleges in which they apply. While this makes sense often the college list is not finalized until the summer after eleventh grade. Students are encouraged to earn the highest scores possible on either the ACT or SAT by the end of junior year to keep a range of college options on the table.
Given the importance of scores, engaging in test prep beginning in tenth grade is encouraged as it allows you to identify and focus on the exam which suits your testing style and content expertise. Test prep tutors will administer an SAT and ACT assessment to determine your testing style and then identify a strategy for the exam. Although the tests are becoming more like each other, often students demonstrate an affinity for one test oven another. Once you determine if you will take the SAT or ACT you can begin effectively preparing.
It is in your best interest to secure the ACT or SAT scores you want to submit by the end of your junior year. This allows you to participate in a meaningful summer experience between 11th and 12th grade, the ability to develop your college list (as test scores are a factor in identifying colleges in which to apply) and time to focus on your college applications.
Using Stanford as a frame of reference, your objective is to score in top 25% or higher - 35-36 ACT range and 1560-1600 SAT range.
It is safe to assume most students who are admitted with scores in the bottom quartile are hooked in some capacity – either because they are from an underrepresented minority group, a recruited athlete, parents are engaged alumni and they are identified by the alumni and/or development offices. In the absence of an exceptionally compelling story, it’s difficult to compete with test scores and grades which fall in (or near) the bottom 25% of a school’s most recently admitted class. You may get some boost from applying early decision given admit rates are typically higher, and you may also benefit from the fact you are applying as a full-pay student but these factors, alone, do not make up for lower scores.
You can find the admitted score range for each college on their website often by searching for the applicant profile.
You will be much more competitive at the schools you are interested in if your scores fall into the top 25% admit range and preferably the upper end of this range. With a focused test prep plan, concerted effort and lots of studying you will achieve the results you’re looking for.
9. What admissions criteria is considered in reviewing one’s candidacy?
This is a list of factors that colleges may use in the admission process. Each college will have its priority for each and may not use them all.
High school record
Rigor of curriculum
Rank or grade-point-average
Special talent (music, athletics, etc.)
Demographics (gender, race, citizenship)
SAT scores (math, verbal, combined)
SAT II scores
ACT scores (scientific reasoning, English, reading, math, composite)
Interest level in institution
Visiting the campus
Types of activities
Honors and awards
Local or state
Brother or sister attends that college
First-generation to go to college
Learning or physical disability (by law cannot be used to deny admission, but can explain lower grades or test scores)
Essay (or essays)
Knowledge or experience in intended major
Recommendations (from teachers, counselors, supervisors, etc.)
10. Does being a legacy applicant increase my chance of admission?
Most colleges consider an applicant’s legacy status when reviewing applications and making final admission decisions. A 2018 survey of 499 college admissions directors conducted by Inside Higher Ed found that 42 percent of admissions directors at private colleges and universities noted legacy status is a factor in admissions decisions at their institutions. Alumni are increasingly important to the well-being of a college’s financial status. Among several of the sampled colleges, the operating budgets rely more heavily on money drawn from endowments and annual gifts than on tuition revenue. Alumni sustain these endowments through charitable gifts and contribute to annual funds which channel money to financial aid and other institutional priorities.
An applicant’s legacy status is noted on their Common Application within the family section in response to the question of parent’s education level, institution(s) attended, and degrees earned, and colleges also ask this question on their supplement. When an applicant notes their parents attended the institution in which they are applying this prompts a review by the college’s Alumni Affairs unit to validate the response and flag the applicant as a legacy. Some colleges have a legacy admission representative affiliated with the Alumni Affairs unit who liaisons with the admissions team and serves as a resource for the applicant and their family.
Primary legacy applicants are those who had a parent attend and graduate from the college as an undergraduate. Secondary legacies are those applicants who had a parent attend and graduate from the graduate school, or who had a grandparent, aunt, uncle or sibling attend as an undergraduate. Legacy preference is focused on primary relationships unless there has been a significant affiliation with a member of the extended family regarding volunteering, service on boards and/or endowment and annual fund giving.
It is important to understand not all primary legacy applicants are considered in the same category regarding the depth of the relationship with the college. Most colleges use a rating scale of some sort to note the depth of the alum connection i.e. 1) graduated and no giving or volunteering 2) graduated and volunteer 3) graduated, volunteer and consistently gives to the annual fund 4) graduated, volunteer, consistently gives to the annual fund and established an endowment. If there is one admit spot remaining the nod will likely go to the applicant who falls into the #4 category.
Legacy applicants are expected to achieve the academic (gpa, grades earned in rigorous courses), standardized test score results, pursue extracurricular engagement and seek a range of intellectual vitality experiences like all admissible applicants. Legacy applicant preference does not mean a student is below the bar, but rather on or near the bar and given a nod to the admit group when final decisions are made.
Legacy applicants are highly encouraged to apply through the college’s early decision, restricted early action or early action program to demonstrate a sincere interest and desire in attending. The legacy “nod” is primarily given during early review as there is a guarantee the applicant will attend versus applying in regular decision where there is uncertainty about enrolling and therefore the college does not want to “waste” an admit decision.
11. As a transfer student, how do I demonstrate that the schools to which I’m applying are better fits for me than my current school?
Transfer applications emphasize different aspects of the admissions experience than first-year applications. The main question you will be asked when applying to a new college as a transfer student is to address your reasons for transferring and the objectives you hope to achieve at the desired transfer institution. It’s imperative you’re prepared to show, rather than tell, the type of student you are and demonstrate an aspirational voice that’s firmly rooted and specific about why the new institution is a considerably better fit.
Many students make the mistake of using this opportunity to disparage their current school – you absolutely do not want to be negative in your transfer application. Colleges aren’t asking you to complain about your current situation; rather, they want to assess the authenticity of your desire to transfer and really discover the “why” that drives you.
To demonstrate that the desired transfer institution is the perfect fit, it comes down to the specificity you provide and how you describe your undergraduate goals aligning with what that institution can provide. Are there specific programs, classes, study abroad opportunities, research, or professors that are intriguing to you? How would you maximize your potential at the new school, which wouldn’t be achievable at your current school? Vagueness will not convince a college that you are a prime transfer candidate. Be specific!
12. How do I order my Activities List on the Common App?
Many schools look to how students construct the less “visible” parts of the application to determine their attention to detail and proofreading. If the Activity List, Awards, and Biographical sections of the Common App include numerous grammatical and spelling errors, yet the shorts answers and essays are all flawless, it creates a red flag for admissions readers.
Therefore, it’s essential that you proofread the entirety of the application and make sure you’re being as accurate as possible with your information. For the Activity List, you should use the ten available slots to build the story you’re sharing with colleges about what you’re like outside of the classroom. Are you involved in your school? Are you involved in your community? Do you take your learning beyond the classroom and build impact in non-academic areas? These are important to highlight, so colleges can envision the type of impact you would have on campus.
Start with your most impressive extracurricular achievements – especially if you have won any accolades, published materials, or have a significant time commitment. From there, work your way down, while making every single one unique and emphasizing your individual contribution to that activity. Use active verbs (more than just “managed” or “participated”) – the more active your language, the more interesting it is to the admissions officers. Additionally, colleges love to see length of commitment, so emphasize activities where you have multiple – if not four – years of engagement, which further demonstrates the depth of your extracurricular engagement.
13. Who should I ask to write my letters of recommendation?
While the student chooses whomever they want for the letter of recommendation, there are a few guidelines:
Academic teacher (Humanities) from the junior or senior year of high school
Academic teacher (STEM) from the junior or senior year of high school
Teacher should be able to speak to his strengths and most attractive qualities that sets him apart from his peers
Teacher should be able to speak to the classroom experiences but should know the student well enough to comment on his or her outside classroom activities and their contributions there
Teacher should be able to speak to the intellectual vitality, academic promise and character of the student with anecdotes which can help the admissions team foreshadow what type of student and community member they will be
14. Should I submit an additional letter of recommendation?
The only time you should send an additional letter of recommendation is when the academic teachers cannot touch all those points and the third supplemental recommendation writer can offer insight to something that has not already been mentioned and highlighted about the student.
15. How should a student request a letter of recommendation from their teacher?
The student should prepare a pretty lengthy email request to each recommender by the spring of junior year (some schools have differing policy on this). What should be included in this request are the following:
How they know the teacher and the number of years
Three salient positive memories from their interaction with the teacher that highlights the student’s most attractive character traits
The schools on their list and why they would like to attend these schools or why they feel they are a good match
Their resume or brag-sheet for the teachers reference
This packet will essential help the recommender write the strongest and most helpful recommendation letter for the admissions committee to really know who and what the student is able to accomplish on that particular campus. As much as you (the student) can give the recommender about you, you essentially are controlling what goes into your letter of recommendation for your college application process.
16. What is the difference between a college and university?
Colleges tend to be smaller, with smaller class sizes and offer bachelor degrees. Universities offer bachelor, master and doctoral degrees which require a completion of the bachelor degree first. Universities tend to be larger, with the faculty attention divided between teaching and research. Universities may have divisions/schools within that house similar degrees or departments such as the College of Engineering or the School of Education.
17. An alum reached out to me for an interview. How important is the alumni interview? Should I say yes to the interview request? How do I prepare and what are they looking for during the interview?
Most colleges and universities do not require or offer a formal interview with the admissions team or faculty as an element of the application review process. Prospective students or applicants are not encouraged to ask for an interview when they are not offered or required. Many colleges do offer applicants the opportunity to speak with an alum often from the same geographic region which is termed the alumni interview. It is highly recommended to say yes to this offer and prepare for the conversation. While not required, responding yes to the optional alumni interview request demonstrates a sincere interest in the college in which you applied and offers the opportunity to expound upon elements within your application while showcasing your knowledge of the institution and fit with the selected major.
Alumni volunteer for this opportunity to stay engaged with their alma mater and to share their experience with prospective students. The alumni interview is as much about the participating alum maintaining their connection to the college as it is about engaging with an applicant. While it is termed an interview and the alum is taking notes to share with the admissions committee, they are also helping their alma mater yield students by personally connecting with the applicant.
Alumni are selected and participate in a training program prior to interviewing applicants. Alumni interviewers receive an applicant’s name, contact information and college or major in which they applied. They do not receive a copy of the application as the information is confidential. The alumni interview is meant to be a two-way dialogue in which the alum asks questions to seek information from the applicant. They are primarily looking for the applicant to demonstrate their knowledge of and passion for the college and intended major with details and specific examples. Alumni also want to serve as a resource and expect and encourage students to ask question about their college experience, fondest memories and career path. Alumni interviewers take notes which are added to a student’s application for review. Most interviews run approximately 30 minutes to an hour taking place in person at a public location, by phone or virtual.
The alumni interview is only one element of admissions review and favors an already strong applicant who displays their sincere knowledge and connection to the college as documented by the interviewer. Members of the admissions team review the interview notes often seeking confirmation of their analysis of the student’s application. A strong interview and weak application (grades, scores, essay, lacks extracurricular and intellectual vitality experiences) does not move a student to the admit group. A strong interview and strong application will move a student to the admit group for consideration and may be the information the admissions team needs to make their final decision. Interviews negatively hurt applicants who are not prepared, demonstrate a lack of knowledge of the institution and their major (i.e. applying to an Ivy League college because it’s an Ivy and lacks depth of a connection or passion/interest) and who do not engage with the interviewer i.e. do not ask questions.