We met with author Jeff Selingo to discuss the most important steps students should take when applying to college.
Author, journalist, and college admissions expert Jeff Selingo talks with student Karina Macosko about smart actions students should take when they apply to college.
I think that so many students are so worried and anxious about what that Admissions reader on the other side thinks about, that they stop enjoying those four years of high school, the last moment in your life, you're gonna go through high school, so enjoy it.” – Jeff Selingo
For an in-depth look at Selingo’s new book, see our review of Who Gets In and Why.
(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Karina Macosko: Hi. My name is Karina Macosko from AcademicInfluence.com, and I am here with Jeff Selingo, who was a college admissions expert. And Jeff, I wanted to know, just give us a brief rundown of your recipe for a great college application.
Jeff Selingo: So it really should tell a story about you and why you wanna go to that specific university. I think part of the problem right now is that students are applying to eight or 10 or 12 schools every year, they’re putting all of their essays and all their thoughts into one big Google Doc and then just cutting and pasting into different applications, but rather the story should tell the institution about why they should accept you to that specific institution, and because every college and university has different priorities in their admissions process, you should be telling the story that matters to them.
Karina: Right, thank you. And I feel like as a high schooler, all anybody can think about is college and college admissions, but do you think on the application, there’s parts that they look at a lot more than the other parts?
…So a lot of those things you now have no control over once you start applying as a senior, matter the most…” – Jeff Selingo
Jeff: Oh, there’s definitely... They look at some parts more than others, and the biggest part that they look at is your high school transcript. As I talk about in the book, it’s something that’s kind of baked well, before you even start the college application, think about it, the courses you’re taking as a junior or senior, were started really when you’re in eighth or ninth grade, and took those pre-reqs that were required and your grades in sophomore year count just as much as your grades in junior year and senior year, so a lot of those things you now have no control over once you start applying as a senior, matter the most in that... That’s grades and high school transcript, your courses, the courses you took, those matter more than anything else on that application.
Karina: So you think that grades are the number one deciding factor for who gets in and who doesn’t?
Jeff: It’s not the only deciding factor. And that’s important, these are a holistic process, they’re looking at many different aspects of the application, and in fact, I talk in the book about a student at Emory University who had a 1590 on the SAT, so missed a perfect SAT, ranked third in her class of more than a thousand kids and was still denied because she didn’t do anything else and she didn’t really have much of an essay, so all these other factors still contribute, but they don’t even start looking at you basically, unless you have those grades and high school curriculum.
Karina: Right, and so apart from grades, what do you think is probably the second most important thing you should focus on, is it clubs, sports, volunteering? What is it?
Jeff: Yeah, so have a passion outside of the classroom, show your interest in the major that you might wanna be in, that’s very important at some schools, especially if you’re majoring is something that a million other people wanna major in, like science or technology or engineering or math, show why you have a passion in that. What they’re looking for in clubs and activities is not something you just signed up for, so you can include it on your application, but they’re looking at something that you’ve been actually doing for several years, getting better at, and increasingly getting more leadership ability in that club. It doesn’t mean you have to be the President of every club, but you can’t just say, Well, I’m gonna try Student Government sophomore year, and I’m gonna try the Chess Club Junior year, and I’m gonna start ice hockey in my senior year. They’re not looking for students who just try everything, but really don’t dedicate themselves to anything.
Karina: Okay, and do you think it’s more impressive to do a ton of clubs or to focus on a sport or to really get out in the community and volunteer, which activity would you say to put your time into?
…What they're really looking for is to make sure that you haven't peaked in high school, they wanna see that when you get to college, you're still willing to learn…” – …
Jeff: I mean, there’s no one activity that rises above the best, but again, they’re looking for some deep commitment that you’re getting better at it and that you’re learning from it, what they’re really looking for is to make sure that you haven’t peaked in high school, they wanna see that when you get to college, you’re still willing to learn, so that idea of a growth mindset is really interesting to them in terms of looking at your application.
Karina: And how would somebody show this growth mindset and show that they didn’t peak in high school.
Jeff: So curiosity, looking for stuff outside of your major area, so for example, if you wanna major in engineering, but you’re part of the pottery club or something like that, or you’re part of the literary club, so to show something that you have an interest outside of your major, field, and that you are constantly curious and growing in that area, so that’s something that would show the fact that you have an interest outside that area. I always encourage students to get a recommendation from a teacher outside of their major area, so if they’ve been really strong in science or math, get a high school English teacher to be your recommender, that would also help on that front.
Karina: Oh, interesting, so even if somebody is really passionate about one field, you recommend that they still branch out and try something different.
Jeff: Yes, because that’s also going to show how you differentiate yourself in a field... One of the things that I’ve noticed in my year inside admissions is that you are getting 20,000, 30,000 applications for 5000 or 6000 spots after a while, to be honest with you, every student looks the same, and so you want something that’s gonna differentiate you from every other person who scored a 1500 on the SAT, has a 4.0 in high school and wants to major in pre-med.
Karina: Interesting, and if somebody really just doesn’t know what they’re passionate about and is trying to figure it out, where do you think they should start as a freshman at high school, what is the first thing that they should do?
Jeff: Well, they should just take a ton of great hard classes, what they’re really looking for in your transcript is that you took the most difficult classes that were available to you and you challenged yourself, so I think that even if you don’t know what you wanna to take the most challenging classes you can in a variety of subjects.
Most of these colleges aren’t looking for you to list a major on your application, in fact, very few colleges, except for the big public universities and in very competitive programs, admit by major. They’re looking for these kids who maybe don’t quite know what they wanna do yet, but they’ve challenged themselves at this point.
Karina: Interesting. In terms of the essay, I know a lot of people get stressed about the essay senior year, what do you think is a good thing to write about in your essay?
Again, don't try to squeeze 18 years of your life into a couple hundred words.” – Jeff Selingo
Jeff: Write about what you care about, stop worrying about what the application reader wants to read, they’ll know that if you’re writing something just for them. Write about something that you really care about. A slice of life, one of the more interesting essays that we read at Emory University was somebody who was afraid of leaving home because they were really close to their family, and they used to have these morning debates over pulp and no pulp in the orange juice. And they wrote their entire essay about that morning debate and what they’ve learned about their family and the ability to leave home all based on that morning debate. Again, don’t try to squeeze 18 years of your life into a couple hundred words.
Karina: Wow, so do you think it matters more what you write about or how you write about it.
Jeff: It’s a little bit of both, but how you write about it matters as well. They’re looking for voice and personality in that essay, and again, that’s why I think sometimes these students worry so much about this essay, they have people coach them and edit them after a while, it takes all that feeling out of it, and it’s somebody else’s essay, not yours.
Karina: Right. So would you recommend an essay writer then or...
Jeff: I would definitely have somebody to look over it and edit it, one of the things that I recommend is give the essay to somebody you don’t know, maybe give it to your parent and they could give it to somebody that they work with and ask them to read it and say, What do you get from this? Who is this person writing this? And if that describes you, then you hit it on the head... The nail on the head, if you didn’t, start over.
Karina: So if you were to go back, if you were a high schooler right now, what... I know there’s so many different things you can do in high school, but what would you do to really make a full proof application or at least a strong application?
Jeff: I probably would have... If I had to do it all over again, I would have taken more difficult classes in high school, I would have probably focused a little bit more on my senior level grades as well, I think that sometimes they’re looking for students whose grades are either consistent or on the upswing, they’re not looking for grades that go all over the place, and they’re definitely not looking for grades on the down swing, but then I also just would have enjoyed myself, again, I think that... And I did in high school, but I think that too many students are so worried and anxious about what that Admissions reader on the other side thinks about, that they stop enjoying those four years of high school, the last moment in your life, you’re gonna go through high school, so enjoy it.
Karina: Wow, that is such great advice because I really do think a lot of people forget to just enjoy themselves, so thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I really learned a lot, and this is such a big topic because everybody’s thinking about college admissions at this point, so thank you so much for spending the time talking with me.
Jeff: No problem. It’s great to be with you, thank you.