Lessons from a Departing Admissions Counselor
It is with both sadness and excitement that I announce that this Friday will be my last day working in the Vanderbilt Office of Undergraduate Admissions. For the past three years, I have helped to recruit students from the specific geographic areas in my assigned territories – but I have also thoroughly enjoyed interacting with students from all over the world through the admissions blog.
Instead of boring you all with an inadequate account of my spectacular experiences here at the OUA, I have decided to leave you with something a little bit more useful: the 12 most important lessons I have learned about college admissions. As always, I hope that at least a few of the points in this post will resonate with you, regardless of where you are in the college search and admissions process.
- Holistic admissions is an imperfect science. That’s right, I’m laying down the controversy right off the bat. This may not be something every admissions counselor will tell you, but the price that comes with not basing decisions purely on GPAs and test scores is human subjectivity. Based on my experience here at VU, I consider that a small price to pay for a truly holistic application review process.
- College admissions works more like SIM City than March Madness. Admissions offices do not list all of their candidates in order of academic achievement and pull their class straight from the top. Instead, they build a diverse and vibrant community that includes a range of geographic locations, races and ethnicities, academic interests, personal achievements, and much more.
- Where you enroll is not nearly as important as what you do when you get there. While I would never discourage a student from applying to a highly selective institution, the media today portrays college admissions as hundreds of thousands of students competing for a handful of spots at the top 20 schools in the country. Vanderbilt is not 1 of 20, but rather one of over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, and students have gone on to be wildly successful after graduating from each and every one of them.
- College is the next step, not the reason for everything you do. Yes, it is important for you to take a rigorous course load, stay involved, stretch your leadership muscles, and work hard in the classroom. But it is important to do these things for their own sake, not because they will look good on your college application, and you should never turn down a class or an activity that you are passionate about because you think it will hurt your chances of admission.
- Your application will be read by an admissions officer in pajamas. Okay, I can’t say this for sure, but it’s more likely than you think. Most admissions counselors read applications in the comfort of their homes, which often means going longer without changing or showering than I’m prepared to admit. Also, be glad that most of us are reading online now – otherwise your transcript might come out with more than a few Cheeto stains on it.
- Worrying about what your admissions counselor wants is a waste of time. Your application should be a representation of you, not what you think the admissions office wants you to be. Our opinions should not be considered when choosing an essay topic, when to submit your application, or how many times to email us throughout the process. The worst that could happen is that you’ll annoy us – that’s not anything that can’t be fixed with a good massage and a few episodes of Scandal, and it’s certainly not something that will affect your chances of admission.
- A transfer is not a failure. Transfer applications have been some of my favorite to read because they demonstrate a level of experience, maturity, and personal awareness that you typically don’t see from a freshman applicant. If you decide after your first semester that College A is not for you, take a second look at Colleges B, C, and D. This does not mean you failed the first time around, but rather that you are courageous enough to recognize a change needs to be made, and we applaud you for it.
- Campus visits are immensely valuable, as long as you keep them in perspective. Whether it’s the weather, the noise of summer construction, the personality of your tour guide, or whether or not you remembered to bring your comfy walking shoes, a campus visit can go from life-changing to completely forgettable based on a number of things having nothing to do with the school itself. (After giving close to 50 information sessions over the last 3 years, I can attest that my brilliant jokes will either kill or fall flat depending on the time of day – I’m far less funny right after lunch.) My advice: bring a notebook and be as objective in your thoughts as possible. If you’re still not sure how you feel, go back and visit again.
- Hooks are overrated. Not every student who is admitted to a selective institution has a “hook” – a tear-inducing story, a bizarre talent, a near death experience, a world-famous uncle, etc. In fact, most admitted students are simply hard workers who have demonstrated leadership and academic excellence and would make strong contributions to their campus community.
- Students should take ownership of the college search process, but there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. The wonderful and horrible fact about college admissions is that it comes right smack in the middle of your transition from adolescence into adulthood, which makes it a perfect opportunity for you to take charge of this life-altering decision. That does not mean, however, that asking your mother to look over your essay or buddying up with a friend to take a campus tour means you’re not doing your job. In fact, knowing when to ask for help is one of the most important skills you will need to succeed in college.
- The calmest and most organized students fare the best in this process. I don’t mean that organization and calm will increase your chances of admission, but they will increase your chances of making it to move-in day with all of your hair – and all of your parents’ hair – intact. While this is a very important phase of your life, it is certainly not worth your anger, indigestion, or tears (see point #3). If you think that you are more stressed, frustrated, upset, tired, or overwhelmed than you should be, be sure to reach out for help.
- You have so many people who love you and want you to succeed. On a daily basis, we talk to parents, counselors, teachers, principals, siblings, cousins, and friends who have taken the time to reach out to us and advocate on your behalf. In many cases, the students themselves don’t even know that the effort is being made. Be aware of how supported you are, be grateful for it, and thank your supporters every chance you get.
In closing, I would like to thank all of you, and all of my admissions colleagues, for teaching me these valuable lessons. To the students who are reading this blog post – I would wish you luck, but I truly don’t think you need it. You’re going to be just fine.