Tips from admissions officials on how to craft a compelling application package.
College acceptance in the United States is extremely competitive. But there are many ways to rise above the crowd.
A critical step in the journey to getting accepted to a U.S. university is giving yourself enough time to get through the application process. “Start early and know your deadlines,” says Kregg Strehorn, assistant provost for enrollment management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Oftentimes, students underestimate just how long applications can take to fully complete, and we receive many on the night of the deadline. It’s often obvious that these applications were rushed and may not have been handled with care.”
Rushing through the application process can lead to mistakes and damage your chances of being offered admission to your selected institution. “Misspelled words, cut-and-paste errors and other inaccuracies really rub admission counselors the wrong way,” says Strehorn.
Kathleen Sakura Harrison, communications manager at the University of Texas at Austin agrees. “It is essential to prepare early for the application process and understand the necessary requirements and deadlines,” she says. “Obtain your official academic transcripts and records early and be sure to have several copies on hand.”
Find the right fit
The U.S. college application process isn’t a purely academic one and that can be complex. Bridget Moore, associate director of admissions at Tufts University says, “Your academics are the focal point of your application, but we also really care about who you are going to be on campus.” For instance, Tufts University has a plethora of campus opportunities and admissions officials want to understand how students will take advantage of these offerings, both in and out of the classroom. “Your application is like a book with multiple chapters. No one wants to read the same chapter over and over again,” says Moore. “So in your essays, your recommendations, your supplements—the admission committee wants to learn as much as they can about who you are and how your attributes will enrich our community.”
Tell a clear story
Making connections before sending an application can help. Harrison advises students to take advantage of the many opportunities to explore and interact with schools. “Some schools have restarted their on-campus in-person visit programs, while many schools continue to offer virtual and online experiences,” she says. “While not the same as an in-person experience, this is a very cost-effective and efficient way to learn more about many universities.” Reading thoroughly and understanding the admissions information and procedures of each institution is important as requirements vary from institution to institution. This is especially important for international students.
A clear narrative that ties the different parts of the application together is important. “Oftentimes applications seem thrown together or scattered in terms of trying to cover too many areas,” says Strehorn. “I believe this is due to the myth that schools in the U.S. are looking for ‘well rounded’ students. What I prefer to see is an organized application that tells a complete story about the student.” Strehorn says he is often drawn to applicants that clearly know about the University of Massachusetts Amherst and aren’t just adding a few obvious facts that they found in a quick Google search. “We are looking for students that know about our school, have a clear plan and can emphasize why they are a good fit here.”
Knowing about the institution also helps write strong statements of purpose. “Don’t go with the first topic you think of,” says Moore. “Try a few ideas out and see which one is coming together best. Attend a workshop on writing a personal statement, like the ones Tufts offers, to get ideas and support for writing your personal statement. And always show, don’t tell.”
While writing essays or short answer responses, Strehorn advises students to write about something that matters to them. “Do not worry about making a special effort to include impressive vocabulary words or overly complex sentences,” he adds. “If you sound like yourself and discuss something you care about, your essay will be more effective.”
Connecting with faculty, especially for doctoral applicants is recommended. “Make sure the institutions you are applying to have faculty researching the same area that you are interested in,” says Harrison. “Ask questions about what graduates are doing after they graduate, including any placement statistics. Be sure to speak with current students to get a student’s perspective of their experience, especially those who are from your home country.”
Paromita Pain is an assistant professor of Global Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.