Applying to College The Application

Advice from an Admissions Director about College Applications

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A special thanks to Lauren Magrath, Director of Admissions at Bennington College, for participating in our Admissions Spotlight Interview Series.  Joseph Fernandez from Parliament Tutors conducted this interview.

What do you consider the most significant parts of an application, the parts which applicants should prepare the most carefully?

This is challenging because truly any applicant can shine in any part of the application, it depends on who they are and what they love – different elements open themselves up to the strengths of different applicants.  However, I would say the transcript is the most important element of an application as it speaks to the student’s academic trajectory, where they’ve succeeded and how they’ve challenged themselves.  The ultimate question for any admission committee is if the student can be academically successful at that college and the transcript is the often the most accurate way to get to the answer.

What advice can you offer students in regards to their personal statements?  Perhaps you can offer some shining examples that you have seen in the past.  

I can only ask them to write something honest.  I often recommend students start with something small and make a story out of it – an observation about their current place in the world, their family or their school, or write an anecdote that allows them to reflect on one aspect of who they are right now or what matters most to them.  The personal statement is so challenging precisely because there are as many ways to go about doing it well as there are students trying to do it well.

What common pitfalls should applicants be careful to avoid?

Students sometimes “over-professionalize” their applications.  I am not hiring an employee, I’m admitting a student and I hope to find their personality in the application.  The over-professionalized application strips the student of their voice and removes one of the most exciting ways to get to know who they really are.

Are there any myths about the application process which you would like to dispel?

I suppose a myth would be that we care that you’ve checked off every type of extracurricular “box” (have you volunteered? Played a sport?  Worked? Joined clubs?)  I am not interested in every category, I am interested in knowing what really motivates, inspires, and challenges that student, even if it only fits in one category.  In the end I’m interested in knowing, how do they enjoy spending their time?

What advice would you give to an applicant with below-average test scores but significant extra-curricular experience?

Interview. Also, if the school allows it, submit analytic writing as part of your application so they can see the thinking you bring to your academic work thereby alleviating the concerns that may arise through the test scores.

Do you frequently have to turn away applicants whom you wish you could admit? If so, what could those applicants do to be admitted?  

The students often need to take classes at another college first to show that they can be academically successful at the college level.

How much faith do you have in the ability of the SAT to predict success at in college?  

We do not require the SAT as part of our application.  We have great faith in a student’s academic transcript, their academic writing, and our own interviews to predict success in college.

What do you look for in a recommendation letter?  

In my opinion, the recommendations are so undervalued in the field.  Whether from a guidance counselor to a teacher, these letters paint a picture of a student in a class setting, a picture no one else can paint – I look for how students participate in class, their attitude towards the work, how they stand out or how they approach problems.  I have often found that when a student has stripped themselves of personality in their application for fear of saying some thing wrong, their teachers can be counted on to put some back in.

Joseph Fernandez is an SAT Tutor with Parliament Tutors.