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Quadcast transcript: How to get into your dream college

February 7, 2018

Sandra Knispel: Welcome to the Quadcast. I’m your host, Sandra Knispel. Do you ever lie awake at night and wonder how to get into your dream college, or how to stand out during the interview process, what you should never, ever write in a college application essay? Besides, what’s a dream college? How do you know which university is right for you? Wouldn’t you just love to get the inside track from a couple of seasoned admissions officers? Well, here they are! I’m joined in the studio today by two University of Rochester admissions veterans: Kim Cragg, who’s been at this for thirteen years, and she’s the West Coast regional associate director of admissions, and we’ve got Jason Nevinger, who’s been doing this for twenty years, and he is now the University’s director of admissions. Welcome, Kim and Jason.

Jason Nevinger: Thank you.

Kim Cragg: Thanks!

SK: Jason, let’s start with—how early should you start preparing for the college application process, and where do you start?

JN: I think you’ll find that most students will begin their process during their junior year of secondary school. I think that that is an appropriate time to begin looking. I think that there oftentimes there is a desire to even push that earlier, and while that can be good, there can be some negative to that as well, because some students need some time just to be themselves and just be in their high school environment and develop that and not necessarily look for an end result of what they’re doing, and focusing on the here and now. But junior year is typically when that will start.

SK: Kim, is it still true that grades and test scores really carry the most weight? Is that the most important thing that you’re looking for?

KC: Well, I think it’s definitely true that your academic success in high school is going to be a great predictor of your academic success in college. One thing that is also important in addition to grades is rigor of curriculum. So that’s something that a lot of schools are looking for additionally, so not just that you’re getting A’ s, but that you’re challenging yourself, that you are taking AP classes where that’s available, or that you’re taking IB exams or IB curriculum where that’s available. And in terms of test scores, that can vary from school to school, but most schools will certainly look at test scores unless they’re test optional.

SK: So, if we take out the test scores and the grades and say that’s a given, you have to work hard. What’s the next big indicator you look for?

JN: I think for us, in particular, it is how that student contributes to their community within their school, what they’re involved in, how they work well with others, what they’re doing in their free time. So yes, you’re right, the academic component is the most important piece. But in a selective admission environment, the vast majority of applicants are going to have that high level of academic preparedness, and the strong grades, or the strong test scores. It is who they are as an individual, and how they communicate with other people, and how they interact with people that really oftentimes tips the scale in favor of one student over another.

SK: How do you measure this? What do you look for?

JN: I think that for us, certainly, it is specifically, what clubs and organizations they’ve been involved in, and not that there is a right or a wrong club to be in, but it’s how they contributed to the success or the creation, or throughout their four years, how much did they get involved in, I think that becomes a crucial piece in who they are, and what kind of a community member they’ll be.

SK: Kim, so is that a question that sort of leads us towards demonstrating leadership? Is that what you’re looking for when you look at these extracurricular activities?

KC: Well, it depends. I think leadership is definitely something that many schools value, and if that’s something that is a strength of a student, that’s something we’re going to value and that we’re looking for on a campus. But of course, the campus can’t be, you know, can’t consist 100 percent of leaders. You can’t all be presidents of the university. So we’re looking for a variety of things. Leadership is important for those students that value that in themselves, but it isn’t something that you absolutely must have, no matter what, to get into school.

SK: Let me ask you a devil’s advocate question. I’ve seen some college application essays, and everybody seems to be a leader. “I am the president of this, and I started that.” Does it sometimes get boring, reading that apparently everyone is a superstar?

JN: I would have to say that, in a given year, you do start to see some similarities across applicants. And I think that for trained readers, and for professionals within the business, they have to know that, and they have to navigate through that, and really work hard to not be biased in one way or another from each individual student, right? So certainly, that leadership component can be repetitive over 14,000 applications, or more applications, but for that individual student, it may be an incredibly important thing. So you have to look at that student in his or own unique way, and not necessarily compare them to the one you just read, or the one that you’ll be reading next.

SK: Kim, you just said before we started taping that you read in one year, was it 13,000 college application essays?

KC: Oh, not 13,000, that would be—that would be a lot!  But I have read thousands within one year before, absolutely.

SK: I was wondering whether you were a speed reader [laughs]. So, as you read thousands, Jason just sort of alluded to this, there is this danger that one becomes jaded. What should students do in order to sort of overcome that, that danger of having a very, very tired and jaded reader at the end of the day.

KC: Well, I think that one thing that students can do, because I do think essay topic is often a very frequent question that we get asked as admissions professionals, and there really isn’t a topic that’s new, as we were discussing here. We read thousands of applications, you’re not gonna necessarily get a totally new and unique topic. And that’s okay, we’re not looking for something we’ve never heard of before. What we’re really looking for is a student’s voice, to hear your perspective. Your perspective is unique, your perspective is different. And being able to hear that, I think, does connect with the readers. You know, you can imagine in a conversation, if you’re talking about something you really care about, the person you’re talking to is gonna be more engaged. If you’re writing about something that you really care about, and showing us your perspective, that’s gonna be easier to connect with as a reader than just writing what you think we want to hear.

SK: Let’s go back once more to the admissions essays. We’re talking about, find a voice, write something that you’re passionate about. Can you think of a couple of examples where you read something that you really liked, that sort of really grabbed you, and what it was about that?

KC: Again, I think I go back to the idea of perspective, and I know that that’s hard in theory to understand, but an example would be I read an essay about a student’s commute to school, and that isn’t a topic that grabs you, that isn’t something they say, “Oh, they went on this wonderful trip somewhere or they did this thing that no one else did.” They were commuting to school in a way that lots of students commute to school, but they really focused on what that meant to them, what that time—they had a long drive to school, they connected with their mother during that time—and they talked about what that meant to them and how that changed their relationship with their mother. So, it really was something that topic wasn’t super unique, but we got to have that perspective and hear why that was so foundational to the student and so important to them.

SK: I assume, Jason, you also have been reading thousands of application essays. Tell me something that you found in there, or something that really grabbed you and you thought, “That was an excellent idea!” And it wasn’t, as you just said, I like what you just said, or I thought it was interesting what you just said that it doesn’t have to be a $10,000 trip to Paris that you’re looking for.

JN: Absolutely. A lot of times, there isn’t a wrong topic. It is how the student kind of writes that essay and how it takes that reader from beginning, to middle, to end in a very thoughtful way and kind of connects the dots. For me, one of the essays that always stands out to me, is a student who was writing about his love of being in a kitchen and cooking. And the way that he described it and the detail that he used, and how he tied it back to his personality and what he ultimately wanted to do. I really took a step back, and I said, “Wow, I know this kid now. I know what makes him tick and what makes him think, and I can then connect that essay back to the activities.” It’s how he answered his short answer, all of these dots then start to come together, and it’s like, “Yup, there’s uniformity across this applicant.”

SK: Should you joke in your essay? Should you joke during the interview, or is that something you would say, Kim, “I’ve seen it go wrong so many times—steer clear”?

KC: I think it’s again about being authentic. So, if you’re a person who is naturally funny, who, you know, can joke, who feels comfortable in that and that is something authentic to you—then sure. I think I would, if you are joking a bit in an essay you might want to check in with a teacher or counselor and make sure they feel like it feels appropriate. But it’s certainly not something that—if that is not your personality day-to-day—you should try to do. I would say just be authentic to your personality.

SK: Have you had laugh-out-loud essays?

JN: There have certainly been some times [but] I can’t name them off the top of my head. But there are times when you kind of sit back and you’re like, “This person has a pretty good sense of humor!”

SK: What turns you off when reading an application essay? What sort of triggers in your mind this immediate, “Oh, not for us”?

JN: I think that that can be a very individual response based on reader, as well as institution. I think that for us at the University of Rochester—because we are an extremely collaborative environment, and this idea of a sense of a campus community is extremely important—if there are essences within an essay where it’s a “me” individual, it always comes back to me, or there is this idea that there isn’t much in terms of connection to the outside world or others, and it constantly comes back to “me, me, me.” That’s a turnoff.

SK: So, you are actually looking for the plural personal pronoun “we” in the application essay?

JN: No! Not at all. I think that that is not necessarily the pronoun, it is how that individual really sees him or herself in a much broader perspective than just talking about themselves.

SK: What is it for you, Kim, that sort of sends up the red flag for you when you read essays?

KC: This goes to a bit of advice that I often give students when I talk to them about the college admission process in general, which is that the answer to almost every question in selective admissions is [that] it depends to university to university, what they value more. We can talk about what we value here at Rochester, but another school may value something differently than we do. But the good news is that while the answer is that “it depends”—it isn’t a secret. And advice that I often give students is to use the resources of the admissions counselors. Every university will have admission counselors that work specifically, typically with the schools or the regions where your students may be attending high school. Those folks can give you some inside information, and they’re happy to. So we’re not the only ones that are able to give that inside information. I used to work at a university that didn’t value interviews very much, that wasn’t a big part of our process. Here at University of Rochester we care deeply about interviews, and we say that that’s a highly recommended part of the process. If you had called me in my previous position, I would have openly shared that with you, and I would here as well. So we’re not trying to keep secret what we value. Use the resources of the admissions officers to be able to tell you what the particular schools you’re applying to value most.

SK: Interviews. How important are interviews for selective schools? And you sort of said that for some it’s more, for some it’s less. Should students definitely make an effort to come to a campus interview, and should they also go… I know you take the show on the road, don’t you?

JN: The answer to that, I think, certainly, is twofold. One, you can answer that question by saying, “Yes, it is important for that student to visit that campus and take advantages of opportunities the office of admissions provides for that student, to become familiar with that institution. Is that institution going to fit into me as an individual, am I going to fit into that institution?” So, that’s one way to answer that question. The other piece in terms of an interview certainly is going to depend on the institution. I think that a lot of admission counselors, regardless of what level of selectivity that universities has in terms of admission, if interviews are offered, those are really valuable opportunities for the student to showcase themselves. And not showcase in terms of merit badges, or the awards, or these kinds of things, but showcase themselves as a person and as an individual. Some students may not be so great at an interview and if that is part of the particular situation for that student, I would say, probably an interview is probably not going to be the best way for you to showcase who you are, and find other opportunities to do that.

SK: When you have an interview, when you conduct an interview with a student, give me an idea of what makes you sit up and sort of take notice and think, “Hm, there’s something there that interests me.”

KC: Well, I think that at University of Rochester, one of the things that would make me sort of excited about a student is that they really understand the University of Rochester, and are really able to articulate some of the ways that they’re going to connect to Rochester, some of the things, the ways they’re going to take advantage of the things we have to offer, and some of the ways that they’re going to offer things to the campus community.

SK: So, you expect incoming students, prospective students to have done their homework?

KC: Absolutely.

JN: And I will also add that, part of it as well is when I stand up, when I take notice, is when a student gives more than just the canned answers. They’ve taken the time to do their homework, certainly on the institution, but have done their homework on themselves. And they’ve started to really look inside of who they are and what they want, and get to know who they are so that when they’re answering the question, it isn’t just surface level and there’s some depth to it.

SK: Okay now, so the listeners can’t see this. Jason, you look very dapper, you’re very nicely dressed. What do you expect for students? How should they present themselves as they come for the interview? Isn’t there always this tug of war, where mom says, “Put on a shirt, put on a jacket, a sports coat,” and the son says, “Heck no.” What would you tell people?

JN: That’s a great question. We get that a lot. And I think that for the vast majority of institutions out there that offer interviews, we don’t expect students to come in coat and tie, looking like they are going to go for a job interview. That is not what an admission interview is all about. And a lot of times, these students are coming to interview in the context of a larger campus visit experience, so they’re gonna be walking, and they want to be comfortable. Now, does that mean that they come in sneakers and torn jeans and a hat on backwards? No. They want to represent themselves in a positive way, but from our perspective, and I can’t speak for all institutions, but for the institutions that I’ve worked for, we want the students to be comfortable and be respectable.

SK: What does that mean to be authentic? I mean, don’t we play at being authentic in interviews? What’s the best advice you can give students when their parents say, “Just be yourself”?

JN: For me, again that authenticity goes back to the student taking the time to really get to know who they are. And you’re right, for a 17, or 18-year-old student this is tough. But that degree of difficulty and the toughness of that is worth it, because that then will provide and allow the student to be authentic in their answers. When we ask them, “Why are you interested in biomedical engineering?”—that they don’t tell us what we think we want to hear, but what they truly believe in their gut and in their heart in terms of why they’re making the decisions they’re making in terms of majors, or what they want to get involved in, and what they have been involved in. That authenticity comes from that inward reflection.

SK: References. I read this great story about, I think it was an Ivy League admission. And the Ivy League admissions officer said that what made the difference for her was a reference that was written by the janitor of a high school about a student. I’m sure you’ve probably already seen that story. Have you had any of those references where you really… they came from somewhere you didn’t expect them to come from, or they said something you really didn’t expect? And if so, would that translate into advice for a student? Where should I go for referees?

K: Well I think that you certainly don’t have to have an outrageous person, or someone that we haven’t seen before be your reference. Truly your best reference comes from people that know you well. And, it’s not a magic formula, you know, we want to see the teachers that know you well, people in the community that know you well, your counselors if you’re lucky enough to have a counselor that knows you very well. And I think that the best letters of rec go beyond just going through the resume, going through the transcript. They really tell us a little bit about how the student performs in class, about how they’re a member of the community at the school that they’re in, or a member of the community at large. We want to know more than just you know, their grades and test scores in a reference because we have that somewhere else. We do want to get to know who the student is. And it doesn’t matter who the person writing the reference is. I’ve certainly had students try to send form letters from a senator or something like that where their name is just written in there quickly. The stature of the person isn’t important, the way that they’re able to speak about the student is what’s helpful.

SK: How important is volunteer work? You just said, “Get somebody who knows you well, who can speak to your involvement in the community.” So, I would assume that if you do volunteer work, you’ve got somebody who can say, “Yes, she’s been doing this every summer. Yes, he really connects with people in the senior citizen home.” Is that one of the many reasons why you want students or prospective candidates to have done some volunteer work?

JN: I would say yes, and I think the idea of community service certainly is one that comes up in a lot of students’ applications and no admission office is going to say how many different community service opportunities does this student, or has this student been involved in. That’s not what we’re looking for. And there are a lot of students that will include community service in their application because they have to do it. It is a requirement from their secondary school to do a certain number of hours, and I value that, I think it’s great. But why the student is doing it, and what they are getting out of it, and how they see themselves in that idea of a bigger community and working together and getting to know people on a personal level—that’s what we’re really getting and looking for through those community service hours.

SK: So, you’ve been on campus, you’ve interviewed, you’ve met several admissions officers… Am I old fashioned to suggest that then the student go home and write thank you notes, do you guys like receiving thank you notes?

JN: I will say that I like receiving the thank you notes and that maybe is a sign of my age, but that is such a very different approach, right? And that’s not to say that the students that will send an email thank you note isn’t appreciated and that’s great. But the idea of sitting and taking time and writing out a note is pretty cool. I have known colleagues who, you know, when those cards come in, they put it on their wall. I know other colleagues who get them—“oh this is great”—and it kind of goes on the desk, or goes in the garbage, what have you. But, what we do with it is not necessarily the point. It’s the message that’s conveyed by the student that I think I appreciate.

SK: How about you, Kim?

KC: Yeah, I would agree. I also really like the written card but it’s certainly not a must-have. I wouldn’t, you know, knock a student for not doing a written card. But, it is a nice thing.

SK: What percentage, would you say, of students whom you interview actually bother to send you a card?

KC: I’d say a small percentage.

JN: I would too, I don’t have an exact number, but it’s not something that every single day we are getting a handwritten thank you note, or even an email, for that matter, from the students that we interview. So, perhaps that’s why they tend to stand out more.

SK: I was going to say—here’s something to listen up because if it’s a minority who does it, this is an easy one to stick in people’s minds, right? —Early decision. Talk to me: why should students, and what kind of students should apply early decision?

JN: So why a student should apply early decision and who should apply early decision is very much an individual answer. If a student feels that they have a number one choice and a place where they really want to showcase to that admission office that they want to go there, if you accept me, I will come—it is that moral contract between the student and the admission office and the University. If you are applying to the University of Rochester, and you love Yellowjackets, and you’ve been wearing blue and gold for most of your life, and you want to go here, I think that early decision is a good choice for that student. I don’t think students should apply early decision if they feel that they want to compare financial aid packages, I don’t think a student should apply early decision if they want to apply to other places and aren’t 100 percent sure of where they want to go. And I don’t think students should apply early decision if they feel that that is going to give them the easy way into that institution—that typically isn’t the case.

SK: So, you do not treat someone in a preferential way if they indicate right off the bat “you’re my first choice”?

JN: I would say that it is a thumbs up for that particular applicant. The degree of how high that thumbs up certainly is going to depend upon the institution. For a place like the University of Rochester, we really are consistent in that about 25 to 27 percent on average of our enrolling class comes from early decision. So, we don’t look to build our class through early decision. There are institutions out there that are well over 50 percent of their enrolling class comes from early decision, so the degree of how much favoritism that particular early-decision applicant will have is going to depend on the school.

SK: Let’s talk a little but about the “dream college.” We started off with the question “how do you get into your dream college?” However, what makes a dream college a dream college—granted you will have scores of students who say it has to be an Ivy League, they’ll get inundated with applications, or a top school like ours. But what really makes this, or any other university, the best fit for yourself? Can you give some advice? Because I know students write sort of a list—how many colleges or schools should they have on their list?

KC: Well, that’s also a very personal choice that some students will have many, and some will have fewer. In terms of how to pick what would be your dream college, advice that I would give is similar to some of the stuff we were talking about with the interviews—of doing that hard work, of thinking about yourself, doing that internal work and deciding what is important to you? What are the ways, that I learn? What are the types of communities that I want to be a part of? Even outside of the university, what type of place do I want to live? All of those things. To do those about yourself, not necessarily in attachment to a university, so, not looking at the University of Rochester and saying, “How do I fit in to the University of Rochester?”—but taking a step back from comparing to any university and say, “How do I learn? What do I love? What are the things that I need to be happy and to be successful?” And then to find how those connect to universities, and to be able to really articulate that, “I’m very happy in this place because it has a small setting, because I can have professors teach the classes, because I can hear my voice talking all the time in my classes.” Or for another student, to have huge lectures, because they don’t want to hear their voice talking all the time, and they want to have that kind of experience. So, really knowing yourself, first, before you start thinking about which school.

SK: And you get that information by simply reading in depth on the websites of the universities that you’re considering, and doing your research?

JN: Correct. And the one caveat I would give is there certainly are online tools, message boards, where a lot of folks will provide commentary about individual institutions or application processes and those can be good, but they can also lead folks down a particular path that probably may be more exaggerated than in terms of reality.

SK: And so here comes the $50,000 question—actually it’s more, these days—how do parents pay for it? How do they pay for their child’s dream? And it must be heartbreaking if your child has set his heart on a top school, gets accepted, and then you have to figure out how on earth am I going to pay for this? Any tips?

JN: Well, I will add first and foremost that within my time, the hardest part of my job is just what you’re describing in that there are students every single year where this may be their dream school, this may be where they want to spend their next four years and maybe more, and because of finances, it doesn’t become a reality. That is part of the process. Couple pieces of advice: one, is to begin having those financial conversations within the family early, as opposed to later, and reaching out to those admission offices, those financial aid offices to begin even having conversations about the financial aid piece as they begin looking at institutions. Now, I would say that the price tag, the sticker cost for an institution ought not deter a student and family at looking at it. It may be an end result in terms of where they go and again, that’s part of the reality. But financial aid and admissions offices are there to help families navigate that process, but part of the onus is on the family that they’ve had those conversations and the reality is that within the United States it is part of the family’s responsibility to contribute towards that financial piece of the college and university process.

SK: Thank you so much, both to you Jason Nevinger and to you Kim Cragg, for talking to us. Lots of good advice. Once again, Jason Nevinger is the director of admissions for the University of Rochester, and Kim Cragg is the West Coast regional associate director of admissions—thank you.

JS: Thank you, Sandra.

KC: You’re welcome.

SK: Thank you for listening. For the University of Rochester’s Quadcast, I’m your host, Sandra Knispel.

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