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Mastering the College Application: 18 Tips From a Director of Admissions

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The mountain of college applications looms before you, casting long shadows of stress and uncertainty. Transcripts, essays, recommendations, standardized tests, and campus visits feel designed to induce panic rather than excitement.

But fear not. I'm here to share the tips I learned as Director of Admissions at Tulane University. With the right tools and guidance, you can transform this application process into a well-marked path to a school that is the perfect fit for you.

In this article, I’ll cover the most important things you need to know. From what to include in your activities section, how to take advantage of the optional statement to stand out from the crowd, and why you can’t use any old email account to correspond with colleges, it’s all here for you.

So, take a deep breath, put down that third cup of coffee, and let's get started. With this arsenal of expert advice, you'll be navigating the college application process with confidence, clarity, and ease. 

General college application tips

Let’s start with some expert advice for your overall applications.

Stand out with the optional statement

If the application asks why you are applying to that school, provide a thoughtful and insightful answer. This is your opportunity to demonstrate you’ve done your research and truly believe that school will be a good fit for you.

Clarity like this is helpful for admission officers because it lets us know which students truly want to attend our college or university.

If there isn't a question asking why you’re interested in a specific college on the application, send a short paragraph explaining your why anyway. Your ability to demonstrate your interest in the school you’re applying to can be the deciding factor for an admissions team.

You can read more advice for these optional statements in the last section of this article.

Get engaged with the schools you’re applying to

I don't mean ask us to marry you. I mean, take some time to research each college to find out if it’s a good fit for you. We want to see applicants who are authentically and genuinely interested in our school.

Generally, I always recommend students visit schools you’ve been admitted to. This will give you a sense of what college campuses are like. Seeing schools in person will also help you make smart decisions about where to apply and even better prepare you as you start filling out applications.

But at the same time, an admission committee will never look at your application and ding you for not visiting. If you have the financial means to visit, you should do it. If you don’t have the means to get here, then find other ways to engage with the schools you’re applying to.

The most important thing to remember is to be purposeful in your interactions with colleges. Don’t go overboard and reach out with questions you can easily find the answer to. That can become annoying, which is not the impression you want to make.

Explain anything that could be misunderstood

Let us know if you had some things going on in your personal life and your grades suffered one semester. Or, if AP Calc wasn't your thing, but you got two tutors, worked every night for two months studying, and still got a C, let us know that, too.

The more insight you can give into your grades, the better. Your application's "additional information" section is the perfect spot to do this.

Be professional in your communications and online presence

Get an email address just for your college applications and correspondence. Something professional. When I was the Director of Admissions at Tulane, I received emails from accounts with names like cupcakez and LaxStud6969, which may sound cool to your friends. But it looks silly to me. And I'm actually pretty cool, too.

Make sure that your social media profiles feature photos you'd be okay with your grandma seeing. And be thoughtful about what you post. At Tulane, I had to rescind admission offers for multiple students because of their commentary in a social media space. Don’t make these kinds of mistakes.

Pick an essay topic you love and write about it

It’s easy to tell when a student enjoyed writing their application essay. And admission committees are more likely to love reading something you loved writing. We read thousands and thousands of essays, so make sure you hook us right off the bat.

Sometimes, the best essays are the simplest ones. No need to dig for a tragedy, over-embellish anything, or try to change the world. Just be yourself. That always works the best.

Don’t add unnecessary things to your application

At Tulane, we saw an average of over 40,000 applications each year. Schools like UCLA and NYU get 75,000+ applicants. Because of that, we have to go through applications quickly. So sending in a lot of extra stuff won't benefit you.

Resist the urge to send in multiple essays, four-page resumes, and multiple additional letters of recommendation. You shouldn't feel pressured to fill out every blank on the activities section of the application. Some of the best applicants we see are concise, precise and get to the point.

Tell us about your job(s) because they’re as important as any other extracurricular

If you have a job, tell us about it. Working 15 hours a week at your local Subway as a Sandwich Artist carries just as much weight as playing a varsity sport. Whatever takes up your time, we want to know about it. So don’t undersell yourself.

Avoid redundancy - share more than one strength or interest

Take a 30,000-foot view of your application. If your activities section is dedicated to your love of basketball, your counselor's letter of recommendation talks about your basketball talent, and your short answer section is all about basketball, what do you think your essay should be about? Anything but basketball.

Decide what each "piece" of your application should highlight and where your stories, passions, and strengths will be shared. We read tens of thousands of applications a year, and as soon as we see something in your file that is identical throughout, there's a chance we'll skip over the repeated parts.

Identify your passion

We don't care what you do as long as you love it and do it well. What makes you tick after the bell rings? Where do your strengths lie? What makes you... you?

You're welcome to send us a nice, clean, one-page resume with the above listed. Keep this resume simple. Just give us a quick description of those three or four big things. Do not send a six-page resume listing every time you donated blood. We won't read it. We don't need a list of everything, just your most important things.

Tips for the activities section of an application

This section of a college application showcases your commitment to and impact in various activities outside of academics. It paints a picture of your passions, skills, and how you contribute to your community.

Here’s some advice for handling this section.

Put things in the proper order

The first activity you list should be your biggest- the one you're most passionate about which you committed the most effort to. Then, list the rest of your activities in order of diminishing importance from there.

Don't hide the most important ones at the bottom; work to grab our attention immediately. You know how we want you to hook us in with that first sentence of your essay? Same thing here.

Don't overdo the service trips and travel

There are some amazing service trips and programs worldwide. But if we get a resume packed with only trips to Fiji and Costa Rica, it can come across as privileged. Again, there is value in these trips, but also in a service project or job in your backyard.

If you have had the opportunity to take some of these service trips abroad, you are welcome to include them in your activities section. Just be cognizant of how you present your overall activities list to the admission committee.

Be specific with your achievements

You should always use data, numbers, and anything that we can cling to and share with the admission committee when we go up to bat for you. It's much easier for me to say, "This student increased membership in his school's Queer Student Alliance by 100 students" instead of something more generic like, "This student made the QSA more popular."

Don't overlook what you think might be mundane

There are things you might not consider traditional extracurricular activities that an admission committee can find quite interesting.

I had a student who collected coins from around the world by scouring various antique shops with his grandfather. You might not think your quirky hobbies are activity-list-worthy, but sometimes those things make you stand out the most in this section.

Read 15 books for pleasure this summer? We want to know about it. Have a penchant for yarn and knitting? That's neat, too.

Avoid abbreviations

To avoid any confusion, be sure to spell everything out. It’s always best to assume we know nothing about what happens in high school clubs these days.

Tips for the “Why our college” section of an application

This part of a college application, often called the “optional statement,” allows you to demonstrate your genuine interest in a specific college. It helps an admissions committee go beyond your transcripts and test scores and learn why you think you’re a fit for the college's academic offerings, environment, and community.

Here’s some advice for handling this section.

Tell a specific story

The more specific you can be about the school you are applying to, the better. We can see right through the generic answers, so be specific. Tell us about your tour guide (if you've visited), the thought process that drew you to the college, or what resonated with you when you attended one of their virtual events.

We know why we love our school, but we want to know why YOU love it, too. What attracts you to the school, and how do those factors affect your decision to apply? Remember how your school counselor tells you to "show rather than tell" in your essay? Make sure to do that in your optional statement.

Holler at your hookups

Did your cousin go to the same college and love it? Do you follow someone on TikTok and see all their cool shots of the campus? Share this with us. Feel free to name-drop people who turned you on to the school, especially if they are current students. Note: this is not the same as name-dropping wealthy alumni.

Many of us recruit from the same region each year, so it's cool to see who is helping us in the recruitment effort. Plus, current students and alumni are your best source when researching a school.

Don’t treat it as a general 'why college?' statement

As in, if I can read it and replace "Tulane" with "USC" or "Vandy" or "Miami," then it will not come across as genuine. Avoid generic essays here at all costs.

Delve deeper; we read thousands of these and can easily tell when it's an essay that's going out to all the schools you applied to. Horror story: I actually read an optional statement that said [insert school] where "Tulane" should have been. Yikes.

Don’t make this section all about you

We don’t want to read an optional statement that is all about the applicant. We don’t want another description of a great service project you did or a sport you love to play. You've got the whole rest of the application to talk about yourself.

Instead, use this section to discuss the connection between you and the school. Why is it a great match? Why are you a great fit? It's okay to draw on some of your own experiences, but you should only mention them in the context of the school.

Writing these statements should be rather easy. If it's a school you love and can authentically see yourself happy at, writing about it should come naturally. If it's not, reconsider why you are applying there.

Final thoughts on college applications

So, where does this leave you? With a bunch of insider advice and the boundless potential that lies within you. The journey ahead is yours to define. Remember, your story matters and the admissions committee is waiting to hear it. Now, go write your chapter, one compelling essay, or optional statement at a time.

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