On Gaining Admission to A Most Competitive College

As part of Parents’ Weekend at Wyoming Seminary, the College Guidance office hosted a presentation by Jordan Pascucci of the University of Pennsylvania.  Jordan is an admissions representative for Penn, responsible for covering the Middle East, Central and South Asia, United Kingdom and other territories, and at one time she also had responsibility for Northeastern Pennsylvania; she kindly gave an hour of her time to give a highly informative and entertaining presentation to an audience of about 60 parents and students.

Jordan began her presentation by promising to “share all of [her] secrets” with us, so that students will be able to use each piece of the admissions process to their advantage.  While many of her remarks were specifically describing “Most Competitive” colleges (the kind that accept fewer than 20% of applicants), I think that they will be of use to anyone going through the college admissions process.

Jordan’s main points boiled down to the following concepts:
  • The best advice is to “be yourself” on the application.  When a college only accepts 3,000 out of maybe 30,000 applicants, it is important that the entire application packet clearly communicates who the student really is.  As Jordan observed, “out of 30,000 applications, maybe over 20,000 look the same.  Make sure that you are helping the reader to get to know you.”  She suggests that a student should ask her close friends for 3 words that best describe her, and then see if those attributes come through in the essay.
  • Jordan made a point that I have tried to communicate to  my counselees in the past, which is that so much of the application process is totally outside the control of the student.  Students will never know who else is applying, nor will they really know what needs the college is seeking to fill. Jordan told us that colleges are seeking to put together the best class for the college that year, and want a community that combines the four “best classes” on campus at once.  Students of all different types are needed; if every student was valedictorian and class president in high school, it would be a very strange freshman class!
  • Because of all this uncertainty, all a student can control is that she describes herself as effectively as possible.  Jordan noted students should not try to fit a mythical “formula” that guarantees admission, instead they should demonstrate that they have taken full advantage of everything offered to them at their school.  Specifically,

    •    Every selective college is looking for kids who know that the most successful students ask for help.  Try to make sure that the application demonstrates initiative and curiosity.
    •    Students should prove that they can “go outside their comfort zone” and take risks.  To that end, it would be better to see a student who takes four years of English, History, Math, Science and Foreign Language (even if it requires some struggle) than to see a student forego the opportunity to study a subject at the highest level. Flexibility and experience with a wide range of liberal arts options will be very helpful in college.

  •  When writing the application essay, Jordan recommends that students take their time.  As she said, “the essay is your first impression–make it a strong one!” If the essay will provide an answer to questions like “What is this student like?”  or “What does this student want to get from our university, and what will they give back?” it will have done the job.
  • As far as standardized tests go, Jordan tried to reassure the audience that scores are a small part of a larger evaluation process.  She said that test scores are like height in basketball: it helps to be tall, but after a certain point it stops giving an advantage.  If a student’s scores fit in the middle 50% of scores published on the college’s website, students should probably not worry about tests.
  • Jordan’s advice on filling out the application’s list of activities was very interesting.  She said that when listing activities, it is not about the what, but about the why.  Why did a student do these activities?  She suggested that activities be listed in order of importance to the student.   And if an activity takes a significant amount of time, spread it out across several entries.  She gave the example of a chess player.  Rather than saying “Plays chess 10 hours per week”, have separate entries for reading about chess, going to school chess club meetings, and competing in tournaments. That will give readers a chance to see what is important in that student’s life, because chances are, students will continue those activities in college.
  • Jordan’s final tip was especially relevant for Most Selective colleges, but was good advice in general.  Even when using the Common App, if there is a way to tailor the application to convey the impression that a student actually knows specifics about the college, it would be helpful.  Obviously many colleges have supplemental essays, with topics like “Why are you applying to our school?”, but even without that, demonstrating awareness of and interest in a college is very helpful.

In conclusion, Jordan emphasized that universities like Penn (and countless other colleges as well) practice “holisitc” evaluation.  Admissions officers care about their students and about their schools.  When Jordan said that colleges want to set up students to succeed, I believed her.  There are so many wonderful colleges and universities out there, and there is a good fit for everyone.  Students should work to identify a college where they can succeed.  Once that has been done, hopefully these suggestions will be helpful in completing a strong application.

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