5 Ways High School Juniors Can Strengthen Their College Admissions Application

Episode #30. Host Jonathan Hughes is joined by Drew Carter, Deputy Director of Admission at College of the Holy Cross, who explains how students can present their best college admissions application. Factors include letters of recommendation, the college essay, and demonstrated interest. If you enjoy the MEFA Podcast, please leave us a review.


Jonathan Hughes: [00:00:00] Hi, everyone. Jonathan here from MEFA. And thanks for joining me on this MEFA podcast, reissue, the conversation that I had in March of last year, that is March of 2021. With Drew Carter, senior associate director college admissions at college of the holy cross in Worcester. This is one of my favorite conversations. I've had on the show in fact, and this is five things high school juniors can do to strengthen their application. So this is for juniors and the parents of juniors heading into their senior year. Maybe just starting their college search and their application process, maybe taking a first stab at those college essays. Take a listen to drew here. He's got lots of great advice. You'll be glad that you did. Thanks, drew. Welcome to the show.
Drew Carter: Great to be here, Jonathan. And it's , great to be here, to talk about one of my favorite topics, which is, you know, how, high school juniors can actively play a role in [00:01:00] strengthening their application for college.
Jonathan Hughes: Yeah. So everybody wants to know how they can strengthen, strengthen their application. And, and we usually identify junior year as the year when the college search and the application process really begins in earnest. And so what we have today are five ways that juniors can strengthen their college application. So let's get right to it. Let's what's the first one.
Drew Carter: And the first I wanna start with is the teacher recommendations. I think sometimes students think. Teacher recommendations, just pop outta nowhere. They can't imagine what would be in those recommendations and, and they don't know where teachers get the words to write those recommendations, but the reality is, is that most teacher recommendations are written after the student's junior year in high school. And those recommendations are filled with observations. Anecdotes and adjectives that have been witnessed during the second half of the student's junior [00:02:00] year, the most recent sort of the most relevant when the teacher's writing that recommendation. It sounds cheesy to say it, but students create their own recommendation by the way, in which they conduct themselves in class. And that could be virtual. If a student is attending school, virtually could be in a hybrid model or it could be in person. Students literally create their own recommendations with how they conduct themselves.
So I often tell students if you want your teacher recommendation to say that you're hardworking, give the teachers that content to show them a hardworking student on a daily basis. You want your recommendation to say you're thoughtful and sensitive to the needs of others. Then give them that content.
And it is a great exercise for students to think about two or three qualities that they would like reflected in their recommendations. Once they've identified those, demonstrate those qualities on a daily basis. And I promise you will make that teacher's job of writing [00:03:00] that recommendation so much easier.
Jonathan Hughes: How many letters of recommendation are are students going to have to, to supply?
Drew Carter: I mean, I think what we see most commonly and it's kind of what I generally recommend is whatever the college requires, plus one. , so some colleges are gonna require none. Some colleges are gonna require one. I don't know that there are many that still require two, but I think the required plus one is a great idea. Obviously the most important part is how well that teacher knows you. So it really is the content of that recommendation. That's the most important. And I also, you know, really recommend to students to ask in the proper way. Don't make it a passing comment at the end of class one day, ask in the right way, do it in writing whether it's, preferably an email or if you do it in person, make an appointment, then speak with that teacher and explain to them why you've asked.
And then here's the, here's the key part. Here's the way to seed your recommendation. [00:04:00] If that teacher agrees to write your recommendation, write them a thank you note. You have just created the first piece of content for their recommendation. You are a thoughtful student.
Jonathan Hughes: Excellent. Okay, so let's go to number two.
Drew Carter: Okay. The second part is to understand that when a college admission office looks at a high school students transcript on average, they will look at three and a quarter years. Freshman year, sophomore year, junior year, senior fall. Okay. Some schools will only look at three years. Some schools will look at three and a half.
I'm gonna sort of split the difference there and say three and a quarter. So every course selection, every course level, every grade is under consideration by the admission office. But, the most important part of that transcript is the road that lies ahead. You absolutely control the effort and energy that you put into the classroom this spring, next fall, because while colleges look at a student's entire transcript, we know, but the student, we get the student, we will inherit the student that will enroll and matriculate and show up. [00:05:00] As first year student on our campus will most closely resemble the student that we see at the end of the transcript. So all of the victories and defeats that lie behind you on the transcript, let them go. What matters to you is the road that lies ahead. You have absolute control over the lingering, powerful, active taste to your transcript. And it very often creates a lean in the application. If you've really hit your stride academically, if you've showed colleges that you are starting to identify areas of interest and maybe excelling in those areas, if you've showed colleges that you have rebounded from past missteps in a perceived area of weakness and improved your performance.
If you've showed colleges that as your courses get more difficult, your performance rises to that level. Show colleges, the type of student that they want on their campus and create that image at the end.
Jonathan Hughes: And now we move on to our [00:06:00] third tip, which, relates to a topic that causes a lot, a lot of anxiety for students, which is their essay.
Drew Carter: Students and their families waste a lot of time thinking about what they think we in the admissions world want them to write their essay about. I will answer that question for you. No one in the admissions world cares one bit. What you write your essay about great essays every year on silly, silly topics. And we awful essays, awful lessons on what the guidebook would identify as a great. We read great essays every year about grandmas and we read terrible essays every year about grandmas. I keep a list every year of my favorite essays I've read. Okay. And on one year's list, there's probably about 20 essays. I keep the name of the student. I keep where they went to high school kind of helps me remember, and then I keep the topic of their essay.
So let's say about 20 on a list for one year, I've been doing this job for 17 years. [00:07:00] Jonathan, if I were to show you that list, would you be interested in students names? Would you be interested in like where they went to high school?
Jonathan Hughes: Nah.
Drew Carter: Would you be, interestedinteresting looking at the titles, the subjects of these essays, what appears most common? I'm gonna tell you about 10% of those
subjects of these, the best essays I've ever. Or what you might imagine. The house fire, my family survived cancer, like really momentous life changing topic. That's about 10%. About 90% of the best essays I read in almost two decades are on much smaller topics.
What it's like to swim in the ocean that one day in July. Buy the lawn for my family at my house, my favorite pair of shorts. Okay. These are topics that sort of the outside world would say, oh, that's gonna create a great essay. But the reality is those were topics that the student wanted to write about.
Jonathan Hughes: Hmm.
Drew Carter: And trust me when I say this and this leads to the, the next point who choose the [00:08:00] topic of your essay, you just might have fun writing the. That's the fourth part that you control of your application process. It's the experience that you have in writing that essay. And let me tell you this. I can convince you of the importance of enjoying writing your essay.
In one sentence, you enjoy writing that essay. We will enjoy reading the essay and the big challenge. What creates so much anxiety with high school students is that they've spent their entire high school career writing essays for a really well known audience. They write essays for their English teacher and their history teacher.
And these are people that they've worked with for months, if not years, these are people who detail their expectations, give students feedback, work on rough drafts with them. And then all of a sudden at the end of their high school career, during their senior year, they write what is perceived as the most important paper of their academic career, their college essay.
And they write this for a complete [00:09:00] stranger. Someone they've never met. Someone of whom does not explain their expectations and someone that they have no ability to anticipate their reaction. And to that last point, I say, students are wrong. You have an absolute ability to predict our reaction. Our reaction when reading your essay is the feeling you have is your experience.
When writing the essay, look in the mirror, when you're writing your essay, that is our reaction. Are you pulling your hair out, writing that. Are we gonna pull our hair out, reading your essay? Is it boring? Mind, numbingly, boring to write that essay, it's gonna feel like that to read the essay. That's the bad news.
The good news is that if you find enjoyment, we will find enjoyment. If you find meaning, we will find meaning. If you find mojo, if you find something, something good when writing that essay, that's what we will. All of this originates from choosing a topic that [00:10:00] you want to write about. That is the, not the topic the guidebook says you should write about not the topic your older sibling wrote about a few years ago and he or she was applying to college.
And not most importantly, not the topic your mother thinks you should write about all of those are perfectly fine topics. They are not your best topic. Best topic is the topic you want.
Jonathan Hughes: And so what the point of the essay should be then is this something that we talked about earlier and, and the, I wonder if you could state it for, for everyone
Drew Carter: Students so often think that the essay has to tell us everything. And I think students understand essays so often turn into brag letters. They turn into sort of their resume in prose format. They feel like their opportunity to convince the reader that they should be admitted, and I get why that, that is the motivation for so many students.
But the reality is don't have the experience of reading an application because if they did, they would [00:11:00] understand we are filled with reasons of why that student should be admitted. You know, a third of the student's file is filled with brag letters about them that that might adhere to a student. But the teacher recommendations and the guidance counselor recommendation they are filled with, with adjectives that are auditor and incredible stories about why you should be admitted, you don't need to convince us you should be admitted. What you need to do is prove that you can write and prove that you can write about yourself. But let me tell you, having just finished this process for this year, reading applications is not fun. I love my job. But reading applications. I, I am not sitting in a, a leather chair with next to a roaring fire with a couple folders on my lap and a, a pencil with a, you know, sleeping dog next to me, I'm at a computer with multiple screens and spreadsheets and data entry and C B codes and GPAs.[00:12:00]
It is mind numbingly boring, and let's pretend for the sake of this visual, that it takes 20 minutes to read a student's application. It doesn't it's quicker than that, but let's, let's pretend, let's say it takes 20 minutes. The first 18 minutes, it's semi focused data entry and processing. And then the last two minutes, the last two minutes is when we get to the essay.
And that's the part where we get to minimize the spreadsheet, turn the calculator off, pencil down. We can just sit back, just read it is the, our favorite part of reading the application, your essay, it's the ice cream at the end of the math homework. That's why we done that 18 minutes. And throughout those 18 minutes, we've been thinking about getting to the ice cream, getting to the essay and let me be clear, cuz I'm like getting fired up here talking about essays.
It is not the most important part of your application to us in the admission world. That will always be your academic profile, but the essay might [00:13:00] just be one of the most important parts of your file to you. Because it is completely blank at this point, if you're a high school junior, it is the only part of your application that is completely blank.
You have absolute control over it. And your image of that admissions reader for your essay should not be of the curmudgeonly old professor with a red marker, looking for your misplaced comma. That's not the reality. Isn't the truth. The real image is of that person who just finished their math homework. They got to turn the calculator off.
They got to minimize the spreadsheet. They got to sit back in their chair and they just got to read Jonathan, you would love reading these things. They, it is a free post to kids from all over the world at the same moment in their life. Some of them are hilarious, some of them heartbreaking, but they are a little tiny glimpse because we spend those first 18 minutes hearing about the student. And then for the very first time [00:14:00] we get to hear directly from the students.
Jonathan Hughes: I'm sure it's reading all those essays. The ones that really stand out are the ones where the students had the most fun in writing those essays too.
Drew Carter: Absolutely. It's not. I think sometimes students feel like they have to have had something traumatic happen to them and I'm gonna tell you, like, I, I will tell you about my favorite essay I read this year. Mm-hmm it was, it was a girl who just talked about her dad and. Like it was just talking about her dad and how he's kind of funny and how he kind of embarrasses her sometimes and how she's kind of to kind of learn that her dad is kind of embarrassing sometimes, but he is very sweet and he loves her very much.
And you could tell it was an experience like she really found value in and she found fun in and it was authentic and heartfelt, and it wasn't the, the best written essay I read this year, but it was the best essay.
Jonathan Hughes: Excellent. All right. Now, as much as I'm loathe to do it, let's move on to the final, point that we have, and this has to do with [00:15:00] the search process itself.
Drew Carter: So one of the buzzwords in the world of college admissions right now is demonstrated interest. Some schools utilize it in their application review. Some schools don't utilize. But very often families don't even understand what it is. So let me tell you first off, what it is demonstrating interest is, is opportunities that students have to engage with the search process with a particular college.
So it might be a tour whether in person or a virtual. Open house events, whether in person or virtual interviews in person or over zoom, any of those engagement opportunities. Now, some schools are gonna collect that information and add that to the students file and it might help to strengthen your application.
So those are opportunities you want to take advantage of. At the very same time, do not waste your time. Trying to figure out which schools do track demonstrated interest and which schools do not because in the cases where a school doesn't track demonstrated interest, you [00:16:00] still win by thoughtfully engaging in the search process.
You learn more about yourself. You learn more about the variety of colleges and universities out there, the variety of programs available to you, and it gives you more points of comparison. To really become a sophisticated consumer in the world of college. So you definitely want to take advantage of these opportunities, but let me make an important point.
This is not a points tallying system. It's not as if each time you demonstrate your interest, you get a point. And if you get enough points you get in, that is, that's literally not the point. You wanna make sure that at every school to you've applied, you've shown them that you're interested in some way, other than just I think personal engagement is, is, is the best when that's available, right? The school offers you the opportunity to take a virtual tour or, a virtual information session, or even a virtual interview, virtual interviews or in-person interviews when those were, or [00:17:00] might soon again be available. Those are great opportunities to to bring your application from two dimensions to three dimensions, not on every school offers interviews, but you certainly want to be looking at the schools. You're interested in finding out if they offer interviews. And if you do, how do you get an interview? Usually interviews are offered through the summer and in the fall of the student's senior year, that's not something to do now, but it's something to look forward to.
And it is just one of many ways that you can thoughtly engage in the search process. It is highly, possible and likely that you will be able to demonstrate your engagement to a college. It has actually never been easier in so many ways. Colleges have completely transformed their recruitment efforts from almost complete on campus programming.
And now admission offices have turned into televised television production studios, and they're, they're incredible volumes of content and ways for you to engage with admissions officers with current students with tour guides. Students from [00:18:00] individual academic departments. It is our job to help educate students and parents.
And, you know, in some ways that they're consumers and every admissions office has transformed, I've been really impressed with our profession with universities have done. And the last thing I'll say about that is that because of this, the virtual space for admission recruitment, you are now freed up in so many ways to learn about colleges that are not in your immediate geographic vicinity.
If you wanna attend an information session at Reed college in Oregon a year and a half ago, you would've had to fly across country. Now these information sessions are free, open to the public, and you can learn about colleges all over the country, if not all over the world. So I would really encourage you to revisit.
College admissions websites, because they have really changed a lot. And there's incredible programming available to you.
Jonathan Hughes: Drew Carter. I can't thank you enough for coming on. It was great as always.
Drew Carter: Thanks Jonathan.
Once again, thanks to drew Carter for sharing his time and expertise with us [00:19:00] today. If you like this show, when you wanna hear more from MEFA.
On all topics related to planning, saving, paying for college and career readiness and reaching financial goals. Please subscribe to us on whatever platform you listen to podcasts. And please remember to rate and review us so we can keep doing what we're doing in getting this good information to people like you.
Thanks to our producer, Shaun Connolly, our editor Lauren Patten. Once again, my name is Jonathan Hughes and this has been the MEFA podcast.

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