AO Advice: What Do Admissions Officers Want to See

Ever wondered what Admissions Officers are looking for when reviewing applications? Get the inside scoop on how to stand out in the admissions process from

Former Admissions Officer Joanne Gueverra-Pluff will give you the inside scoop on how Admissions Officers review applications and what they typically look for during a 60-minute webinar and Q&A session.

In this webinar, you’ll have all your questions answered including:

  • How do Admissions Officers review applications?
  • What should or shouldn’t I be including in my application?
  • How can make sure my application stands out to top schools?

Come ready to learn and bring your questions!

Date 01/26/2023
Duration 01:01:10

Webinar Transcription

2023-01-26 – AO Advice What Do Admissions Officers Want to See?

McKenzie: [00:00:00] Hi everyone. Welcome to College Advisor’s webinar on AO Advice what do admissions officers want to see. To right over what the webinar timing. We’ll start off with the presentation, then answer your questions on a live Q&A on the sidebar. You can download your slides and you can start to many your questions in the Q&A tab.

Also, I’m McKenzie and I’ll be your moderator tonight. So if you have any tech issues, you can direct message me. Otherwise, leave all other questions for the Q&A section. Um, but now let’s meet our panelists.

Joanne: Hi everyone. My name is Joanne. I’m an Associate Vice President here at Howard University, formerly an admissions officer, Associate Director of Admissions and Associate Dean at Utica College in Central New York and Hamilton College.

I am super excited to talk to you all about the admissions process, which is probably one of my favorite topics.

McKenzie: Yes. And real quick, we’re just gonna do a poll. So what grade are you currently in? Eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th, or 12th or other. And other can be, if you’re, um, taking a gap year if you’re a [00:01:00] transfer student and if you’re a parent on call, you can select the grade that your student is going into.

And while we wait for that Joanne, can you tell us when does a student start building their student profile?

Joanne:  So, I mean, technically a student can start building their student profile. Um, you can start building it today. Really, there’s no reason for you to start any earlier than, let’s say, summer of your senior year or a mid semester, um, junior year. However, typically, most schools are using the Common Application. So you can go ahead and get started filling that out, um, when you’re ready. But no stress, there’s no reason to do it today.

McKenzie: Yes. And it’s looking like we have a wide variety. So we have 1% eighth graders, 13% ninth graders, 24% 10th graders, 60% 11th graders making up the majority.

1% 12th graders and 1% other. And you can control the slides.

Joanne: All right. Awesome. So I wanna make this as interactive as possible. Um, there are some chat options as well as Q&A. If you could put the questions in the [00:02:00] Q&A. It’s easier for me to manage that way. Um, and I can answer as they kind of are coming in, or McKenzie will so kindly jump in, uh, when she sees a question pertaining to what we’re chatting about.

So, um, let’s just go ahead and get started. So as you’re filling out applications, um, the most common application, of course, is a Common App. So the Common App is a collection of schools that allows students to apply using one central application that will disseminate to every single school.

You can apply up to 10 schools on the Common Application. So when you’re starting your Common App profile, it really is just some general bio data information. So your name, address, um, your contact information, which is very important. Uh, I’ll say this with one asterisk students, if you’re using a, you know, a great email from the fourth grade, which is like NASCAR 2011. That’s awesome. However, I really recommend students getting a more professional email or starting an [00:03:00] email for, um, receiving all of their college information. It’s very helpful to us to have a, a really good email to reach you at and one that’s not going to be bombarded with, um, like Ulta coupons or, you know, food and things like that.

So please start a general email for your college admissions process. Um, nationality is also super important. I’m sure we have students who are maybe on a Visa, green cards and or, um, Citizens of the United States after being, uh, immigrating to the country, they also require your guardian information. So let’s say perhaps you’re an independent student, your parents aren’t in the picture, you are entitled to fill out who you are living with.

If you’re looking at a QuestBridge application, which is another type of application, it does allow you to specifically list who is in your household. And then of course, um, the best part of this is it allows you to list your current courses. So let’s say perhaps your transcript, um, when you’re applying does not have your [00:04:00] first term grade or courses, um, because you’re applying early action or early decision.

The common application allows you to put your current courses on the application so that its admission officers know, um, exactly what you’re working. So how are applications evaluated? So typically colleges nowadays do, um, what’s called a holistic review. A holistic review basically states that we will read and evaluate every single portion of the application that is required.

So all schools require, um, typically a transcript. Um, you’re looking at possibly your extracurriculars, a writing sample, the strength of your schedule, and your extracurricular activities. So those five things do make up, um, how we evaluate students. And just remember with a writing sample, um, the essay. It is an essay.

And what we are looking to see is if you can answer the question, if you understand the question and how well you write. Students may [00:05:00] take this time to perhaps, um, allude to some blips on their college, their high school transcript, but just recognize we’re reading so many of these that it really is a writing sample and a reflection of you.

So it’s not so much the content or the subject of the story. It’s did you answer the question? Did you, um, have well-rounded thoughts and was it grammatically.

So, um, what are the stages of review? So it really does depend on the school. Um, and typically students are usually first assessed based on academics. So let’s say I have a pool of five applicants. Um, we want to pick the students who most fit closest to our applicant profile, meaning. So every school will generate an average, um, class profile for the, for the class prior.

So let’s say our class profile is a GPA over 3.79 and a 1300 SAT. So we’re basically looking to see if you at minimum have those average [00:06:00] requirements. After that we’re looking for fit. So the fit would say, You know, what is it that you’re interested in? If you’re going to a polytechnical school and you really love humanities, not really so sure that you fit so well in the general population.

However, if you are applying to that Polytechnical school and you’ve done robotics and you’ve done, um, girls who code or other projects with, um, local universities that allow you to be more hands on with those technical skills, that’s the fit that we’re kind of talking about. Once the fit has been determined there, it goes to a final review.

So, for example, at Howard University, we review every single application that comes to us. Our applications get for as many as we get 30,000. Um, our applications are touched by at least six different people in the office. The final review stage is when we confirm your decision and say, you know what? Based on all the information that Joanne and McKenzie have, um, supplied, we [00:07:00] think that this applicant is amazing and will impact our school.

So the final decision is disseminated, and then of course you’ll get a notification in your portal saying, Hey, you should come to school here. So how long and will an AO spend on an application? Um, it, this is somewhat of a variable number. Um, I will say, you know, at Howard we spend probably between 15 to 20 minutes per application.

So we are reading a high volume of application, um, and we do read them by their school. So if you are a student, um, that’s applying like let’s say my high school from, you know, just south of Boston and Massachusetts, you’re reading all the students within that school group. Um, so that we’re getting a full picture of the actual school group.

It definitely is based off of volume of the applications for school. Therefore, you know, if a school is receiving 75, let’s say it’s Texas A&M, um, they may have a [00:08:00] different amount of time, but we try to spend as much time as we can based on the application pool. The other decision that is made, um, is it does based on the type of application round.

So typically students who are applying early action, early decision, there’s a smaller conglomerate of students, right? So we’re able to spend some more time. And then finally for the schools that do, um, that do review, committee review. So for some schools, we show up on the day for committee review with all the applications that we want to admit, and we have to basically fight for them.

So you’ll sit in a room, um, with your dean or assist or uh, VP for enrollment and tell them why you think these applicants are so important. So it really is a variable. Um, it really is a variable number that just depend from school to school. And then, so we have a question that says our applicant school, our school’s profiles, um, make up available to the applicant.

So yes, [00:09:00] almost every single school will have a school profile listed on their website around, I would say, July or August, um, of your senior year. The reason being, they don’t, they don’t know right now what that population looks like, and you want the most accurate information. So let’s say, you know, McKenzie and I were just talking about NYU.

If you’re applying to NYU at some point in the summer of your senior year, NYU will publish a student profile that tells you this is the average SAT, GPA, um, ACT, and these are the extracurriculars that they participated in. So it gives you an idea of if you really do fit into that student profile.

All right. So what makes an application stand out? It’s a great question. Um, I would always say, um, and I’ll, it’ll always be my fallback. Um, applications that are grammatically correct are very important. We live in a world where, um, communication with anyone is very easy. [00:10:00] Um, and I think because we have accessibility to each other, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of being a little bit less formal.

So make sure that your application is grammatically correct. Um, any of the components that are required and or optional that you’re using. Um, full sentences, periods, punctuation, things like that, your application should be an educational journey, um, and your personal journey. So I always tell students that I’m advising.

I wanna be able to sum your complete academic and personal history up in between, um, five to seven minutes when I’m presenting to committee. So does your story, does your application tell the story of who you are, um, and where you’re going to be? And then of course, well-written. Um, we place a lot of emphasis on the college essay for the students who are writing or applying to schools that are highly selective.

That may be the only thing that you can use to stand out, right? Because if you’re a 4.0 that has a 1600, [00:11:00] what else is it that you can do to stand out? But you can use your essay to tell a story, um, and show us your writing skills.

McKenzie: All right. Yes. And now we’re gonna do another quick poll. So where are you in the application process? Haven’t started. I’m researching schools. I’m working on my essays. I’m getting my application materials together. Or if you’re really lucky, I’m almost done. And while we wait for that join, can you tell us when should students start working on their application?

I think that was kind of similar to the last question, but when should they start working on their essays?

Joanne: So if you’re using the Common Application, the good thing about that is the essay prompts haven’t changed since I went to college. I think I, I don’t even know how many years. I, maybe I’m like 10 years out.

Or maybe 15, we won’t tell everyone. Um, but, so the essay prompts don’t change. So you could go in and start your Common App profile if you’re a junior, let me [00:12:00] just address that more. If you’re a junior, you can go in and start your profile now, um, and collect all of the Common App prompts. So, I think for the students that I advise, we try to have the essay completed, um, by the first day of school.

That way you can have it reviewed by your English teacher. CollegeAdvisor does provide, um, accessibility and access help to work on your essays. So we spend the summer working on the essay as well as the profile so that we’re ready to just, and add those schools, um, when we’re ready to do so. So I think by summer of junior year is probably the more appropriate time because you probably by then will have done some research, um, that’s spring to see where you’re looking to apply.

McKenzie: Yes. And it’s looking like we have 40% haven’t started. 55% are researching schools, 4% are working on our essays and 1% is getting their application materials together and you can control slides. Thank you.

Joanne:. All right. So, [00:13:00] um, this question is always, uh, a funny one. So what you’re gonna include versus not include your college application.

So this is a trap, and I’m gonna tell you all of you this, right? So when colleges are creating their supplements, things like that, the reason we create them is we want to hear what it is you have to say. So if somebody says, um, or a school you’re applying to has supplemental essays, you should plan to do them.

I’m gonna say that for every single college, whether it’s um, a state school, a private school, the easiest school that you believe to get into, do the supplemental essays. All right. Now, let’s say, um, I think we’re kind of aging out of the students who were affected by high school years being in Covid at this point.

So let’s say for example, perhaps something has happened and you, there is something on your transcript, um, that you need to speak to make sure that somebody within your application speaks to the, perhaps it’s a D, perhaps it’s a C, whatever the circumstance is. You can talk [00:14:00] about it in your essay or ask your guidance counselor to talk about it.

Um, or perhaps if you are going to request, um, somebody who wrote the letter of recommendation, they can talk about your academic struggles and how you have risen above them. So an explanation of your transcript is necessary if you feel as though you have something to explain. Um, 10 activities, of course.

So the Common App lets you, allows you to list 10 activities. Make sure that you write 10 full sentences about those activities. I think it’s 150 words or less, so it’s not a lot of space to write. Um, but just make sure it’s a well written thought and honest and well written essay is also super important.

We have definitely had an influx of parents writing your student essay, just so you know. We know, right? So like I know a 17 year old’s writing, um, we don’t want your parents to dumb it down. We really want you to write the essay. We want it to be from your voice, from your thoughts. Um, we want you to spend [00:15:00] the time.

Supportive letters of recommendation is also, um, a kind of a tricky one. So I would not make the assumption that every person is going to represent you well. The challenge is to find the people that do represent you well. Most schools will require that you utilize a, um, a guidance counselor as well as a professor from a core class.

So pick the class that you did the best in, or the class that you’ve shown the most upward mobility in. So perhaps you started in AP Calculus BC and you know, you struggled in the beginning, but you kicked it into high gear and got it together. That might show, um, your ability to overcome. Um, so think about that when you’re selecting those who are representing.

And then of course, um, if you have test scores that are relative to the student profile, which again, comes out in the middle of, um, the summer. So if the school is test optional and you score well, awesome. Send them [00:16:00] in. If they’re well above average, if they’re below the average of the school profile, it’s not necessary to send them in.

And then I would skip, um, any poorly written essays. If you’re not putting your heart and soul or put your foot in it, like some people say, um, don’t worry about sending that essay. It’s not necessary. And then of course, uh, complete sentences is also super important. Even if the question, um, the response is less than a hundred words, find a way to write a complete sentence.

It’s super important.

All righty. So what are the most influential factors that go into an AO’s decision? So the biggest thing is GPA. So schools are really big on retention and finding students that are able to do the work at their universities. So whether or not, you know, you’ve made friends and you’ve, you’ve gone on a visit and you feel as though you’ve connected with the students, you’re not able to do the work, you’re not admissible to the college.

So the biggest thing would be find the minimum [00:17:00] GPA that that school requires to be, um, competitive. And then the next thing that they’ll look at is the strength of your schedule. Strength of schedule is a little bit controversial. because some students would say, well, you know, if I go to X YZ private school that has access to like 30 to 40 AP courses and I’m in a public school.

So how is that fair? We recognize that not every student has access to every kind of education. AP dual credits, um, honors IB courses, and that’s why we read based on the applications within the school group. So we review you based on the context that you’re presented in. So if you are a student that has access to AP, uh, AP courses and you’ve taken none, that’s not really challenging yourself.

However, if you’re a student that has done really well in science and you’re gonna take AP Chem, then AP Bio, that’s playing to your strengths. So if you have the opportunity to [00:18:00] take courses, um, and be successful in them, you should. Now, let’s say you are taking an AP course first semester and you recognize you’re not doing well.

There’s always a question of, should I drop the course? You can drop the course, but you should also have somebody write about why you’ve dropped or withdrawn from the course. And that’s as simple as I wasn’t able to do the work and I wanted to be successful in a class and really learn instead of struggling through it.

It’s totally fine, it’s totally respectable. Um, and it’s important to know where your strengths lie. The other thing that we look at is trend in grades. So we do appreciate a good upward trend. So let’s say, you know, freshman year was not your best. Maybe you were in all honors and AP courses, but you’ve now zeroed in the fact that you’re do really good at AP STEM courses, but not so good at humanities.

That’s fine. Schools love to see you playing to your strength. We’ll definitely look at your essay and then it depends on the school. Some schools [00:19:00] take into consideration your class, rank your testing, and then of course, demonstrated interest. So for those who don’t know, demonstrated interest just means, um, the schools wanna know as much as we are recruiting you to come here, that you’re recruiting us.

So did you go to an information session and take a campus tour? Did you sign up for, um, an interview with an alumni? Um, have you been communicating with your AO admissions officer? Uh, demonstrated interests. They just wanna know that you love them as much as, uh, or they love you as much as you love them.

All righty. So how are interviews assessed by AO’s? So, um, there’s a couple schools for thought on this particular, um, particular question. So there are some schools that look at it as strictly evaluative. So they go into it with the same questions for every single applicant, and they are really looking to see how much you know about the school.

And then there [00:20:00] are the other school of thought that says, we wanna learn more about you. Right? So specifically we were talking about the Common App. The Common App is pretty specific. Now, colleges can ask, um, additional essays and things like that, but for the most part it’s a form letter that you fill out, um, that we’re evaluating.

So the interview is an opportunity for you to tell us more about you, um, and your interests. You only get 10 activities as well, so if there’s an activity that you really were passionate about or maybe you had 10 passions and your 11th couldn’t fit, this is an opportunity for you to share that story with them.

We also really, um, do appreciate the alumni who do these interviews. Most alumni, um, organizations will submit the, a writeup of the interview to the, um, admissions officers, so, so that they’re aware of what was discussed. So it really is an opportunity for us to get an extra peak, um, of what you’ve been up to in your high school career.[00:21:00]

So, um, in my opinion, what’s the most important component of an, of an application? Um, I would say your GPA and your transcript. So it truly is about being academically successful. Um, so if you are not cut out for Harvard, um, Harvard doesn’t want you to be on the campus because it’s also not good for you.

There’s no reason to waste a student’s time as much as you love it, and you really love their campus and their tour and a certain program. If you academically cannot cut the mustard, then there’s no reason for you to be at the school. While I know that’s super harsh, the GPA is the biggest indicator. Um, retention is an important thing.

We want you to graduate in four years, right? So we work really hard to get you there and to get you across the threshold. We want you to be out of that campus within four years. So if you’re not able to keep up with the school academically, there’s no reason to have a student admitted.[00:22:00]

And so, um, what last advice do I have for students? Um, I think the biggest thing is just checking and double check. So if you decide, you know, there’s always a question on the Common App, um, somebody who’s like, changed your life and influenced you and things like that, make sure that everybody reads that essay.

Sometimes the essays are personal, so if you are uncomfortable having, you know, your closest family, read it, know that there is support out there for you, whether it’s a librarian, your English teacher from 10th grade. Make sure that somebody reads that essay even as much as, um, like a couple missing periods, someplace that really does matter.

We want to know that your essay is, your application is perfect. I cannot stress to you enough that everything should be in complete sentences. Um, it’s really important to do that. I think students often forget that we, it’s a professional it something that goes into a system that follows you for forever.

So you wanna make sure that, um, you’re representing yourself well. [00:23:00] And to do that, you do have to double check. And then of course, making sure that you are telling a complete story. So if there’s things that you have missed and or you want to elaborate on, many colleges have supplemental essays that are not required.

That’s the space for you to do that. We wanna make sure that we’re evaluating every single student, of course. But when we say optional, yeah, it absolutely is optional. But, um, we highly recommend that you do. College is one of those things that is, so, how do I say this? It’s, it’s so subjective to each person.

There is a college for every single human being on the planet. We wanna make sure that you find the place that you want to be. So taking a chance on a college that you may not have heard from, from your guidance counselor and or your advisor through CollegeAdvisor, take that chance. Don’t be afraid. Um, there’s always a home for every student.

McKenzie: Yes. So that is the end of the presentation part of the webinar. I hope you found this information helpful. And remember, again, that you [00:24:00] can download the site from the link in the handouts tab. And this webinar is being recorded if you would like to view it again later on our website at

These links are posted in the public chat if you would like to get them. Um, moving on to the Q&A. I’ll read through your questions you submit in the Q&A tab and read them aloud before a panelist gives you an answer. As a heads up, if your Q&A tab isn’t letting you submit questions, just make sure that you join through the custom link sent to your email and not from the webinar landing page, also known as the website or else you won’t get all the features.

A big marker. Um, Also, I have added links into the public chat for the Common App. The Common App is just a general, the common application, a general application to apply to multiple schools in various states across the country at once. Um, it is just U.S. schools I believe. And then, um, not every school is gonna be on it.

So schools like MIT or schools like the UC’s use their own application portals. So if you wanna apply to those, you have to go to their specific application [00:25:00] portal. Um, you can also use the Coalition App. It’s a little less popular, but it is an option. Um, for applying to schools as well as the Black Common App, uh, which is where you can apply to, um, I believe like 70 something of the HBCUs, uh, in the U.S.

And then, um, so yeah, so check out all your options for applying to schools. Um, usually using the bigger portals with all the schools helps to save on money and time cuz it’s all in one place. Okay. Uh, going on to the Q&A. Oh and I listed the common app personal statement prompts as well, but you can just Google those also.

Okay. Going on to the Q&A, um, for our first question, a student is asking, uh, what do you think of online schools? Are there any disadvantages to attending one versus an in-person for college admissions?

Joanne: So you’re saying probably like UMD, um, GC, like global campus, things like that. So, I’m gonna be perfectly transparent.

I am [00:26:00] all for not-for-profit schools. I’m not a big proponent of the for-profit colleges, but for online schools, for online college, for some it works. Um, I have colleagues that have gone to those global campuses online and truly I did my entire master’s online. If you are a student that is better in that circumstance, more power to you, um, I don’t, I see no difference in either one of those.

McKenzie: I think they’re also asking about online high schools, like if they’re homeschooled, does that affect their admission chances?

Joanne: It doesn’t. So every, almost every single college has a process for evaluating homeschool students. What I would say, um, something that does stick out to us is if you are applying homeschool, we, for colleges that are, um, like heavily residential, it’s always a question of is this student, um, socially ready?

So while your academics might be fine, um, we, we tell students you [00:27:00] should push to take some dual enrollment courses, um, at local community colleges. So you really get your footing. While I understand, um, the, the homeschool mantra that you are, you know, in a private setting where your, your parent or another guardian is kind of overseeing your education, it is important, um, to make sure that you are getting out there socially because, uh, where I see the homeschool students struggling is the social aspects that they’re not used to being in big classrooms and or being in a space where you’re sharing time with others. Um, but I don’t think as a disadvantage, we have admitted homeschool students with excellent grades. If your parents are up for the AP curriculum, awesome. It’s, it’s the same as a teacher teaching it if you’re doing it well.

McKenzie: Mm-hmm. also going off of that, uh, students asking about PSEO, I’m assuming it’s the post-secondary enrollment options that’s similar to dual enrollment, but it’s in Minnesota, most schools are gonna look at dual enrollment or PSEO, um, well, because they [00:28:00] are college level courses, but if you’re looking for credit, most of the time programs like that, um, will only give you credit if you’re staying in state, just because colleges out of state may not, um, see them as accredited essentially. So like if you’re interested in going to like Cornell or the Ivys or a private school or school out of state, they may look at your credits from your college, your local college in your state as um, good in terms of you being an applicant, but not useful in terms of getting college credits.

So getting college credit with those programs as if you’re staying in state, but they do still make you look like a good applicant. Uh, going back to the next question, what a student is asking, um, uh, how beneficial are extracurriculars in the application process? And we’ll go through some extracurricular questions too.

Joanne: Great. Um, so, uh, we are always looking for extracurricular activities, right? So we are looking for students that are going to enhance our [00:29:00] campus community. Um, and the thought is we don’t want bumps on a log. Um, like at my school, our students are movers and shakers. They are presidents of clubs. They are doing internships, they are doing externships, they are volunteering.

There is not a student that is not moving and shaking. So extracurriculars are heavily weighted, um, in the, in the college process. And I’m talking about more than sports. So if you are playing a sport, excellent, do you work? Do you babysit? Um, do you do a club at your school? Are, is there leadership opportunities?

We’re looking at all of those items to see how you can fit into the bigger puzzle, um, of the school. So extracurriculars are important. Um, I would always also say that it’s also important not to just join a bunch of them in 11th grade. So I know we had a lot of younger, uh, friends joining today’s webinar.

You can start doing these things now. [00:30:00] So it definitely doesn’t look good if you’ve only done this activity for one year, it means that you are basically only doing it for college applications. So extended, um, commitment to those activities is important and being able to kind of juggle and balance it all is also super important.

McKenzie: Mm-hmm. Going on to the next question, a lot of students are asking, um, how many, uh, extracurriculars do you recommend? Do you need 10 if you don’t have it? Especially for students that are athletes in their sport, is like their main activity.

Joanne: So I really like five is a round number. Um, I think 10 is a 10 is a lot.

That means you are super committed and very organized. Um, but definitely doable. So I don’t think you need to have all 10, but it, it’s, for me, it’s the longevity of the event and the amount of time that you’ve put into the event. Right? So if you have 10 activities that you’ve only done once a week, every other week for four years, is that really [00:31:00] even an activity?

Um, but let’s say you’ve done indoor track, outdoor track, cross country, and then you’ve volunteered at the hospital as a candy striper for the last four years. That carries more weight to me. It really definitely is about more the, the bigger picture of all of your activities together. Um, but again, you know, just picking activities just to do them, just to do it, it’s not really highly recommended. .

McKenzie: Mm-hmm. . And that 10 activities is just anything you’ve done over the past four years of high school. Um, uh, some students ask about like middle school, elementary school activities. Those don’t matter unless there’s something that you’ve continued into high school. Like if you played an instrument since you were three, that’s something you list, but it was something you only did when you were like in seventh grade.

It won’t be asked about on your application. Um, but those 10 activities, uh, can get filled up with different things like volunteer. Some students wonder about one-off events, like if you went to a conference or multiple [00:32:00] conferences, you can count that as an activity. There’s a lot of range in terms of how you can fill out the activity section.

Um, but kind of going off of that, are there any particular activities that AO’s are looking for? Are you looking for volunteer? Are you looking for something specific?

Joanne: I know this is gonna sound crazy, McKenzie, but it really is all of it. And what’s important to you? So, you know, I, I have an, a student that I’m working with now, a senior who she has done, um, what’s the equivalent of an Eagle Scout for Girl Scout, whatever, the highest girl scout level she’s gotten.

She’s done that. And then in addition, she’s also, um, she does volunteering. She likes working with kids, so it’s part of her story and her package, right? So she has, her top is Girl Scouts and then these five other activities that she’s done that really speak to her characteristics and her application. So to me it’s, I don’t know that they have to be related.

I don’t know that they have to be, um, [00:33:00] the same. And I don’t know that you have to have five, but it really is about having things that you are committed to that kind of resonates off the page.

McKenzie: Mm-hmm. . Uh, going off of that, a students asking, if I play sports, do extracurriculars, how should I put them into my application, uh, if they don’t necessarily fit into my major.

For example, I do cheer, soccer, quiz bowl, blah, blah, blah, blah. Uh, but I wanted to go into business and culinary. Um, uh, how should, uh, so how or should I put these, um, things on?

Joanne: Yeah, I mean, those are activities or activities. Like I said, it, it’s, it’s the worst when students just add them, um, senior year just to add them.

But if they’re activities that you’ve done for years, you should go ahead and do it. I actually was working with a cheerleader this year. Um, she did fantastic. All of her activities were cheer related. She worked at a cheer gym. She was on two cheer teams and her high school team and won tons of award for her all-star team, and that’s her complete package.

Her essay also alludes to the type of cheer, [00:34:00] um, her, her space on the cheer team. She was a base, so she talked about how, you know, she’s solid, steady, and steadfast, so it kind of all works out. So you have to figure out how those activities will flow together. But if they’re all from the same kind of general thing, once you’re committed to it, we can, we can see that you’re committed.

McKenzie: Mm-hmm. . Uh, so now we’ll go on to letters of recommendation. Cause I’m seeing some questions. So students are asking, how many do you need? And another person is asking about like, the format. Can you explain like what the letter of recommendation is? Who writes it? How is it submitted? Just in general?

Joanne: Yeah, so a letter of recommendation.

Um, so if you’re using the Common Application, you can go on and actually put somebody’s name and email in the Common App to request that they write an essay for you. Typically, each school will tell you what they want for letters of recommendation. On average, it’s usually a guidance counselor is required and then a professor, or [00:35:00] sorry, a teacher from one of your core classes.

So science, english, math, um, . So it’s usually two letters of recommendation that are required. The format is pretty easy, so there is no format, right? So there’s a form that the Common App does provide. However, your, whoever you request is entitled to just send us a letter talking about, um, how fantastic you are.

So there’s no specific format, um, no specific requirements. And then let’s say you are applying to a school that, um, takes a look at demonstrated interest. You are entitled to have other requesters. So if maybe there’s a pastor or an alum that wants to speak on your behalf, you can also add their letter of recommendation, um, to support your application as well.

McKenzie: Mm-hmm. Going on to the next question, uh, student is asking, oh my goodness. If you see any questions that you wanna, um, jump to, please feel free. Yeah. Uh, a student is [00:36:00] asking, um, uh, how are classes viewed that have been completed outside of school, such as Quora or like those certificate kind of classes you can take?

Joanne: Yeah, no, those are great. Um, make sure that you have your counselor somewhere that they’re notated on your application. I mean, school is school and extra school is also good too. So any kind of academics that will support, um, your learning I, I think is absolutely fine. Um, it’s something that you pay for, so it’s obviously an investment on your family’s behalf.

So we support that. Um, it, again, literally school is school, so I’m, I’m never like turning up my nose at any of those, um, different options outside of just the traditional school. Mm-hmm. . Um, one question that I, I see coming up with quite a bit is the question about passion projects, which I think CollegeAdvisor kind of drills into our students.

So, um, a passion project obviously is something that you are passionate about, [00:37:00] but it’s something that’s important to you, so, the students that I work with, um, usually I start with juniors. My favorite are juniors cause it gives us like a little bit of time to like mold. And Meld. Um, if you haven’t decided a passion project, I always work with my students for one. For example, I have a student who’s going to school for nutrition. Her passion project was, um, through C O V I D. And during those years she recognized that for people who were living, um, that were homeless and had, uh, food insecurity and housing insecurity, they didn’t have access to. Um, because of production lines and things like that they didn’t have access to food. She wanted to make a cookbook, um, based off of basic foods to help the families, um, eat well instead of, you know, things out of the can or using the thing in the can to make something really healthy. So finding a passion project is excellent. Um, and it’s an easy win for your college application.

And a passion project is one of those things [00:38:00] that you can put for just one or two years on your application because you’ve been working on it for only a couple of years. She’ll have to make sure to complete it. So the student that I’m particular, that I’m working with, uh, she ended up presenting her idea to the Kwans Club in the state that she lives in, and they published a cookbook and were giving it out, um, at the local homeless shelters.

So when families were graduating out of the homeless shelters and receiving subsidized, um, housing and food stamps. This was a cookbook to teach them how to cook, and she wants to major in nutrition. So once it kind of, um, connects to where your goal is and where you want to be, um, we love a good passion project.

Um, it’s definitely a good opportunity for you to talk about with the people or the teachers that you are in, um, courses with that are playing to your strengths. So it can be as simple as, I’m another student who did murals. Um, she really loves art. She’s going to art school, but she was really frustrated by the [00:39:00] graffiti within her town.

She got together, um, with her, her classmates and they graffitied positive messages over all the negative gang, um, signs and affiliations throughout their town. So you can find them in many different shapes, forms, and areas. Um, but again, we’re happy to help you kind of develop and, and figure out where you want to go with that.

McKenzie: Mm-hmm. And I’ve done a few webinars on that. So if you would like to check out more webinars on passion projects, creating a passion project, writing about a passion project, you can check those out on our webinar at and just type in the keyword passion project. Um, yeah.

So, uh, going on to the next question, I’m seeing some students asking about, um, is it better to take AP or IB or dual enrollment courses? Are they viewed any differently? Um, like which one should they take?

Joanne: This is a good question. Um, so [00:40:00] the one thing with AP and IB is they’re graded on the same scale, right?

So all the AP and IB courses are generally the same and will, if you score well on them, typically lead to college credit. The tricky part with dual enrollment is that not all college English is the same. Not all college math is the same, even though they may have the same topic, um, they’re not generally created the same.

So I typically suggest for our students that they, if they’ve access to AP and IB and we feel as though they’ll be successful, um, I lean towards that. If dual enrollment is your only option, you should take dual enrollment, right? Because we are again, looking at the strength of your schedule. So if you didn’t have access to AP or IB, we’re not gonna dock you for that.

But if you had access to dual enrollment and you’re not going to take them, that doesn’t look great on your application. So play to your strengths if you have the access to take AP IB. Awesome. Cool. [00:41:00] Now, let’s say you have access to all three. Our top would be, um, AP for sure.

McKenzie: I had access to all three. I did IB, um, a student’s asking, uh, if you don’t get the IB diploma, does that matter?

It does not. I mean, I did get the IB diploma, but you don’t get it until after you’re admitted. So colleges will not know . It matters more okay, so like with the AP and IB, um, you take the exams and you get your score on those, and that’s the, based on your score, you get credit for different classes or you can get moved up a grade.

Uh, it all varies by college. You need to read their requirements, but those scores usually don’t come until after you’ve take, um, you’ve gotten into school. Cause most people take them their senior years. Uh, if you take it your junior year and you have your scores, you can tell the college what your scores were.

Um, you do not have to though. Um, it matters more about what grade you got in the course itself rather than what score you got on the exam. Some schools may not even [00:42:00] take your, um, scores for credit. Like Cornell barely takes any, um, credit for any of the AP or IB exams. It’s more so just to show that you’re taking rigorous courses rather than trying to get credit.

Um, in terms of dual enrollment, again, it’s usually for if you’re staying in state and then, um, it can affect your, uh, college GPA, um, whatever, um, grades you’re getting in the dual enrollment courses, um, since they are counted as college courses and then it’ll just get transferred. Um, but that’s only if the school is gonna accept it.

Okay. But going on to the next question, I just saw a bunch dealing with those mm-hmm. Um, so students are asking how, um, I’m seeing different questions on like, how are, how do you submit the essays? Um, how do they, um, take them? Can you, um, reuse an essay, uh, common app essay for other schools?

Joanne: Okay, so with a Common App, you only get to submit one essay.

So [00:43:00] excuse me, let’s say I am applying to UC Irvine, and I am also applying to Santa Barbara. I should not talk about how much I love UC Irvine in this general essay because anybody on that application is going to see that specific essay. So you can, you can reuse the essay if you’re applying, and it applies to the Common App, the Coalition or the Black, um, Common App.

But you don’t wanna be hyper specific to say, to be gushing about a school because we all see the same one. It doesn’t allow you to change essay from school to school to school. So unfortunately you do have to go with the one. Um, but that’s where the supplements come in, right? So we all know going into the common application that we’re asking the same general thing. That’s why we ask you a couple more questions to see what you really know about us. Um, and [00:44:00] that’s where those supplemental essays come into play. Yes.

McKenzie: So on the Common App, it makes more sense when you actually go and see it, and you can set up a, um, a Common App, uh, account now whatever grade you’re in, and your information will roll over, um, to your actual, uh, application yourself.

If you’re a junior right now, you can set up your, um, portal, or if you’re a 10th grader, they’ll usually, you don’t do it till your junior year, um, or getting closer to your senior year. And then the actual application for those applying. Fall doesn’t open until August 1st, 2023. So that’s when the official application opens, where you get to see all the schools, all of their school specific essays.

Um, you get to see what the Common App looks like. Usually the common app personal statement, which goes to all your schools, stays the same. So those are those seven questions that I put in the prompt where it’s asking about like, what’s your background? Or they have that generic question of make up your own prompt.

That usually stays the same, so that one you can work [00:45:00] on earlier. In terms of the schools themselves with their supplements, those may change every year or they may stay the same. Depending on the school, they may add more or take away essays. So that one, you have to wait until the actual application opens, but otherwise you can set up.

Um, now, and you can also do a practice account too, if you’re in a younger grade, just to get a feel for the application. Uh, but going on to the next question, what are schools looking for in the essays? Um, like what are they trying to gain from them?

Joanne: It’s a writing sample, so we’re trying to gain, if you’re able to answer the question, um, and how well you can answer the question.

So, um, like we said, there are seven prompts for the Common App, so if you do one of those, it we know what one you’ve written about. Um, and then you go from there. To me, the supplements are all, are that much more important. I would say many schools have [00:46:00] supplements. I don’t know many schools that don’t at this point.

Um, and even if it’s just like a tell me why you want to go to this school, we really wanna see how well you can write. And that’s absolutely it. And then for the, I would say highly selective schools, they’re looking to see what you can do for them. So what is it about you that sets you apart from other applicants?

Um, the essay. I know students get a lot, like very much hung up on it. But remember it’s a writing sample so it don’t tell, it doesn’t matter how tragic the story is or you know how amazing the award is. We wanna know how well you can write.

McKenzie: Yes. And for those in the room who are already working with us, we know that the admissions process is overwhelming for parents and students alike.

Especially when trying to come up with what you’re gonna write in your essays or how to put together the application. And just the general anxiety of applying to college. Our team of over 300 former admissions officers such as Joanne and admissions experts such as myself, are ready to help you and your family [00:47:00] navigate it all in one-on-one advising sessions.

Take charge of your family’s admissions journey by, uh, signing up for a free consultation with us, uh, with an admissions expert using, um, the link on the screen by going to or Uh, here you can set up a free account and, um, keep track of deadlines, browse colleges, and manage different tasks.

And, um, once you get set up with an advisor, which this is a for fee service. Um, so do check out our different rates. Um, once you get set up with an advisor, you’ll start meeting with them regularly or as much as you need, and they’ll help you with brainstorming your essays. That’s usually my favorite part of the admissions process.

Um, coming up with how to come up with your brand, if you’ve heard that word thrown around, um, figuring out which, uh, activities to add to your application and how to phrase them and every single part of the admissions process. So again, go to, uh, and you’ll be able to set up your account and find out more information there.

Now back to the Q&A. [00:48:00] Okay, so, uh, I’m seeing different questions on, uh, whether schools are requiring the SAT or ACT if they matter, if grades matter more. Can you talk about, um, testing?

Joanne: Yeah. So I know there’s a, there’s a big movement to go SAT or ACT optional. If a school is determined that they want them, obviously they’re quite important to them.

Um, I’m not sold on SAT or ACT. I think ACT is more, um, practical for our students that looking in the STEM fields and then the SAT would be for our students who are looking at humanities. But you never know. Um, my rule is for students who are looking to be pre-law, um, pre-med, uh, any of those pre’s, You gotta take the SAT or ACT, right?

This is an opportunity to get prepared for standardized tests. You will have to take a test at some point in your academic career, so there’s no point on delaying that. Um, so I always recommend, uh, usually, or for quite a few [00:49:00] students right now, the SAT or ACT, um, you can get a few waivers. So it’s important to at least attempt it once.

I’m not saying you take it four or five times. I think the max for a student to take it is about three. Personally, I suggest three. Um, unless you’ve done extensive test prep, typically your score does not change. So three for me is good enough. And for the schools, so SAT ACT optional, send the scores if you fit within the academic profile.

If you don’t, don’t worry about it. Don’t send it. They don’t need to see it. Don’t bother. Um, just keep it moving.

McKenzie: Mm-hmm. Uh, seeing students asking about weighted versus unweighted GPAs, um, can you talk about which one matters more? How schools view them?

Joanne: So that’s a great question. Um, I’m gonna give you guys a little insider information.

So every school, most school will recalculate an unweighted GPA. So it’s excellent that you’re taking AP art and band and you know, choir and all these great things. [00:50:00] We need to get down to the meat and potatoes, so we will unweight that GPA. I am not saying do not take your courses in those extracurriculars.

I’m just saying that every school will unweight that GPA. So everybody is on an equal playing field. Um, it’s, it’s just part of the game here. We wanna know how you do academically and while you know your course, course is important, it’s not really necessary to contribute to your GPA.

McKenzie: Mm-hmm. also, if you’re taking the AP IB, um, courses, usually you get 10 points added to your grade that.

Very fun. And when you’re actually in high school. Um, but every college is gonna recalculate and it’s just gonna be focusing on your core classes. Uh, and if your school is not on a four-point scale or whatever scale that the college you’re applying to is on, they’ll recalculate it to that.

Joanne: We do.

McKenzie: Uh, going onto the next question, I’m seeing students asking about, [00:51:00] um, uh, for highly competitive schools, what would you say is most important distinguishing factor?

The essay extracurriculars, um, what’s the most. And just in general, if there’s one thing that does is the most important application, what is it?

Joanne: I think the essay because it keeps you, um, it keeps you interested in the student. So when you sit down to read the application, qualifying the GPA, and then the next thing that you can have a lot of control over is an essay.

So I usually weigh the essay more than the extracurriculars. I’m not saying that extracurriculars are not important, uh, and just saying that the essay is, it’s another tell of how good of a student you are and how well you can answer a question. So that would be the second thing that I’m looking for.

McKenzie: Yes. And a student is asking, um, so I’m just gonna answer. Uh, getting good grades in general, just straight through high school is better than showing an upward trend. If you are someone who struggles in school show [00:52:00] or in a specific subject, showing that upward trend in grades and an upward trend in like the rigor of your courses, still say you take regular, um, basic level math class your freshman year, but then you go up to an honors and then maybe you try an AP course.

Upward trends like that are good, but if you have good grades, don’t drop your grades. Just try and pull them back up. That doesn’t make sense. . Um, but going up to the next question, this is something we get a lot on a transcript. Would a B plus, uh, would a B or a B plus in a highly difficult course be more impressive than an A in a mid-level, um, class?

Joanne: I think so. I absolutely think so. Um, it shows that you’ve attempted to do the, to take the most rigorous course, um, . And I think that also the adverse is also important too. So like getting a D in a high level course, but you can pass, um, a mid-level course, you should switch it. Um, we don’t, you don’t want D’s and C’s on your transcripts.

You want B, mostly A’s and some Bs. So [00:53:00] utilize your strength. If your strength is math, then take all those advanced math classes and leave the advanced English, English courses alone. So I would prefer to see, um, if you can attempt to take an AP course and get a B plus, great. If you attempt to take the AP English course and you get a C, not so good.

McKenzie: Mm-hmm. . Uh, also, uh, part-time jobs, babysitting, taking care of a family member, family responsibilities. All these things count as extracurriculars. Um, extracurricular is kind of a broad term. It’s just anything you do outside of your classwork. Uh, it can pretty much be anything. It’s more so about how well you can explain it, how committed you were.

There are more webinars on that topic specifically that go into detail, um, so you can check those out. Uh, going on to the next question, how are students from state, uh, of a lower education ranking, uh, evaluated compared to higher ranking state? So like the south versus like New York? [00:54:00]

Joanne: I don’t know if we, um, I don’t know if that’s necessarily true.

Right. So typically when students are applying to a higher, quote unquote ranked school, um, usually the guidance counselor and their family is kind of driving that decision. So I don’t know that it’s specific that like students from the south won’t have the same academic advantage. Again, we look at everything in the context of your school.

So if you do well at your school and, and you’ve proven that you can hold your own, you know, and your top of your class, we, we want to see that. Um, we definitely do take into consideration, you know, the strength of your courses. That’s like the biggest thing for us to see. What courses did you take? Um, you know, were you pushing yourself?

Because there, you’re right, there’s a difference between taking general courses in the quote unquote south and then taking AP courses in the quote unquote itself against, um, general [00:55:00] courses in New York state. So I say this to say, It is all part of checks, double checks moves, counter moves for the admissions officers.

We get to know your schools, we get to know your school districts and your school systems so that we can make, um, good decisions. But for the most part, if you’re challenging yourself, it will show through. And we, we take that into consideration. Whether you’re in South Dakota, Miami, you know, LA, all of that is kind of taken in the context of your application.

McKenzie: Uh, also you can get letters of recommendation. Usually they’re just gonna ask for your school counselor and a teacher. Um, a core teacher. May I add, um, not like your art teacher, your gym teacher. Um, uh, but you can also, uh, ask for outside recommenders if the school allows it. So like that can be your art teacher or your coach or somebody from your church or your, um, boss.

Um, things like that. Uh, [00:56:00] always check the school’s requirements and what they’re looking for, to know what you need to submit for them, cause it varies by school. Uh, going on to the next question a student is asking, um, how important are college interviews and do most schools offer them?

Joanne: So college interviews are kind of like the, I would say the cherry on top.

If schools offer them, um, you should take it, if it’s a selective school, you should take the opportunity. If you’re allowed to select, you should do it. This is a way for you to get in front of somebody who’s going to document the conversation that they had with you, and that goes directly in your application file.

Not every college, um, for example, Cornell invites students to interviews to interview. Not every student is given the opportunity to interview. So if you are given the opportunity and you could sign up, do it. If you are invited to interview and you have opportunity to do so, you should also do it. This is [00:57:00] a way of basically saying that we want some more information about you, um, and it’s time for you to speak on your own behalf.

So, Just imagine. Um, so for Howard, like I said, we read, we review around 30 to 35,000 applications. So imagine now, you know, McKenzie’s an applicant, I’d love her transcript, things like that. But, oh, here’s this piece of paper. She was able to get, um, an some time with, uh, an alumni interviewer and here’s some additional information that is on her behalf.

So if you’re invited or have the opportunity to, to, to do so, please do.

McKenzie: Mm-hmm. and interviews can come in different forms. So I did have an interview for Cornell. It was over the phone, so I didn’t actually see the person. I just was on the phone with them. Um, or it can be in person at a coffee shop. Um, I would say it’s like business casual, more so casual, but not like, completely informal.

Uh, it’s not like a job interview, um, so much. Um, but um, if you’re [00:58:00] applying for, um, different schools, they may offer you one. You can set it up how you want, and it’s usually gonna be someone in your local area. Um, and then you can choose which way you would like to meet, um, that you feel comfortable with.

Um, Okay, so we are coming to a close. So if there’s any last advice, and also if your question did not get answered tonight, you can, um, come to another webinar that may be a bit more tailored to your question. Or you can check out our website, um, for our other webinars as well as our blog, um, for more, um, specific information on the questions you’re asking.

But, uh, Joanne, is there any, um, last advice you’d like to give to students?

Joanne: My last advice is, um, I know that with test optional, many schools open up to students because perhaps testing is not their jam. But what I will say is, while it, it does open up many doors, there is for sure a school out there for every single student.

So just take a chance, you know, if your [00:59:00] parents are okay with you going out of state and you’re really excited to do so, go and do it. It’s the best four years of your life where you get to learn and become the person who you’re going to be when you graduate from college. So, take that chance, go on that trip to see the school in South Carolina or in Idaho or wherever.

It’s just college is such a great opportunity to be who you wanna be for the future. So, I just recommend, I love college, hence why I work in a college. It’s just the best four years of your life. So, take that chance if you get to take the chance and don’t be afraid. Parents, families, guidance counselors will always be there.

College is also one of those great things where it’s four years of figuring out and we know that as adults, so we’re here to support you. Even if you fail, we’ll find another place for you.

McKenzie:Yes. And I’m just gonna answer these. So, you don’t usually sign up for interviews. They’ll reach out to you after you have submitted your application.

It’s most [01:00:00] common if you apply early decision, early action. And we do have other webinars on that, cause there’s less applicants. But it can happen in regular decision. And then once you get reached out to, pick how you want to do it and when you want to do the interview. And then it’s just questions like why do you want to go there?

What are your interests? What do you plan on doing? Why do you think it’s good that it’s general questions? And you can also ask the interviewer questions about their experience, cause usually they went to the school. Okay, so that is the end of the webinar. Thank you Joanne for all of this wonderful information on what admissions officers want to see.

We hope you found this information helpful. Again, you can download the slides, it’s from the link in the handouts tab and this webinar is being recorded and you can view it again later on our website at Thank you everyone for coming out tonight and please do check out our upcoming webinars, where we’ll talk about applying to colleges as an international student, as well as [01:01:00] we’ll have our upcoming February series shortly. So, thank you everyone for coming out tonight and goodnight.

Joanne: Goodnight everybody.