College Admission Tips From a Top Industry Official

What's the key to getting into the college of your choice? The president of the nation's college admission counseling association offers some key insights.

College admissions office on a university campus

If you and your child are getting ready for higher education, it’s no secret that preparing for college is both an exciting and a stressful process.

And, if you’re looking for a few college admission tips, you’ve come to the right place. We found just the source to help: Stefanie Niles, who’s president of the National Association of College Admission Counseling. That’s the leading national organization for college admission professionals. And this expert has worked inside college admissions offices for decades.

Niles, who’s also vice president for enrollment and communications at Ohio Wesleyan University, previously held top admissions and financial aid positions at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania; Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia; and DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.

Here, Niles shares details more about her story – and addresses some key issues that my students and their parents tell me are important in my work at Wow Writing Workshop in Huntington Woods: Tuition, what colleges want from students, getting in and how students can stand out in their application packages.

What are the biggest challenges facing the admissions world in 2019?

“One of the greatest challenges facing college admissions – and the one that keeps me up at night – is the escalating cost of college. More and more students and their families are being pinched by rising tuition and financial aid packages that don’t meet their demonstrated financial need.

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“I believe that, as a nation, we are going to have to address this critical issue in the next decade, or we will continue to see more colleges close, and fewer students seeking higher education options as the market is simply too expensive.”

What do you wish parents/students and everyone else knew about college admission?

“There are so many terrific colleges options. I wish they knew that it isn’t mission critical to secure admission at a select group of eight or 12 or 20 colleges, but that there are many places where students will be challenged, motivated and grow the skills to be productive adults. “

What do you wish parents and students knew about you and your admission colleagues – the people who say yes or no to their applications?

“Like many who work in college admissions, my overarching goal is to help as many students access a college education, regardless of where they choose to enroll. While the college admission process can be stressful, nerve wracking and challenging, 99 percent of the individuals who work in college admissions do so because they want to assist and support students in finding the right college fit.

“You don’t have to go it alone. I have counseled many students about the college search and selection process – many of whom were interested in the institution for which I worked, but often those who were not!”

Students are often reluctant to email or call an admissions office. Is it OK for a student to contact the admissions office with questions?

“Almost any college admission counselor, regardless of the institution for which they work, will sit down with a student and help them sort out their interests and needs as they relate to the college experience.”

Your career has focused on liberal arts colleges. What draws you to the liberal arts – and what’s the benefit of pursuing this type of degree?

“I love the broad range of skills that a liberal arts education offers to students. A liberal arts education helps develop the ability to think critically and analytically, communicate effectively, solve problems and work collaboratively with others. These skills, among others, are necessary to manage today’s challenges – and those we will face tomorrow.

“As many of the jobs individuals will hold 10 and 20 years from now don’t even exist today, having a background that encourages creativity, ability and flexibility – as a liberal arts education provides – will be best-suited not only to fill the jobs of tomorrow, but to identify the problems we face and help create the jobs that will enable us to address them.”

What’s your message to parents who believe their child will not get into a ‘good’ college?

“A ‘good’ college is a place where a student will thrive; where he or she will be exposed to new ideas, new challenges and perspectives different than their own; where the student grows intellectually and personally; and where they have the opportunity to take advantage of experiences that will open their minds to different experiences and cultures that may shape their professional journey.

“My son was accepted to 10 colleges, which sounds like a lot! But he had such a hard time choosing among them, as each offered him distinctive, interesting, challenging opportunities in settings where he felt he would both fit in and be challenged by a new environment. It was an eye-opening, real-life example for me of how there are many great choices – not just one right fit for a student.”

How important is the college essay inside the admissions offices where you have worked?

“Many liberal arts colleges find that the essay can both provide insight into how a student might fit into an institution – and if they possess the basic writing skills to excel in that environment.

“I have definitely seen a poor essay, submitted with an otherwise solid application, keep a student from being admitted. I have also seen a particularly strong essay, submitted with an application containing some red flags, tip the scale toward a positive admission decision.

“The essay, in my experience, definitely matters in an admission committee’s overall consideration of a student’s admissibility to an institution.”

What else do you look for in an application essay?

“It is important to assess how well a student can write – can they construct a coherent sentence? Can they follow directions regarding length? Do they use correct spelling, grammar and punctuation?

“Yet I also want to be sure that students address the question asked of them in a way that gives me insight into who they are. I believe that a student should write about what is important and meaningful to them, and that feeling will shine through their essay.”

As admissions changes, where does the essay fit?

“Certainly at liberal arts institutions, I believe that essays will remain a critical part of the application process. Good writing is a skill that will stand the test of time, and liberal arts colleges will continue to require that their students use their writing abilities to express themselves effectively.

“A strong college admission essay is the first step on a long path towards securing a high-quality college education and developing the skills necessary to be successful in one’s future career.”

What’s your No. 1 tip for students writing any type of admissions essay (personal statement, ‘Why College X?’ supplement, community supplement, etc.)?

“My No. 1 tip is to have someone else review your work. No matter how good a writer you are, it is important to have another set of eyes on your work to avoid any errors – big or small – that you might overlook.”

What are the biggest mistakes you see in the college essays you read?

“I’ve seen lots of careless mistakes, like misspelling the name of the major you wish to pursue. I’ve also seen too many students write an essay as if they were writing a text, without capitalizing words and using little punctuation. But the biggest mistake is not putting in the appropriate effort to write the very best essay you can.

“An essay doesn’t have to be long to be a high-quality piece, but care needs to be taken to answer the question you are asked, and to be thoughtful in both what you say and how you say it.”

What else would you like students and parents to know about the application process?

“Start the process early, ask questions, visit campuses if you can and talk to current students, recent alumni, faculty members, coaches and staff members who work at the schools you are considering.

“You will learn a lot by keeping your eyes and ears open and by interacting with the individuals who know the institution the best – members of the campus community.”

Get more tips

The author of this post, Kim Lifton, is president of Wow Writing Workshop, based in Huntington Woods in Michigan. Her strategic communication and writing services company is a leading expert on the college application essay.

She works directly with students, and trains school counselors, English teachers and independent educational consultants.

To learn more about writing an attention-grabbing college essay, download a free electronic copy of Lifton’s book, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay, The Inside Scoop for Parents.

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