Our founder conducted an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit to answer some of the most pressing questions from high school students about college applications and college admissions. Below are the most frequently asked questions about the college application process by category. You can see the full AMA here. You can also submit additional questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
COLLEGE APPLICATION PROCESS
What would you recommend for a junior looking to manage college applications, AP classes, and extracurricular activities without an unhealthy amount of stress?
Start early! Like right now! The more you can spread things out, the less the process will be stressful and frantic. We typically recommend juniors start prepping Jan of junior year.
We’ve created a checklist/timeline tool to guide you through major deadlines and milestones for the college application process and to help you manage your time. Check it out here.
How do colleges view your stats and transcript, and how does that factor into the college admissions decision?
Scores, stats, and transcripts matter, and there is usually a benchmark or ballpark that each college is looking for to help evaluate candidates at a glance. But, there are also exceptions if a student is close stat-wise and have some extraordinary circumstance, context, or other achievements that make them stand out. Ultimately, the stats are a starting point, and then admissions officers dig into extracurricular activities and essays to make the real distinctions.
If a student shows an upward trend in their grades, does that influence the decision of the admissions officers? Or is the lower cumulative GPA the nail in the coffin for their application, so to speak?
An upward trajectory is definitely considered, especially if scores, extracurricular activities, etc are all strong. I would also recommend adding context to that through your essays or sections that allow to speak to any extenuating circumstances. Take the admissions officers through your journey - whether it's a personal tragedy or just something in your high school experience that made you more motivated, it's helpful for admissions officers to see the human side and understand why it happened.
Are virtual classes looked upon as worse or equal to classes taken in school?
It depends on a number of factors such as the accreditation of the virtual school. For AP classes, there are the AP exams which helps calibrate the quality of the class. Strong scores on the AP exams will also be an indicator of the legitimacy of the virtual class and mastery of the material.
Ultimately, if you're taking virtual classes to access more courses, challenge yourself academically, and proactively pursue opportunities not available through your high school, colleges will see that.
Would it seem odd to see a student whose extracurricular activities point in one direction but intended major points in a completely different directions? For example, most of my extracurricular activities are music related, but I’m interested in majoring in accounting.
Short answer is, no. You're not expected to decide or pursue only your intended major in high school. You can discuss your interest in accounting (or any intended major) in your college application and draw parallels and transferable skills from your experience playing and studying music.
How important are internships on your college application? I feel like most people at my school with internships get them through personal or family connections. Is that taken into account?
Just having the internship on your resume doesn't check a box. Admissions officers and interviewers (just like recruiters and hiring managers in the job market) care about the substance. What did you do during the internship? What kinds of applicable experiences did you have? What contributions or impact did you make?
Some well-known, more structured internships, e.g. Microsoft, Amazon, Expedia, etc. does more on name alone because they're known for having selective interview processes and a robust, meaningful internship experience. But admissions officers still focus on substance. The selective nature of internships shows that you were a qualified applicant. Your work and contributions during the internships shows your drive, your growth, and your impact and is equally if not more important than just being qualified. If you do have internship experience where you learned and contributed to the company, the experience is certainly valuable for you and for your college application.
What are examples of strong extracurricular activities? Is quantity or quality more important?
It’s important to show varied interests, but your focus should be on quality. Having a few meaningful extracurricular activities that show achievement, leadership, and impact is much more important than a laundry list of extracurricular activities that you were a member of. Examples of strong extracurricular activities are starting your own club/volunteer group/organization and growing that, increasing membership or engagement of a club/group you're in, raising $x in donations for a non-profit. The key word is impact.
To what extend do college essays matter in the college application process?
Essays are extremely important. Especially at the most selective schools, almost all applicants will be top ranked at their school, have stellar test scores, a number of APs, academic awards, etc. The essays are the real human element. They can turn you from a 2D list of numbers to an individual with goals, dreams, character, and personality. If admissions officers can relate to you and feel like they really know something about you, that's what really differentiates you as a candidate.
Is it better for an applicant to focus their college essays on one single thing or have each essay centered around something different?
Your essays are a chance to humanize your college application. It's ok to echo or reiterate themes across essays, but show them different sides of your personality and experience! Try jotting down the top 2-3 things that make you who you are, and make sure your essays reflect them.
What is the biggest mistake you see students make on college essays?
There isn't really one specific one, but I'd say one of the biggest red flags is having typos/grammatical errors. Without even diving into the content, the lack of attention to detail and proofreading says a lot about the student and his/her interest in a school.
LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION
How important are letters of recommendations? Could they swing the admission decision in my favor?
Letters of recommendation are important and help add color and context to your college application. Your extracurricular activities are WHAT you've accomplished, your letters of recommendation add perspective from others you've worked with and show HOW you accomplished it. Certain letters of recommendation will also carry more weight for your application - e.g. major specific ones (teachers, professors or professionals you're working with in your intended major), notable individuals, different perspectives (i.e. employer), etc. That said, the substance of the recommendation – how personal it is, how closely they worked with you, how well they know you is just as important as who it is from.
What is the most common mistake you see applicants make during interviews?
The most common I see are not being genuine and not doing their research. For example, if a student says they're passionate about finance but can't tell me what led to their interest or any finance related articles, books, or even headlines they've read recently, that's a flag. Interviewers are not expecting you to know everything about a topic you're interested in, but you should have some basic knowledge in the areas you claim to be passionate about. Similarly, do some reading on the undergrad program at the school you're interviewing for. Asking superficial questions that can be found front and center on a school website or asking about programs that exist at a different Ivy League shows you're only interested in the brand and not the school itself.
How did your most memorable (in a good way) interviewees act, speak, present themselves, and stand out to you?
A few general observations for standout interviewees:
They did their research on the school - they asked insightful questions about my experience, knew about the school and programs they were interested in, and were genuinely interested and excited about getting involved on campus.
They were thoughtful - about their interests/intended major and why they were interested. They've taken the time to explore their options and intended major. They've thought about what they want their college experience to be like.
They were self-aware and genuine - they weren't afraid or uncomfortable to discuss challenges they've faced or mistakes they've made. They self-reflected on how they can improve and how those challenges/mistakes changed them. They were also comfortable and personable.
How should I start and end an interview? Should I answer all their questions and then ask mine at the end or is it better to ask while we’re at it?
Starting an interview - introduce yourself and take cues from your interviewers. Don't be afraid to just chat with them if they're making casual conversation. Prepare a short overview of yourself for the "tell me about yourself" question so you can be succinct.
Ending an interview - thank them for their time. Reiterate any follow ups - e.g. if they recommended a book you should read, or if you mentioned sending them an article that they found interesting.
You can ask questions throughout. It's actually better to make it a conversation and will be much more engaging for them than them firing off questions at you.
Overall, what would you say are the greatest insights you’ve gained throughout your career as an interviewer?
The greatest insight for me is realizing that interviews are a two way street. Understand what you have to offer, as a candidate, as an employee, and use the interview as an opportunity to not only showcase that, but also to gauge if the school/company is also a good fit for you. This doesn't mean be arrogant or rude, nor is it saying to not show excitement in the school/job, but remembering what you have to offer and treating the interview like a conversation helps you be in the right mindset to engage in a productive way.
I have access to an alumni from a college I’m interested in. Is there anything I can ask or email that can somehow aid me in my college application process?
There's no magic question that gets you a leg up. If you're genuinely interested in his/her field or have questions about the university, I would encourage you to think of this as an opportunity to engage with and learn from someone in a field of study you want to pursue or a resource to learn more about undergraduate life at the college versus a strategic move for your college application.
I’ve worked extremely hard through my high school years and had strong grades, test scores, extracurriculars, but I didn’t get into my top school. What does this mean?
Not getting into an Ivy or a top ranked school is not a reflection on your value as a person and doesn’t negate your achievements. Because many candidates are so strong in stats, extracurricular activities, community service, awards and achievements, you're basically splitting hairs at some point. Last year, Harvard accepted 2,056 applicants. Is there really a huge difference in the potential or qualifications between the 2056th person they accepted at Harvard versus the 2057th applicant that didn't get accepted? Probably not. Ultimately, the output and rewards in life will be directly correlated with the commitment and work you put in, and your college experience will be what you make of it. Keep working hard, take advantage of the opportunities and experiences at whatever college you end up at, and you will do well.