If you decide to write a letter expressing your continued interest in a college, it doesn’t matter much to whom you address it. If you knew the specific admissions officer that read your application, address it to him or her. Examples of this include – having been interviewed by the regional admissions officer, having met that admissions officer when s/he visited your high school, spoken on the phone or exchanged emails. Generally, if you know that the admissions officer knows who you are, address the letter personally. If not, a “Dear [college] Admissions Office[r], ” will work just fine.

On word limits

December 13, 2006

Should you adhere to the specified word limits for personal statements?


Will admissions officers be counting those words? It’s unlikely, but you can bet that after reading hundreds upon hundreds of essays, admissions officers have a pretty good idea how long a 500 word essay is. If you go over a little bit, don’t worry, but be mindful that for as much as you may exceed the limit you need to have a good justification for doing so. If an essay can be editing down, it should be.

Unless the school is rolling* then no. If you send your application in before the deadline it will not be read sooner, you will not receive your decision sooner, and you will not be more likely to get in.

When applications reach the admissions office, it takes a small army of people to open all that mail (or print out all the electronic submissions), sort it, file it, respond to all those little postcards people put in to confirm their applications were received, enter the data into the computer database, make folders containing the application with color coded stickers with your name/region/home state identifiers, then organize the folders according to admissions reader (usually based on geography) and present this final product in a uniform, readable manner so that the admissions officer can start reading applications. Rarely are admissions officers enlisted in this particular army.

Applications are not necessarily read in the exact order they were received by mail nor are they read as soon as they are formatted and in ready mode. The admissions officers spend the fall months traveling around the world visiting schools and structure their time around the November 1 arrival of applications. Reading usually begins in early November.

 So if you sent your early decision/admission application in on October 5, it will have spent a good month or so on a shelf awaiting its turn. Furthermore, the application is not read until it is complete – so even if you send your parts in before the deadline it will only be read once all the parts trickle in. And don’t worry, a recommendation letter that arrives after the other materials will not adversely affect your chances. With thousands of applications waiting to be read, the backlog serves as an equalizer making most all applications sit around waiting to be read.  This, unlike much of what you probably do in high school, is not a race.

*”rolling” refers to rolling admission where you can send in your application at any point within some guidelines and it will be read and decided in roughly that order.

Legacies are applicants who had a parent attend the college to which s/he is applying. So, if my father went to the University of Michigan and my mother went to Sarah Lawrence College I would be a legacy at both of those. Chances are, I would have an advantage at those two schools.

How much of an advantage is impossible to tell. Every college and university has a way of evaluating or quantifying legacies. Some schools do quantify such a classification similar to how many state schools preference in-state applicants. Other schools consider legacy status as another aspect of an applicant’s profile, doesn’t hurt, can help, and may tip the scale in the event of indecision.

Trying to get any more information out of an admissions officer on their legacy policy will be difficult, because, short of a quantifiable system, legacies are just like all other applicants, read in the same manner and evaluated as the sum of their many parts…. just with a little edge. Whether that little edge will be the difference between acceptance and denial is impossible to tell without a specific individual in a broader context of the pool.

So, feel free to ask admissions officers how they consider legacies but don’t expect a hard and fast answer. They’re not trying to be evasive. It’s just not a simple question.

One thing that you can ask that has a simple answer is how legacy is defined. Most schools define legacies as those applicants who had a parent or step parent attend the school. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins usually don’t count. Siblings at the school may be considered, but they may not grant the applicant the label of legacy, per se. So best not to count up all your relatives who’ve attended college and revel in all the schools where you might be considered a legacy. Chances are, it’s just from mom and dad.

When I was in high school, many students and parents alike, like to share their theories about maximizing strategies for getting into highly selective schools. One of these strategies that people seemed especially sure of was that we, as students from Connecticut, were at a categorical, geographic disadvantage. With so many students from our little state applying to top schools, surely we would suffer as a result. The only students that might be worse off were students from NYC private schools. These theories found comfort in imagining that at least someone was worse off.

And, like most grassroots theories about highly selective college admissions, they were totally wrong.

Does it help to be from Nebraska? Not exactly. No student gets in by virtue of his or her home state. In the Dartmouth class of 2010, for example, not all states are represented in the class, but all states were represented in the applicant pool. This means one of two things: either no students from two states were admitted at all, or no students decided to matriculate. Whichever it is doesn’t matter. What matters is that being from Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota or whatever state you think has it easy, will not get you in.

Also, being from a city or state with a large population of (highly selective) college bound students provides a set of distinct advantages. First, if you are from CT for example, you are more likely to have an admissions officer visit your high school. Second, you are more likely to have an active alumni group that may host events or give alumni interviews. Third, a history of past students from your area attending certain schools creates a base of knowledge from which you draw. This last one is subtle.

When I worked in admissions, I traveled to both rural Oregon and Connecticut boarding schools. The students in the high concentration boarding schools had so much more information (some accurate, lots not) and were more savvy about the admissions process, in general. And yet, they also were sure they had it worse off.

If the state from which an applicant comes is relevant to the student’s experience, then yes, it may help that student get in. An example – I once interviewed a student from Iowa who lived in a town of 300 and spent most of his time outside of school working on an irrigation system for his family farm. In that case, being from the town in Iowa where he lived was a part of who he was, how he spent his time, and what his goals were. It wasn’t that his Iowa residency would help him get in, it was how his upbringing and experiences were tied to his community that made his residency compelling.


IB vs. AP

September 29, 2006


When I worked in admissions I was often asked the question whether there is a difference between how colleges treat the IB (International Baccalaureate) curriculum and AP (Advanced Placement) courses.


The short answer: no.

Most students are familiar with at least one of these options for advanced coursework and have one available at their high school. I’ve written before about the importance of taking advantage of upper level courses, but some students still worry that their school’s advanced courses are not as competitive as other schools’.

The IB curriculum and AP courses are weighed equally. To colleges, choosing one of these advanced programs does not represent anything more specific than a demonstrated effort to challenge yourself. Most schools do not offer both IB and AP so you are not expected to take them simultaneously. And if your school does not offer either, but you have taken courses at a local community college, fear not, that is respected as well. The bottom line is that colleges want to see that you are challenging yourself. That can come in the form of an IB curriculum, AP coursework, college level classes, summer school courses to supplement your education etc.

Furthermore, at each college, an admissions officer is responsible for your school and has, as part of his or her job, the responsibility of familiarizing him or herself with your school’s curriculum (meaning also, that you do not need to explain your school’s course offerings to the college).

They get it. It’s their job.

Your job is to worry less about what admissions officers are thinking and more about the work you are doing. You only have so much time and energy, use it for things that matter.