College confusion: Advice from a dean of admissions


Photographer: Annika T.

Seth Allen, Dean of Admissions at Pomona College, held a Q&A session with ASD high schoolers about applying to US universities.

Rida F. , Senior Editor-in-Chief

Planning for college may seem overwhelming at times. However, ASD often creates opportunities for students to learn more about US colleges. Recently, Seth Allen, current dean of admissions at Pomona College, as well as a College Board representative, discussed US colleges with students. Here are some of his top tips for applying to US colleges:

What should I write my essay on?

Our Expert Answer: The essay can sometimes seem to be an incredibly overwhelming part of the US admissions process. According to Allen, all colleges want students to respond to the prompt in a “thoughtful reflective way.”

Colleges want a student who gets inspired by a prompt, and delves deep into what it means. However, there are many ways to do this. While some students may research thoroughly, and explain their newfound knowledge, others may discuss personal experiences and how they relate to the prompt.

More selective schools, however, expect students to not tell the school who they are, but show them. The admissions officers will then make inferences from the essay about a student’s personality. Furthermore, students who can take ownership of the prompt and put their twists on it write the most effective essays. This may mean taking a risk, but Allen claims that if “students [don’t] risk failure, [they] play it safe. If [they] play it safe, [they’re] never willing to stand out”. However, he also highlights that students should stick to their strengths: if a student is funny, his or her essay should reflect that. However, this also means that if a student is not funny, an attempt at humor in an essay may seem contrived. Overall, students thinking deeply about the prompt, showing who they are to a school, taking risks, and sticking to their strengths are the best tips for the US admissions essays.

I’m not an American, and I’m thinking about going to graduate school. Will I even get in to an undergraduate program?

Our Expert Answer: Some non-American international students wonder whether going to the US for an undergraduate program, especially if these students intend to go graduate school, is worth it. Allen explains students need to think very hard about studying in the US. Medical school can be very competitive, as there are fewer slots for non-American citizens. However, law school is not as competitive right now, as law school becomes increasingly competitive when the economy gets worse; the strong American economy is preventing much competition right now. No matter which graduate program students are considering, it should be a factor when thinking about even undergrad college.

How important are my standardized test scores?

Our Expert Answer: Trying to create goals for standardized test scores can often seem confusing However, Allen references an easy way to deduce your goal score. “The benchmark…is an appropriate measure of where [a student] should be. [This benchmark] comes from the 25th percentile of a university…There is virtually no difference in [the test scores] of the students above that.”

Even without those scores, students can still get into their school of choice, but they would need to be “exceptional” candidates in other ways. However, specialized schools like MIT and Caltech expect to get perfect 800s on the math section, as they believe it is a good gauge of a student’s ability. Therefore, SAT/ACT score requirements vary greatly on what school a person wants to get into, but for most schools, the 25th percentile is a good rough estimate.

Do colleges prefer certain extracurriculars? Which ones should I pick?

Our Expert Answer: In ASD specifically, there seem to be an unlimited number of clubs and extracurriculars to choose from. This also means students struggle to select which extracurriculars to participate in, especially when they begin thinking about building their resumes.

Allen suggests students do what they enjoy. For example, one student in the US found an antique bottle in a junkyard. After this, he began collecting these bottles and his collection grew to be the largest in his state. Although this was not a traditional extracurricular, his passion and ability to discuss his extracurricular in an educated manner, allowed him to get into an incredibly competitive university in the US. There seems to be a lot of flexibility in which extracurriculars to pursue, as long as the student is educated about their extracurriculars and demonstrates that in the essay.

My counselors keep saying I need to “stand out.” What does that even mean?

Our Expert Answer: Often times, students get told that to gain admission into the university of their choice, they should “stand out.” However, the description of a “stand out” student  can also seem vague. According to Allen, standing out has a lot to do with teacher recommendations. Students who are portrayed as having a “disproportionate impact on their school” seem to stand out. More specifically, to some schools “standing out” means a student wins awards in their disciplines or in international Olympiads. Art students “stand out” through their portfolios. Therefore, while some students may make a large impact within the school, others may extend their impact beyond the school walls.

ASD Times understands that this can be a confusing time, so we hope these tips helped!

Comment below if you want more of these college advice articles, or if you have some college advice of your own.

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