Admission Experts Share 7 Tips for College Applicants

by Diana Drake

The Process, a quarterly program airing on Sirius XM Channel 111, Business Radio powered by The Wharton School, offers guidance and insight into the college admission process. Eric J. Furda, the dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, invites guests and experts to explore all aspects of the admission process, from discovery and decision-making to enrollment and transition. Check out the Related KWHS Stories tab accompanying this article to discover other Dean Furda-led discussions. The next episode of The Process is scheduled to air on Tuesday, October 17 at 1:00 p.m. EST.

In part three of The Process – available here along with the other four audio podcasts — Dean Furda speaks with Eileen Cunningham Feikens, director of college counseling at the Dwight-Englewood School in New Jersey, about issues that may be on the minds of seniors as they begin final application preparations and follow-up. Below are 7 key takeaways from their discussion. 

  1. Applying is a process. “It’s important to recognize the proliferation of early decision, early action and priority deadlines, and how the focus has shifted over the last 20-25 years,” says Feikens. “Students now are strategizing as much as possible to have a first-choice school and to see if an early decision option or early action option is going to help them leverage admission to that one school. We don’t want it to necessarily just be a truncated process. It really should be the entire arc of the senior year.” Your application journey does not need to wrap up in November of your senior year.
  1. You shouldn’t necessarily shoot for total acceptance. “Whenever I speak to audiences, I say, ‘Expect a wait list; expect a deny.’ That’s a good college list, while still having a couple of options in front of you,” says Furda.
  1. If you apply early and are deferred, some schools will ask for an update. “At Penn, we ask for an update from the students, usually around the beginning of February,” notes Furda. “What does the admissions office really want to be able to find out from an update? Usually the guidelines are: Is there anything new? And in many ways, in the senior year, some things may become new — designation within the school, some honor, some recognition. I think it’s less about that, though, than there might be a realization for the student. For all of you students who are deferred out there, early decision or early action, and you’re sending in that update letter, I want you to think about what you have learned about yourself.”
  1. Standardized tests with writing or without? “It’s about shaping your list and double checking that those colleges to which you will be applying don’t require [the writing portion of the ACT or SAT],” says Feikens. “You don’t want to have to scramble at the last minute, but it’s not going to be held against you in the admission process if you don’t have the writing and the college stipulates that they don’t require it.”
  1. Taking more SAT subject tests won’t make you look better to colleges. “What they’re going to be looking at most pointedly in your applications is your transcript,” notes Feikens. “Yes, the testing is important, but it’s a one-shot peek at who you are as a learner. The transcript is a 3-1/2-year trajectory, from freshman through the mid-year of your senior year. In that way, the college is going to be looking more so at how you do day in, day out, in the courses, in the rigor of your program, and certainly within different disciplines.”
  1. If you are admitted to begin in the spring semester, not the fall, find out how many other students are in the same situation. “Colleges, as businesses, are looking towards that spring semester admit as a way to open doors of opportunity for students who they wouldn’t necessarily have room for in the fall,” says Furda. “What I love is when colleges actually have advising for that cohort of spring admits so that the students who have that option don’t feel like they’re all alone.” Also, find out what the orientation is going to be like when you arrive in the spring and how they orient that group of students to enter into the college community, adds Feikens.
  1. Penn receives some 40,000 applications each year and accepts fewer than 10%. Parents and others put a lot of pressure on student applicants to meet criteria for highly selective schools, when the reality is that 90% of students won’t get in. “We want students to appreciate who they are for themselves, and not necessarily measure their self worth off of a decision that they’ve received from a particular college – feeling that they weren’t worthy,” says Feikens. As a counselor, “I make sure students understand the perception out there. I want to break those myths that it’s not just those who are “deserving” that get in. Yes, they’re deserving, but there are a lot of kids who are deserving that are going to end up elsewhere.” And there are hundreds of other great colleges and outcomes to consider, beyond the elite schools.


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What are your pressing college admission questions? Include them in the comments section and we’ll get them answered for you!

45 comments on “Admission Experts Share 7 Tips for College Applicants

  1. Some pressing college admission questions that I have would be how long does an admissions officer truly take to look at an applicants qualifications? After putting in tireless amounts of hours across a span of more than a decade, how long does an admissions officer take to look at all of that bundled up into an essay, standardized test score(s), and extracurricular activities. Another question I have is, what does a such a prestigious university like Penn consider a qualifying student to be admitted.

    • Fantastic question Taylor… I have often wondered about that myself. Let’s start some investigating and see where it leads. For those who truly commit to hours upon hours of time in ensuring their application is the best it can possibly be… is it dismissed in an instance if “time constraints” of the said reviewer is limited or not regulated/cross checked by others? Like many of our assessment tools in the classroom, I would think that there must be a rubric with certain criteria for admissions to follow, as well as multiple people reviewing the same file for consistency and accountability… wouldn’t you say?

    • My college admission questions are:
      1) Are your chances of acceptance lower if you apply by the deadline instead of early decision?
      2) Is class ranking significant if you are enrolled in a densely populated high school?
      3) Are letters of recommendation necessary if you are applying locally?
      4) Is community service more important than holding an Officer position in a club or team?

  2. Some questions that I have about admissions are what colleges most look at when you send your transcript, test scores, or curriculum? After getting accepted to a certain college, let’s say U Penn, can you play sports for the University even if you didn’t get an invitation or scholarship to play for them? And do universities see a student differently whether they took the SAT/ACT with/out an essay?

    • Hey, Daniel. We are working on getting lots of these questions answered. In the meantime, we encourage you to refer to No. 5 and No. 4 in the above article to answer your first and third questions. Thank you!

  3. What are your pressing college admission questions? Include them in the comments section and we’ll get them answered for you!

    1. How important are extracurricular activities?
    2. How do you differentiate among high schools?
    3. Do IB and AP courses matter?
    4. What do you look for in admissions essays?
    5. Who should write my letter(s) of recommendation?
    6. Are college visits really necessary?
    7. To how many schools should I apply?
    8. Should I send supplementary materials with my application?
    9. How important are standardized tests?
    10. How do colleges really choose their students?

  4. What are your pressing college admission questions? Include them in the comments section and we’ll get them answered for you!

    A couple of my pressing college admission questions are listed below. Some are not exactly about college admissions, but they are of what to do before you graduate and how to make it part of your college application.

    1. How important are extracurricular activities that are not related to school?? eg. Soccer team, piano classes, etc.

    2. When colleges are looking at your grades, is it better to have a B on an AP or AICE, or is it better to have an A on a honors course.

    3. What are the most essential things to write down on your college application?

    4. What are the things colleges focus the most on?

  5. What are your pressing college admission questions? Include them in the comments section and we’ll get them answered for you!
    I understand some things about college applications but I still don’t know a lot. First, the application will be in a essay form or the college provides a form where i just fill information? What do I include in my college application? Do I include my transcript in the application? What colleges like to see in applications?

  6. Some of the questions I have about college admissions is:
    – When do receive a letter of acceptance of letter or rejection from a college?
    – What types of information will raise a red flag for a school?
    – How many extra-curriculums should a student have
    – How much does the SAT or ACT score affect getting into a college?

  7. What are your pressing college admission questions?

    1- How does AP and AICE credits help to get better chances of entering your dream school?
    2- What is the best way to write your resume in order to colleges prefer you over other applicants?
    3- How can service hours help you get to a better college?
    4- How much do colleges care about letters of recomendation?
    5- How important are extra curricular activities and club participation in order to get into the best colleges?

  8. Great read! These are fantastic insights for seniors applying. A few questions:

    -What are some of the main reasons that students with perfect ACT/SAT scores, 4.0 GPAs, and fantastic extracurricular activities/essays might get rejected from highly competitive schools like Penn?
    -What are some good examples of applicants standing out in the applicant pool from others? Do admissions officers like certain types of students?
    -Do schools like Penn consider AP/IB Exam scores as a formal part of the admissions process? Will having 3’s and 4’s on AP exams hurt me as an applicant?
    -How much does class rank matter in the admissions process?

  9. 1. How can your impact in the community help your chances of getting in the college you want to go to?
    2. Why do some people who meet all the expectations and requirements still not get into their dream school?
    3. What is another way to get into colleges if your grades aren’t the best?
    4. Is it bad to transfer from college to college?
    5. Should you focus on your interests the most or really try to be a balanced student?

  10. What are your pressing college admission questions?

    1. Do colleges prefer to see volunteering and extra curricular activities outside of the school’s programs, or within it?
    2. Does it look better to take multiple AP classes and have a challenge, or take easier classes and excel?
    3. If you are involved in sports, what is the earliest you should reach out to school’s coaches?
    4. How much impact do letters of recommendation have?

  11. What are your pressing college admission questions?

    1. Do colleges like seeing a variety of AP and advanced courses or more career focused courses such as in the area of Finance and Business?
    2. Should a greater emphasis be placed on extra curricular activities or volunteer hours?
    3. When colleges look at grades do they appreciate an A in a honors course or a B in a AP course?

  12. My pressing college admission questions;
    1. What important information should I have on my application to college?
    2. Is it better to take courses in high school at college level or take the regular high school learning curriculum? Is it better to have an A in a regular level learning course or a B in a higher (honours, AP, etc) level learning course?
    3. What is the recommended amount of colleges I should apply to?
    4. How do I know which college is best for my career choice?

  13. Some pressing questions I have about admission are
    -Depending on the classes you take will it make a difference?
    -Is getting ll “A’s” in a regular class better than “B’s” in a honors course?
    -How many times can you apply to the same university?
    – Is it recommended to take AP courses?

  14. I have some few questions about application to college:
    1.Normally what’s the number of colleges I should be applying for?
    2.At what grade should I start applying to colleges?
    3.What is a normal SAT grade colleges will be considering?
    4.Is it better to take honors and get an B or AP and get an C?

  15. What are your pressing college admission questions? Include them in the comments section and we’ll get them answered for you!
    1) at what grade should i start applying to collages
    2) is it better to take honors and get b or take AP and get an c
    3) how do you apply for a sports scholarship
    4) do collages like receiving commendation letters

  16. What are your pressing college admission questions? Include them in the comments section and we’ll get them answered for you!

    These are some questions that I wrote down while reading this article.
    1. Should I apply for colleges as a Jr.?

    2. Should I take as many AP courses as possible?

    3. Is there a limit to how many times I can apply?

    4. What is the most important thing on a college application?

    5. How early to colleges start to looking a high schoolers?

  17. Some of the questions I have pressing about college admissions are:
    1. Do all colleges follow the same procedure when deciding which students are adequate to study at their school?
    2. On average how long does it take for colleges to respond to your application?
    3. Do all colleges have the same application that you have to fill out or is it different for each one?
    4. Where do you find all the deadlines for each college.
    5. Do you have to pay to apply, if so how much does it cost?

  18. Some of the pressing questions I have to ask about the college admissions are:

    1. Do colleges look at the clubs or other organizations that you participate in?

    2. Is it better to great in less rigorous classes or take a C in an advance placement class?

    3. Do all colleges look at how many honors classes you take?

    4. Is a teacher recommendation required to get to college?

    5. What other colleges have a ten percent acceptance rate besides Penn state?

  19. Being a senior in high school, I have some questions about the application process for college. First off, do colleges focus more on grades or SAT/ACT scores? Second, do colleges acknowledge the extracurricular activities when considering a student for admission? Lastly, is it better to get a C in an AP class over an A in an honors class?

  20. I understand colleges look at test scores, however, which test should I be taking, the ACT or SAT? Also, how heavily do extra-curricular activities weigh in when applying? Is that the first thing that colleges look at, or is it test scores and overall grades? Do you have a better chance of getting into a certain college if you have the same grades as someone else, but speak another language?

  21. 1. What is most important for admissions officers when they look at your application?
    2. How important is volunteer hours on your application?
    3. Is it better to learn a new language, or to take an already learned language to the AICE and AP level?

  22. Some of the pressing college admission questions I have are:
    1. When applying to a college, do they look more at your SAT/ACT grades, or your grades during the four years you are attending high school?
    2. If you have teacher recommendations are you more likely to get accepted into a college than someone who does not?
    3. When accepting students, do colleges look more at the extra curricular activities a student does or the amount of service hours they do?
    4. Is it better to get an “A” in a regular class or a “B” in an honors class?
    5. What do colleges look for in admission essays?

  23. What are your pressing college admission questions? Include them in the comments section and we’ll get them answered for you!
    1. How do college admission advisors examine students essays to see if they are deserving to go to that specific college?
    2. Which test would college advisors look into more? The ACT or SAT?
    3. For an ivy league college to care more about accepting you, how many AP classes do you recommend someone takes in high school?
    4. Shouldn’t it be fair that if you don’t get accepted into a college that you applied for, then you should get some of the application fee back?
    5. Being a freshman in high school, I don’t know much about the application essays. Would the topic be completely random, or would it be a topic of my choice?

  24. A few pressing questions I have about college are
    Are community colleges a good option?
    Is it better to take honors and get an B or AP and get an C?
    What is the most important thing to focus on while in high school in order to get in a good college?

  25. The focus in this article was tips for people applying to college and what matters and what doesn’t. The people sharing the tips were college counselors who work in New Jersey and Penn advisors. What they were saying is the different steps that are involved in the applying process and to be the most successful when applying. One big thing that they say is that it is O.K to be wait listen or denied and that you don’t have to get into every school. I thought that this was a very interesting point, and it shows that for total acceptance can be very stressful. Another big issue that they mentioned is to stay relaxed and fun during these high school and college years. So many kids put pressure on themselves but the truth is, 90 % will be denied from Penn and if you are so stressed by putting these high expectations on yourself, the applicant is being set up to fail.

  26. Some questions I ask myself as I am applying to college is, how do I know the college is the right one for me? I am a business kid and always have been, since an early age Iv’e enjoyed seeing the marketing aspect of a business thrive, therefore my question is: Do universities who are ranked higher in the business majors in the country better suited to educate me? Will attending said business school create better opportunities for me in the long run? However, one of the more pressing questions I have is, how much do prestigious institutions such as University of Pennsylvania weigh the test scores of an applicant? It has been debated that standardized tests do not accurately represent the ability of a student, so how do colleges weigh the scores in proportion to the student’s overall high school years?

    • Great questions Andres and well written in the manner that we discussed in class. Wouldn’t it be nice if each university posted “their” rubric or criteria they give to the admissions advisors for grading each applicant? My question is; why don’t they report on exactly what they want (each institution’s ideology/expectations) and produce a report on the aftermath of the selection as to why said person was selected over the other. I’d love full transparency and disclosure… even to the point of admitting that this Hispanic/White/Black/Asian was accepted because we needed “said” amount of this that or the other in our population. If feel that total transparency is something that could potentially reduce the hyper drive to “get accepted” and the stress that goes along with that “unknown” factor for students.

  27. As I am currently in my junior year, I am deeply starting to analyze and find out about the steps I must take and the qualifications I need to get into my college preferences. However, I do have some questions.
    1) How long does it usually take colleges to respond back?
    2) Do they focus more on the grades obtained in harder classes or the just the basic core subjects?
    3) Does the college that accepted you check back upon your record after finishing high school?
    4) What is the essential part of the transcript that colleges look at?
    5) Is it an advantage for colleges to have noticed notice you since middle school?

  28. What are your pressing college admission questions? Include them in the comments section and we’ll get them answered for you!

    1. What important information should I have on my college application?
    2. Which test would be more important to college advisers, the ACT or SAT?
    3. Do college advisers take more into account AICE classes than AP classes?
    4. At what grade should I start applying to colleges?

  29. What are your pressing college admission questions? Include them in the comments section and we’ll get them answered for you!

    My pressing college admission questions are: 1. Do colleges prefer taking the SAT or ACT?
    2. When a college accepts you, do they continue to check your progress during your senior year?
    3. Do extracurricular activities, such as clubs and sports, have the same impact on admissions as grades do?

  30. How does volunteer hours affect possible admission into a college of students choice?

    What year of High school do colleges most pay attention to?

    What’s the possibility of being admitted if one scores a decent score in Standardized Tests, but has a substantial amount of service hours?

  31. What a very informative article. After reading the article I feel that I will be more confident when applying to my selective universities in the next couple of weeks. It was really useful getting my attention of the pros and cons of early decision and what universities look for academically.

    • I have some questions for colleges about this article. The first question I have would be how important is extracurricular activities for a college application? Do colleges look at these or no? Some people worry about it a lot but aren’t sure if colleges look at it or not.

  32. Very informative article. After reading the article I feel that I will be more confident when applying to my selective universities in the next couple of weeks. It was really useful getting my attention of the pros and cons of early decision and what universities look for academically. Hopefully I get accepted into the schools I apply.

  33. How much of an impact does a well-written college essay have?
    Do colleges focus more on a “good grade” or hard classes?
    Do letters of Recommendation play a major role in the application process.
    Do colleges look into middle school coursework if its high school classes.
    Is it better to be well balanced or to specialize in a single subject/sport?

  34. this article really helps out when trying to apply for colleges. while i was applying i was nervous about test scores and writing prompts and all that, but this article helped out very much on many other sections when applying to a college. Now that i have read the article fully i feel more confident and i feel less worried about all the little stuff.

  35. These tips are really helpful it explains what the important things to do when applying for college. This makes me feel more confident when applying because it supplies information that I was nervous about because I didn’t know that much about some parts but now I know more and I feel better about applying. Even though I may have some questions along the way I feel better going into the process.

  36. What are your pressing college admission questions? Include them in the comments section and we’ll get them answered for you!

    1. Are extracurricular activities very important?

    2.. Do AP and AICE courses matter?

    3. Are recommendation letters necessary? if so, who should write my letter(s)?

    4. Is seeing the campus and college visits necessary before/after applying?

  37. What are your pressing college admission questions? Include them in the comments section and we’ll get them answered for you!
    This advice was very helpful for me as a junior because it helped me be less anxious about college and admissions. Many juniors are really stressed about next year and for obvious reasons, in less than a year we will be choosing were we are going to spend the next four years of our lives. Personally, I have some questions about college application:
    1. Do colleges look for cumulative, core or weighted GPA? If your weighted GPA is really high but your unweighted is lower, is that something that will make colleges deny your application?
    2. How many community service hours do colleges want to look at? And does it matter where you do your community hours, for example in a hospital or in a teacher’s classroom?
    3. If you did not do so well in freshman year but you have been improving ever since, do colleges usually deny you for your freshman year grades?
    4. How important is the SAT/ACT when applying to college?
    5. Do colleges prefer for you to go in undecided or with a specific major/minor?

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