Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

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College Application Essays: You Don’t Need to Go on An “Adventure” to Write A Great Essay

“For a Standout College Essay, Applicants Fill Their Summers” is a title of an article in the New York Times today. It’s about the extraordinary things high school students are doing to find interesting topics for their college application essays, including traveling to China and studying health care in Rwanda.

Parents send their students on these expensive adventures in the hope that it will “put them in the spotlight” when they apply to college, especially when it comes to competitive schools.

A friend of mine said, “As a mom, I think it is bad news.”

There’s nothing wrong with filling your summers with exotic adventures, or even sports camps, academic camps and volunteer work. But don’t seek out an activity because you think it will make a great college application essay.

Why? Because admissions counselors know you don’t have to travel half-way around the world to find an essay-worthy experience. They look for how students find meaning in the world, wherever they are —  babysitting for neighbors, bagging groceries, or even scooping ice cream downtown.

I recently spoke to Joanne Robertson, Assistant Director of Admissions at Quinnipiac University. For her, exotic summer experiences don’t give students an edge. She says, “As an admissions counselor, I would rather see an essay from a student who could provide a reflection on a summer job than one who sought out a ‘special’ activity just to build a resume. Bringing a creative voice to a simple activity shows more to me than just the significance of the experience.”

A college application essay is a story about you. It asks you to reflect on who you are, what makes you unique, where you’re headed, and what you have to offer.

You don’t have to go on great adventures to answer those questions. You just have to know who you are.



Interviews with College Admissions Counselors: Quinnipiac University

Quinnipiac Unversity logoWelcome to an Ongoing Series on College Admissions

If you’re starting the college admissions process you’ve probably discovered that it’s not always easy to find answers to your college admissions questions. That’s why I created a place where you can hear directly from college admission counselors about applying to college, interviewing for college, college application essay writing, and financial aid.

I developed these questions with help from families who’ve recently been through the college admissions process. Because each school answers the same questions you’ll be able to compare information with other schools.

I hope you find this a valuable resource for college admissions information. Who knows? You might even find yourself considering options you hadn’t thought of before.

With the introduction out of the way, let’s find out about Quinnipiac University.

Quinnipiac University is a private, coeducational university located in Hamden and North Haven, Connecticut. Consistently ranked among the best universities by U.S. News & World Report, Quinnipiac offers 52 undergraduate majors and 20 graduate programs, plus the JD program (School of Law). It’s also home to the nationally renowned Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

Quinnipiac, committed to teaching and collaboration, strives to foster partnerships among students and with faculty through excellence in education, a spirit of community, small classes, and ready faculty access.

Some Facts:

  • Full-time faculty: 308
  • Student-to-faculty ratio: 16 to 1
  • Average class size: under 25
  • Undergraduate enrollment: 5,900
  • Undergraduate costs 2011-12: $49,560 (Tuition & fees: $36,130; room & board for freshmen: $13,430)
  • Undergraduate students receiving financial aid, 2010-2011: 76 percent
  • Athletics: NCAA: Division I


Joanne Robertson, Assistant Director of Admissions and Transcript Evaluator, answered the following questions for us:

Q: What percentage of applicants do you admit?

A: The answer to that question depends on the major chosen by the student who is applying.  Our overall percentage is around 50%.  However, for our competitive majors such as nursing, physical therapy, physician assistant or occupational therapy the admit rate is closer to 40% of the applicants.


Q: Does applying early decision/action improve a student’s chances for admission?

A: This is the first year that we will be implementing that option.  Again, based on the major choice it could improve their chances.  For our most competitive majors, that will not likely be the case.  We do always suggest that students apply sooner rather than later to improve their chances of acceptance.

Q: How important are extracurricular activities in admissions decisions?

A: They do play a factor but not as significant as high school GPA, rank in class and standardized test scores.

Q: How important is taking advanced, accelerated, or honors courses?

A: Very important for the competitive majors.  It would definitely benefit those students looking for admission to our most competitive majors.  We do however, tell students to take a class that will challenge them academically, but not one that will overwhelm them and hurt their GPA significantly.

Q: Which teachers should write a recommendation?

A: Our suggestion to students is to get a letter of recommendation from a teacher that really knows them well.  It could be in a subject that they did very well in, or from a teacher who knows that they struggled but overcame obstacles for success.

Q: Do you look for what is not said in a recommendation?

A: Most definitely.  After a while all of the letters of recommendation seem to say the same things.  You do need to read between the lines to get a better picture of an applicant.

Q: Is the quality of an applicant’s high school taken into consideration?

A: Yes, all of our counselors are very familiar with the high schools in the area that they cover.  There is a big difference in some of the high schools and we do take that into consideration.

Q: What is the relative importance of grades versus board scores?

A: We ask all students to send us all SAT or ACT scores received.  We will take the best score received in Verbal and Math as their scores for consideration.  We look at the whole student so both areas receive consideration.

Q: There’s been controversy about using tests like the SAT and ACT in the admissions process. Where does your school stand?

A: Right now we are still using the standardized test scores to assist us in evaluating students for admission.


Q: Does Quinnipiac University offer interviews with admissions counselors?

A: Yes.

Q: What interview skills are most lacking?

A: Students sometimes do not make eye contact or cannot hold up their end of a conversation.

Q: What would you suggest students think about before they come to an interview?

A: Think about what they want to know about Quinnipiac.  It is always a good interview when a student has questions about Quinnipiac, the application process or college life in general.  There is nothing worse than just a recitation of accomplishments.

Q: Should a student discuss or explain a poor grade or marking period(s)? If so, when?

A: We definitely would like to know about poor grades.  The timing depends on when the grades were received.  Obviously, we would look to see improvement if the issue was in freshman, sophomore year.  Junior year they could reference it in the essay or speak to a counselor in a visit.

Essay Writing

Q: What qualities do you look for in a well-written essay?

A: A well written essay needs to begin with spelling and grammar.  Many students use spell check, but it certainly won’t tell them that the use of the word their vs. there is incorrect.  I suggest that students have at least one other person, preferably a parent or older sibling, take a look at the essay.  I love a creative essay.  It can focus on a special person in their life or an interesting book that they read.  It is hard to say exactly what works for every counselor.

Q: Is there a type of essay you would recommend against? 

A: I wouldn’t necessarily say any essay topic is bad, but personally I see too many of the athletic moments that build character.  Some of the best ones that I have read talk about work experiences or chance encounters with people who have changed the student’s perceptions.

Q: Can an essay make or break an admission?

A: I don’t think an essay has ever broken an admission for a strong student academically.  It can make an admission, particularly if that student has a story to tell.  I have read essays from students that provide details on a difficult life and struggles they have had on their way to the admission process.  The best line that I read from a transfer student was when he explained why he wanted to go to college after a stint in construction.  He compared himself to an animal that will be put down after they cannot do the job any more.  He said that by completing his education, he would not be anyone’s mule again.

Q: Where do you stand on the 500 word limit on the Common Application’s personal statement? Can a student go over the Common Application’s 500 word limit?

A: What we usually tell students is to write as many words as it takes to tell the story.  It is important that they have it reviewed by an English teacher if possible for grammar and composition.  If not, then read it out loud to a parent or older sibling.  If they find that it is too wordy or doesn’t make sense, go back and revise.   It’s fine to go over if you need more words to give us a complete picture of how an event or person impacted  your life.  Just don’t embellish too much, use words just because you can or the worst thing of all, send the wrong essay to the wrong school.  And, spell check is not fool-proof, use a dictionary if you are unsure of a spelling or meaning.

Financial Aid

Q: How has the recession affected the admissions process and the availability of financial aid?

A: The process has been affected quite dramatically.  I actually met with a student and his mom this week who have just determined that they will need financial aid.  They are not sure if he will be able to start with us this fall and are looking at community college for a semester.  We are looking at more and more families needing help and less aid to offer.


Q: What part of the admissions process is most misunderstood?

A: All students need to realize that the admissions process is somewhat subjective.  They should also know that even if they don’t get into their first choice school, they will find a great place that will provide them with a good education and a great college experience.

Q: How can people connect with Quinnipiac and your students?

We do have a Quinnipiac Facebook page and we have an undergraduate admissions blog.  The Twitter feed is on that page.  Quinnipiac also has its own YouTube channel.

To Contact Quinnipiac University:

275 Mount Carmel Avenue
Hamden, CT 06518-1908

other posts in this series:

Ithaca College
Sacred Heart University
University of Bridgeport

Housatonic Community College

other posts in this series:

Housatonic Community College
Ithaca College
Sacred Heart University
University of Bridgeport
University of Connecticut

Sharon Epstein, FIrst Impressions College Consulting..Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting
Need help? I work with students everywhere: in-person, over the phone, and by computer. Visit my website for more info.
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Resumes and Activity Sheets: Good Idea When Applying to College?

Are resumes or activity sheets a good idea to use when applying to college?

This question recently sparked a lively debate among admissions professionals on LinkedIn.  Interestingly, the answers were split.  Here’s a representative sampling:

Admission CounselorsAdvice:

Joanne Robertson, Assistant Director, Transfer Admissions at Quinnipiac University, says yes to activity sheets but no to resumes: “Although it is a great icebreaker for the student to provide us with an activity sheet, unless they are applying for one of our majors that need documented hours for the admission requirement, a resume is definitely overkill. I have had the unfortunate experience of talking to parents who overwhelm us with details on “internships” etc. Seriously, then why is your child applying to college? Sounds like they are already set.”

Warren Harman, Admission Professional at Clarkson University, says yes to resumes and activity sheets:  “Every time I open an application I ask “Who are you?” Hopefully, the student’s application will answer that question. The resume gives our team a better idea of what the student is most passionate about. Call it what you will, a resume or activities sheet gives us a better feel for how happy the student would be to attend our school.”

Ken Higgins, Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Sacred Heart University, also says yes to resumes and activities sheets: “Oftentimes I’ll ask a student if they have any sort of resume or an activities sheet so we can go over that and discuss each bullet or topic. That gives me a sense of their extracurricular activities as well.”

Opinions differ, so what should you do?

  • When admissions professionals didn’t like resumes it was usually because of their unnecessary detail and length (some they saw were six pages long). If your resume is more than a couple of pages, try putting together an activities list that doesn’t include the typical resume stuff like where you go to school, GPA, scores, etc.
  • Don’t include huge explanations and don’t include every single thing you did in the past four years.
  • Don’t be fooled into thinking you definitely need a resume/activity sheet. If everything you want to say is easily conveyed through what they ask on the application, then don’t include anything extra.
  • Don’t duplicate information already provided in the application.

Look for part two: “Attaching Resumes or Activity Sheets to an Application – The Right Way”