Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills


Interviews with College Admissions Counselors: Sacred Heart University

sacred heart pioneers

Updated July 23, 2012

Welcome 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 the college admission counselors themselves about applying to college, college interviews, 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 the information with other schools.

I hope this will be an excellent resource for anyone looking 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 Sacred Heart University.

Sacred Heart University, founded in 1963 and located in Fairfield, Connecticut, is a private, co-educational Catholic university providing men and women with a comprehensive, hands-on education rooted in the liberal arts and Catholic intellectual tradition.

The university offers 45 degree programs and is listed in The Princeton Review’s 2011 edition of its annual college guide, “The Best 373 Colleges.”

Fall 2009 enrollment
3,534 full-time undergraduates
658 part time undergraduates
1,871 graduate students


Ken Higgins, Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, answered the following questions during a recent phone interview:

Q: What percentage of applicants does Sacred Heart admit?

A: Traditionally we offer acceptance to around 62% of all of our applicants.

Q: Does Sacred Heart have a specific mission?

A: We’re a private Catholic university but we belong to no particular order. We have our foundations in the Catholic intellectual tradition where the goal is to be educated in the liberal arts, to grow as a student and to be the best prepared for entering the work world. We’re looking for a student who is willing to grow intellectually and challenge themselves.


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

A:  It does only in the sense that we’re looking for students who want to be here, and the early decision tool is a way for a student to express their high level of interest. We don’t discount the scores or the GPA, but it is something that we take into consideration when reviewing that pool of applicants.

Q: How important are extracurricular activities in admissions decisions?

A: Extracurricular activities are extremely important. We have a very active, very engaged student body. For applicants it also shows us that they have some idea of time management, which is crucial at a place like Sacred Heart. To be able to manage your time well is something that’s very, very important to us.

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

A: When we’re choosing in the selection process it’s helpful to see those courses. I don’t think it’s going to hurt a student to have only taken college prep or standard curriculum, but it will have a positive effect to take accelerated, honors or advanced placements. We also understand that at certain high schools there are limitations in terms of the availability of those courses, which we will take into account as well.

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

A: We take into account the environment in which they’ve had their high school education. We also take into account that some students don’t have a choice; they’ve grown up in a specific environment and they may not have options about where they’d like to go to high school.

Q: Which teachers should write a recommendation?

A: I like reading letters of recommendation from teachers and/or counselors that have really gotten to know the student well – maybe a teacher that has had a student two consecutive years or two consecutive classes. We’re looking for someone who can showcase the student and can tell us in detail the strength of the student in the classroom.

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

A: We don’t ask about or investigate things that aren’t said. But it’s always appreciated that if there’s a red flag or a concern on the student’s academic record or transcript, whoever wrote the letter of recommendation could either address it in the letter or contact us individually. In the past I’ve had letters of recommendation that say “please call me” at the end. If I see that, maybe it’s something the counselor did not want to write down, and maybe we want to explore that a little further either over the phone or in person.

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

A: The university recently changed its policy to test-optional. The first test-optional class was the class that just enrolled for the fall of 2010. We take the GPA very, very seriously. We feel it’s a much better indicator of not only the type of student that student’s been the last four years, but more importantly the kind of student they can be the next four years at Sacred Heart.

Q: What do you say to students or parents who are uncomfortable about not submitting test scores?

A: If a student is that concerned I won’t say don’t send them in. We’ve taken a hard look at the statistics over the past 10 years of those standardized scores and we feel they’re aren’t the best indicators of the student’s capability of how well they can do here. Again, to be fair, we say if you choose not to submit your scores it will not hurt you. We always use the caveat that if we need something else we hold the right to request further information from any applicant who decides not to submit the test scores. That can be in the form of an additional essay or a graded paper, something like that from their junior year.

Q: So if someone applies test-optional you don’t automatically ask for additional material?

A: That’s correct. It’s not automatic. It’s a case-by-case basis. Otherwise it’s the same application.


Q: Does your school offer interviews with college admissions counselors?

A: We do, absolutely. I think it’s becoming more and more rare. We pride ourselves on our personal attention – it helps the counselor get to know each applicant that much better and really puts a face to the application. Even with the amount of information included in the application it’s still great to have a one-on-one with the student to find out why they’re interested in Sacred Heart and how they can contribute here and to the community.

Q: What college interview skills do you find are most lacking?

A: It’s the confidence. I think maybe students take the word “interview” as intimidation. It’s a very official sounding word. They can be very nervous and give one-word answers. They’re very polite but they don’t really open up, so my role as a counselor is to make it much more conversational. We’re trying to get to know the applicant, not necessarily looking for flaws or always trying to find the wrong answer.

Q: What do you say to parents who want to sit in on the interview?

A: I tell parents, “Our policy is it’s me and the student first. I’d like to meet the student and go over things with them, and then at the end of our portion of the interview you’re more than welcome to come back and we can recap what we chatted about.” I can also answer any questions the parents might have at that point.

Q: What do you suggest students think about before they come to a college interview?

A: I ask a lot of “why.” “Why are you interested in Sacred Heart, how did you first hear about Sacred Heart, why are you interested in the program that you’ve chosen?” I strongly encourage students to highlight their extracurricular activities and tell me a little bit about outside of the classroom. 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.

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

A: Yes. I’d encourage them to identify and react to it, and provide an explanation on the application. There’s a number of ways to do that through the Common Application, whether it’s in the personal essay or in a short one-paragraph explanation. If it’s not addressed in the essay or the application as a whole I always encourage them to bring it up in the interview or in conversation with the counselor. I think reflecting on it is a good thing; they’re identifying the problem. By bringing it up they’re not shying away or hiding from it.

Essay Writing

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

A: You said it yourself – “well-written.” I’m a sucker for the basics. Structurally it has to be a sound essay with solid introduction, body, and conclusion. Basic grammar is absolutely paramount. So is punctuation. Proofread it a number of times to make sure that it flows nicely. The essay as a whole is an opportunity for each applicant to set themselves apart from the rest of the applicant pool. It’s an outstanding opportunity to tell a story or to showcase themselves. It’s an opportunity to tell us why they’re different and may be the best fit for Sacred Heart. But again, in terms of the quality we’re looking for the basics – punctuation, grammar, and overall structure.

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

A: The essay I’d recommend against is anything that puts the student in a negative light. Obviously it sounds foolish to do that, but there are situations where they might bring up a situation or scenario from the past, and it doesn’t highlight them as a unique student. And the caveat is we’re always looking for original work.

Q: Can you tell when a work isn’t original?

A: We do have indicators and checks in place, and if there’s ever a question it will be investigated further to verify. We will assume and hope that it is original work. We’re not looking up every single essay.

Q: Can an essay make or break an admission?

A: In rare cases it can make or break a decision. For example, there was an applicant who wrote a very well-written essay on why they’d be a great fit for Sacred Heart University – not only Sacred Heart University but our physical therapy program as well. Structurally it was sound and throughout the whole essay it was firing on all cylinders. Then at the end it said, “Due to all the factors this is why I feel I’d be a great fit for – ” and it was another university’s name. I’m not saying that made the decision, but it certainly had an effect on the decision that was made.

Q: What your advice to students on how to handle the Common App 500 word length, and whether or not it’s okay to go over the limit?

A: Students will often inquire about the word limit for the College Essay, and how they should approach it.  My best suggestion to them is to use enough words to get your point across, and tell your story thoroughly, but yet succinctly.  It may sound counter-intuitive, but those 500 words run out relatively quickly, so typing a good draft that may go FAR over the limit, and then “trimming” could be useful.  Generally speaking, I do not worry too much about the word limit of the essay (I’ve never actually counted), however if it is exceedingly long (or too short), it may raise a (slight) red flag during the application review process.  If it takes 650 words to get the core of the story in, then so be it, just as long as it’s not 6,500 words.

Financial Aid

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

A: The admissions process has not been affected much by the recession, which I think is a great thing. As a matter of fact, the availability of financial aid is greater than ever. We’re a need-blind institution; about 90% of our student body receives some kind of aid, whether it be need-based or merit-based or institutional-based. To put it in perspective, last year we enrolled the largest class in the school’s history.

Q: Are there programs at Sacred Heart that are more difficult to get into than others?

A: There are programs that are more competitive based on space and availability. Physical therapy is a graduate program here but the students have a great opportunity to be accepted early, so there are more stringent requirements for that. Another one I’d bring up is our nursing program. It’s a highly competitive four-year bachelor of science in nursing and we have limited availability for that nursing freshman class.


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

A: The standardized testing. It’s easier for us to say because we’re a test-optional school. We feel that they aren’t necessarily the be-all and end-all or the best indicator of the aptitude and the ability of the student. Standardized tests aren’t a good indicator of two things: the type of student that they’ve been for the past four years at the high school level, and most importantly the type of student that they can be at the college level.

Q: How can people connect with your school and your students?
A: We have many ways for students, parents, and alumni to connect with each other and with us. We strongly encourage families to visit our website:, which is very expansive and user-friendly. We have a twitter account: Our main facebook page is We have an undergradutate admissions blog: and we’re on youtube:

Q: Please ask a question specific to your school.
Question: Do I need to have a major chosen coming in to Sacred Heart?
A: No. Seventeen and eighteen year olds don’t necessarily know what they want to do with the rest of their lives. That’s why we recently restructured and re-introduced our “Major in Success” program, which works very closely with the undecided students or the decided students having second thoughts about their academic interests. It’s a great guide for students, a great guide and helping hand for our career development and academic advising offices, working in tandem with students to help them point themselves in the right direction.

To Contact Sacred Heart University:

5151 Park Avenue
Fairfield, CT  06825

other posts in this series:
Housatonic Community College
Ithaca College
Quinnipiac University
University of Bridgeport
University of Connecticut

Sharon Epstein, FIrst Impressions College Consulting..Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting
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