Eavesdropping in the College Admissions Office

As a college admissions tutor and counselor and long-time Rutgers professor, I have had an opportunity to speak with many folks in many admissions offices, and while schmoozing with college application readers, I’ve learned a few things that every college applicant should know.

Here’s what college admissions officers say bugs them the most about college applicants.


Here are the 5 most important takeaways.


1.   Never be disrespectful or rude when speaking with anyone in admissions.

You may not know this, but every time you or your child speak with someone in an admissions office by phone, call details are noted. But beware: The person with whom you are speaking is not just noting details about the content of the call, but also writing notes about the way you or child interact with the person on the other end. Should you act rudely or impolitely to anyone, that discourteousness will be noted in your child’s file.

College admissions officers expect you to comport yourself in a manner befitting a potential member of a learned academy. As you and your child are aspiring to become members of that learned community, you are expected to comport yourself with decorum. Besides, as many bemoan the passing of common courtesy, your courteous behavior will certainly leave a memorable impact, and that may significantly affect your child’s admissions prospects.

Takeaway: The college admissions process is an odyssey like none other. Along the way, you and your child are going to have good days and bad days. But don’t let stress and tension interfere with your child’s college admissions prospects.


2.   Never send more information than is asked for.

In most college admissions offices, reviewing your child’s entire application takes about 10 to 12 minutes. Some college admissions offices boast of reviewing applications in four to six minutes.  No one reading 30 to 40 applications a day (that’s approximately 200 a week or 2,400 per admission season) has the time or the patience to wade through additional unrequested documentation such as resumes that simply repeat information that’s in your child’s activities list.

Takeaway: Stick to the script. It’s not bulk that matters, but quality. Instead of padding your child’s application with unnecessary or repetitive information, starting in ninth grade, work to make all parts of your child’s application deep and compelling.


3.   Make sure your child’s application is outstanding.

This insight is probably the most important in terms of your child’s admissions success. Think about this for a minute. Say you are one of 10 application readers in a college’s admissions office. Your college has just received somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 applications, one of which is your child’s. Many of those applicants are, like your child, very good applicants. But only a very few are outstanding.

Because we live in an era of unprecedented competitiveness for college admission, at many selective colleges in the country, very good has become the norm. In fact, Stanford’s admissions office staff recently categorized very good applicants as “SPs” or “standard positives.” To get ahead of the other applicants and avoid having your child’s application dumped in the “SP” pile, all aspects of your child’ application must grab and hold the admissions officers’ attention right from the start. This need to arrest the reader’s attention cannot be underemphasized. All aspects of your child’s application must show how your child is significantly different and better than all the other applicants. In other words, your child needs to demonstrate how she or he is not just equal to all the rest but better.

Takeaway: Start working to define your child’s “college admissions self” starting in 9th grade. What can your child do right now through community service, extra-curricular activities, or athletics to help her or his application stand out in a way that will make sure that your child’s application doesn’t end up in the standard positive pile?


4.   Don’t hide your child’s personality.

College admissions officers are, generally speaking, people people. As such, they like getting to know students and potential students. To do this, they scrutinize your child’s application for evidence of the kind of person your child is. Courageous? Shy? Humble? Entitled?

This concern for admitting good people not just smart students has taken on extra urgency since Harvard published their report “Turning the Tide”. This report, the result of a broad coalition of college admissions officers working together, is in part intended to help other college admissions officers seek out students who are not just concerned with individual academic achievement but also with caring for others. And while the goal of colleges has always been, in part, to admit students who will not only add to the college’s intellectual capital but who will also work well with other students and with the larger college community, the concern for admitting not just smart students but good students is foremost on the minds of college admissions officers right now.

Takeaway: Before you click submit, make sure that there is nothing in your essays or any other part of your child’s application that might be construed as arrogant, selfish, or entitled. On the contrary, look for ways that you can help underscore your child’s ability to empathize, wit, and generosity.


 5.   If your child is offered a chance to interview, jump at it.

An interview provides your child with another opportunity to add value to her or his application. The interview gives college admissions officers a chance to assess your child’s “fit” with the college and to get to know the person behind all the documentation. If approached strategically, a successful interview has the power to push your child’s application from the “standard positive” pile to the admitted pile.

Takeaway: Help your child prepare for an admissions interview by thinking about aspects of your child that have not been revealed in other parts of the application.  Prepare your child to provide specific, anecdotal evidence that will add luster and depth to the written documentation and leave a favorable impression on the interviewer.

If you have any questions or would like to speak about your aspiring college student, please don’t hesitate to reach out.  I’d love to speak with you!

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized plan for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and career aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and secure admission to top colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.