Your Top College Admissions Questions Answered

Perhaps the scariest part of the college admissions process is the actual application. How do you put the last four years of high school into a single application and make sure it accurately reflects all of your achievements, goals and abilities? How do you ensure your essay is so incredible, that an admissions officer remembers it after reading 1,000 more? How do you give yourself the best chance of being accepted when the competition is so fierce?  

As the associate director of admissions at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration (SHA), I have seen and read many college applications. SHA is an AACSB-accredited business-management program with a focus on hospitality and service industries. Since SHA is one of the more specialized programs at Cornell, I usually encourage applicants to ask themselves questions to determine fit—questions like, What will my first year look like? What will my four years look like? What career choices will I have after graduation, or what if I want to go to graduate school? What support is available to me through advisors, alumni, and classmates?

Cornell University has seven undergraduate schools and colleges with over 80 different majors. Evaluating such a broad range of applications makes Cornell a great subject-matter expert to talk to high school students about ‘fit’ in the admissions process.

If you take the time to establish with solid examples why you are a good fit with a particular college and major, you have taken the first step to creating a more competitive application. Through DECA, you have been encouraged to explore real-world experiences, which gives you a better understanding of your career potential and helps you realize what direction you may want to take your academic path.

DECA asked its members to share, via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, their biggest college applications questions for Cornell, and here I have answered your questions and shared some tips regarding how to put forward a competitive college application.

Jamie Hillen (Facebook) – What is the most common mistake or thing missing on most applications?

Your application should be a representation of your best work. Be sure to sufficiently review your application before submitting. Have someone else review it and ask for feedback. Spelling and grammar mistakes, or including the name of a different school from the one to which you are applying, reflect poorly and are avoidable.

Be authentic. Many universities read holistically, meaning that in addition to academic ability, they are looking for clues that suggest the contributions your enrollment will make to the university’s community and culture. Effective essays should reveal a bit of your personality and identity.

@BrandonLAllen – DECA prepares emerging leaders. What are the best ways an applicant can put that preparation to use for admittance?

Cornell fosters opportunities for its students to cultivate leadership skills. SHA looks for leadership potential in its applicants, knowing our students will eventually be leaders in the business world. DECA provides rich opportunities to lead. Your DECA experiences develop focus, professionalism, and strong communication skills. Although many schools you apply to may know of DECA, don’t assume everyone understands the impact DECA may have made in fostering leadership. Highlight your experiences in essays, interviews, and letters of recommendation.

@agneshina – How can applicants set their essays apart from the thousands of others?

Setting yourself apart from thousands of other applicants can seem an impossible task. So, let’s concentrate on some of the more realistic goals that can help you submit an application that provides a better understanding of who you are. My advice? Be your authentic self, research the school/major/etc., answer the question, and think about how you can articulate why you are a good fit with this school.

To that end, ask yourself these questions before starting your essays: Why are you applying to this school? What do you like about the major, the program, the support resources, the clubs/organizations, etc.? Think about these things and work them into your application. For example, SHA is a specialized business-management program. When students apply to SHA, they know they can go into real estate, finance, law, food and beverage, or operations, but we want to make sure that they are service-minded and understand that hospitality is everywhere. We want to know what the business of hospitality means to them.

Your essays should reveal something of your identity, about who you are, instead of trying to make yourself something that you think the admissions counselors want to see. Good essays are self-reflective and authentic. You will likely have your advisor, a parent, you best friend, and others read your essays. Proofreading is a good thing and is recommended, but don’t allow your authentic self to be scrubbed clean of the essay you submit.

@trisha_lashay – What are three topics that are overused in college-application essays and what topics should be avoided?

For me, it isn’t so much overusing topics, but rather considering what each element of the application contributes toward painting a picture of who you are. There are many complementary components of an application and each one serves a purpose. Take the time to look at your application holistically and think like an admissions counselor—what is missing? What should I emphasize to tell my story? I recommend writing what you know.

I remember an essay many years ago from an applicant who told the story of running for class president every year in high school, and every year, another classmate won the election. It was a simple essay, but what I learned from those four paragraphs was that this applicant would try and try again. This applicant had potential to lead and was interested in taking a leadership position. This applicant had a sense of humor and was willing to take a chance.

Leadership is a topic that many of you will choose for your college essays. You might say this topic is overused, but if you tell your own story and not the formulaic story you might be tempted to think we’re looking for, it is likely that your essay will be distinctive and authentic—and a valuable asset to your overall application.

@nick_chirgwin16 – Is having a challenging schedule (AP/IB/honor classes) and a lower GPA more appealing to admissions officers than a higher GPA and less-challenging classes?

For SHA, we select applicants that have found a balance between challenging themselves and succeeding academically. We understand that sometimes challenging yourself means running the risk of having a slightly lower grade. Take the steps you need to make sure that you are ready for that challenging class. You can talk to your guidance counselor, your advisor, or the course teacher.

If one course grade stands apart from an otherwise solid transcript, you may choose to use a space on the university application to talk about what you did to earn that grade—did you meet with the teacher, attempt extra credit, or spend additional time studying? Let us know. There will likely be courses in college in which you struggle, and we want to know that you will work hard and ask for help, taking the extra steps to improve your grade.

@ardinrow – How are DECA members seen by admissions officers?

For SHA, we know that students who participate in DECA—whether or not they hold leadership positions—have taken steps to learn about business, entrepreneurship, and potentially hospitality in a career-focused environment. DECA students have pre-professional experiences. DECA applicants often have competed at some level and, regardless of the outcome, learn from that experience. They are challenged and must think on their feet in a competitive setting. DECA members have worked in groups and can be collaborative. DECA students have several of the qualities we look for in applicants that suggest they will perform very well in the SHA program.

@aashijhawar – What types of extracurricular activities are the most important?

You will likely hear a range of answers depending on the program, major, college, and university you are applying to. In general, the most important activities are the ones that you are most passionate and enthusiastic about.

Among our successful applicants this often includes activities that have exposed you to leadership or entrepreneurship, or those with a strong service component. We are not counting how many clubs, organizations, or teams you have joined, but we will look to see how engaged you are in your chosen activities, however many or few. We like to see that you can balance academics with outside interests and have learned how to prioritize.

So, it really isn’t about how many clubs you have joined; it’s about how you have decided to make certain organizations and activities an important part of your life. What is the sense of commitment and contribution? What is the level of initiative, engagement, responsibility? Do you intend to continue this interest at college, and does it suggest what level of engagement you might have as a student at our university? These are the things we consider in reading your activities and interests.

@alexa_harris – What’s something every college student should know about attending college?

Do your research before you apply. If you select a school that is a good fit with your interests, your career goals, and your expectations, you have already taken the first step towards a successful academic career. SHA applicants have taken the time to discover our program and understand that our career-focused curriculum, set within a liberal arts context, will provide the ideal environment to explore and refine their interests in business management.

Other things college students should know about attending college? Learn to ask for help. This is a good general rule, but many students go through high school without ever needing to ask for help. There is a high probability that in college you will need help in some form—from learning how to use a commercial washing machine, to adjusting your study skills, to solving a difficult problem set, to better managing your time. It can be difficult to ask for help, especially if you have never needed to before, but you should know that asking for help will take you far, and it cultivates a network of people who contribute to your success.

@ddjustme – What is the most important part of a college application?

Each part of the application has a purpose and is important. For those just starting to explore the Common Application, Universal College Application, or similar application format, you will see that it will take time to complete. Make sure you are submitting an application that is the representation of your best work. Take the time to put your best effort into everything from your essay to selecting the people that will write your letters of recommendation. Thoughtfully plan the completion of each element of the application; this is what you have control over—the rest is up to the admissions committee.

@therohanghiya – What’s the order of importance for the following when applying: essays, extracurricular activities, and standardized test scores.

You may receive a very different answer depending on what school you are asking. Generally speaking, my recommendation is to do your research and make certain that you understand what your target schools are looking for in their applicants, and make sure these qualities are highlighted in your application.

The essay can be a great vehicle to give context and tie things together. For example, only listing DECA as an extracurricular activity is very different from describing the commitment and time you took to prepare for a DECA competition. For a school that does not know the DECA organization, this information can reveal additional attributes such as your time-management abilities and your professionalism. If you have an opportunity in the application to expand on an extracurricular or event that highlights skills that are important to the college/university to which you are applying, make sure that you do so.

Follow Cornell Admissions on Twitter @CornellUAO.

Categories: Choosing A College, Choosing A Major, College, College & Career Advice