College Applications: Answers Straight from the Source

In theory, applying to the colleges you've chosen should to be easiest part of the process. You've just spent months searching for the right schools, visiting campuses, and speaking with guidance counselors, enrolled students, professors, and everyone else under the sun in order to narrow down your choices. Now that you finally have your top picks selected, submitting applications ought be a piece of cake, right?

In reality, the college application process can be tangled and complicated. College-bound students must juggle all kinds of forms and paperwork, in addition to worrying about standardized tests and writing a dynamite personal essay.

It's easy to feel a little lost in the woods during this time, so to help answer the questions you might have, we've spoken with representatives from three Vermont schools – Dwight Cross, Assistant Dean of Enrollment at Vermont Technical College; Nicole Curvin, Dean of Admissions at Marlboro College; and Beth Wiser, Director of Admissions at the University of Vermont. We asked all three about their admissions criteria and the applications process.

How many applications do you receive in a year? How many applicants are accepted?

Cross: This year we received around 2,100 applications. We accepted about 1,300 and expect to enroll about 800 in a few weeks.

Curvin: We accept about 60 percent of the students.

Wiser: This past year we received over 22,000 applications to UVM. 22,365 to be exact. 2,100 who were residents of the state of Vermont. So our goal is to be able to reach and get the best and the brightest students from the state of Vermont. 5,300 students were SAT takers, we got 2,100 of those students to apply. In the state of Vermont, we admit about 74 percent of our applicants, so it's a fairly high percentage that means we're getting very well prepared students to be able to apply. Our overall admit rate for both in and out of state is about 70 percent.

What are you looking for in a prospective student?

Cross: Many of our majors are math and science focused, so we like to see students with a decent or strong math and science background. Because our programs are career focused, it is nice, not required, that students explore their field. For example, If they are interested in engineering, we recommend a drafting or design class. If they want Veterinary Technology, we recommend a job shadow or a volunteer experience.

Curvin: We're looking for students who are really interested in taking charge of their education and working closely with faculty members to explore any of the academic areas that they're interested in. So we need students who want to engage in the classroom. Obviously, we have small classes, so students who are willing to participate and be proactive to engage in their education and not just sit in the back of the classroom or the lecture hall and not connect. We need students who are independent and willing to write well, communicate well with faculty members through their papers and projects, and students who really want a small environment. We are obviously a rural campus, so we want students who will build community and many different ways, in a smaller setting where you don't have the luxury of being in a big town or a big city.

Wiser: First and foremost, academic preparation. So, we're looking at the curriculum, looking for students who complete our minimum core requirements and then ways that they can exceed that. So, that's looking at four years of English, three years of math, social studies, and science, and two years of a foreign language. Being able to see students who challenge themselves with what's available in their high school and have performed consistently in those classes. Secondly, then we look at other academic factors besides curriculum and grades, and one of those are standardized test scores, so we consider either SATs or the ACT and take the highest score that a student will present. We're fortunate that even though we have 22,000 applications, that we can do a holistic review on all of our applicants, which means we read the entire application. We're looking at extracurricular activities, we're looking at the recommendations from a teacher, or a high school counselor, we're looking at the ways that students have challenged themselves.

What do you look for in an application essay? What can students do to stand out?

Cross: An essay is not required during the application process, however we still recommend that the student submit one. The essay will tell us more about the student that we cannot get from looking at a transcript or standardized test scores. Essays are also useful for a student that may have some gray areas on their transcripts. They can use the essay as a chance to explain why they may have struggled in a particular class or phase of high school.

Curvin: I think the best thing students can do in the application essay is, first of all, to take their time and really put the work in to produce something that is clear and focused, but be honest and be thoughtful about background or whatever the subject is, whether it's writing about something that's personal or writing about a larger world issue. But really just focusing their energy and being honest. And not trying to be too quirky. I think students are told that essays need to be crazy and outlandish to be noticed, but in my mind, I think the best essays are the ones where students have really taken the time to be thoughtful about what they're saying, about their experiences, and trying to be clear and careful and grammatically correct and all of those sort of things. Those are the things that stand out well.

Wiser: The first thing is that we find out if the student has actually answered the question. And you'd be surprised at the number of students who wouldn't answer it directly! That's really what we look for, and then we're looking for the mechanics of writing. Did they make a statement, back it up with facts? If they have an opinion, do they have warrants that can back that up. What does the spelling look like? What does the grammar look like? So, some basic, fundamental pieces. But beyond that, we use the essay to put the personal face on the application. It gives the opportunity for the student to reveal something about themselves or an experience they had that was meaningful to them that helps us be able to get to know them as a person. There isn't a bad or a wrong essay topic.

Are SAT/ACT scores important? What kind of test results are you looking for?

Cross: For students entering right out of high school, we do ask for a standardized test. Non traditional aged students usually have the ACT/SAT waived. There are no cut-off scores. We view the transcript as the biggest identifier of success.

Curvin: They're not important. In fact, they're optional for us, and we are looking for students who don't want to be in an environment where testing and grades are the only barometer of success.

Wiser: They are a factor that we consider. We look at them secondarily to the day-to-day performance that the students have in high school, but they play a factor in the decision making process. The average student that was admitted this year had SAT scores of just under 1,250, critical reading and math. The students that actually enrolled have a critical reading and math that's closer to 1,190...The beauty of doing the holistic review though, is that we don't have any minimums. We have admitted students with lower scores because they've demonstrated other things in their application that let us know that they can be successful here and competitive in our applicant pool.

Do you require any additional tests or writing samples to be submitted with an application?

Cross: Not initially. After the initial file review, we often require students to take a placement test. During the placement tests, students are asked to write a short essay, the English Department uses the essay to place the student into an appropriate English course.

Curvin: We do ask for an expository writing sample. So, a class paper, a research orientated paper, an essay. All of the academic disciplines here are really heavy, writing-intensive courses so we need to make sure that students have the basics down in terms of writing and will be able to fulfill the requirements we have in terms of writing here.

Wiser: We don't. If students provide them, we'll look at them and read them, but they're not required as part the application process.

Do you encourage an interview with admissions staff?

Cross: Yes, it is nice to put a face with a name. An interview is not required, but always encouraged. A lot of the information exchanged in the interview will be helpful to the prospective student.

Curvin: We do. We strongly encourage interviews. We want to make sure that students are finding the right fit for themselves here and that they're having the right conversation with us to ask all the questions they have about what it's like to be a student here and also so we can get a sense of where the student is coming from. With a small college you definitely want to make contact with the students who are applying, and I think the application process is very hands on. We're constantly talking with prospective students, answering their questions, encouraging them to come for a visit. So interviews are definitely a key component of the process for us.

Wiser: UVM doesn't offer interviews. The most important we can do, as part of that visit process, is offer them a multitude of ways to visit campus. During those visits, there are opportunities to talk to admissions counselors, if that is something that the student wishes to do. The issue with the interview is that we feel like if we provide interviews for some people because they can easily travel here, or because they have the means to be able to do that, and use that in the admission process, puts some students at a disadvantage.

Does the need for financial aid affect whether or not a student is accepted? Would a person with the same grades, but no need for financial aid, stand a greater chance of getting in?

Cross: We will be need blind during the review process. No direct financial aid information is included in the admissions file.

Curvin: No, we don't factor in financial aid when we're reviewing an applicant for acceptance. All of our applications are reviewed first, and in terms of figuring out financial aid, that's a separate process.

Wiser: It is not a factor. We are 100 percent need blind in our admission process and we don't know at the time of application whether a student is planning to apply for financial aid or not.

Are you looking for certain classes on a transcript?

Cross: Yes, it depends on the major. We typically start with the senior year and work backwards. Because of our majors, we always recommend that a student takes math their senior year of high school. Other majors may have specific requirements. Some of the majors require Chemistry, others may require Physics.

Curvin: I think we're looking at the type of college-prep background that a student has, so the variety of courses. Obviously, how well they've done in the courses, but primarily it's really just making sure that the students have had a cross section of different areas of study. Making sure that there's a foreign language, some science classes, a math class, the typical college-prep curriculum so that the students are prepared to come to our school and do well.

Wiser: Outside of the minimum curriculum that we're looking for, we looking for students who challenge themselves in what's available at their high school. And that doesn't necessarily mean that the students have to fill their schedule with honors or AP classes, but we are looking for students who will be able to be competitive in an environment like UVM... We require students to take at least two years of a foreign language, and it's certainty to a student's advantage to take three, if not four years. Students are most successful, regardless of curriculum we found, if they can take pre-calculus and if they can take physics.

Suppose a student did poorly in a few classes or had a bad semester – how could they still make themselves look appealing? What could they do to address the situation?

Cross: Good question. I would recommend that the student address the grades head on with an essay or written statement. A lot of times there’s a reason for the poor grades – illness, family death, living situation. Another option is to ask someone to write a recommendation on your behalf. That person can address the poor grades. Some of the most effective letters of recommendation that I have read actually have come from a teacher of the class that the student did poorly in. The teacher can tell the admissions committee why the student struggled and put a positive light on the poor grade.

Curvin: I think that what I said about the writing sample being honest and direct certainly applies to students who may have had a blip in their high school record for whatever reason, whether there were personal issues or whether there were classes that they just didn't connect with. I think that as long as a student acknowledges that they had difficulties and talks about how they pushed through it. Seeing a student talk about the ways they improved their math skills, or their science skills, or they struggled through a writing course, what steps they took to improve. I think that's they most important thing.

Wiser: We're looking for the evidence that they can be successful and that the pattern has turned itself around. So depending on when that unfortunate semester happened, it often times influences how we look at the application. So, if the student, for example, has a difficult time transitioning into high school, into ninth grade, and has steady progression upward, then we're going to understand that and it doesn't put the student at a disadvantage. If that downward trend happens more toward that junior year, and typically junior year is one of the challenging years of high school, we're going to wait to get senior year information before making a final decision. The student has an opportunity to turn that thing around and show that this was an aberration in their particular high school career, they have the ability to maintain a strong academic record. We do communicate with students after admissions, if they have a downward trend, after they've been admitted and we see a final transcript. Our letter of admissions is clear that we could possibly revoke admission if the downward trend is so significant that it shows that a student might not be able to handle work at UVM.

Is it more difficult to get accepted into certain majors than others?

Cross: Yes, right now the popular majors are nursing, veterinary technology, automotive, and dental hygiene. We receive more applications than we have available seats. Other majors that are seeing an increase in enrollment include agriculture, construction management, Sustainable Design, and Civil Engineering Technology.

Curvin: No, we're a traditional kind of liberal arts application process. We really are looking at the whole student, how they would do generally in the programs that we offer, so we have no distinctions by major. Say, if you want to focus on writing, or if you want to focus on history, then there are different requirements for those areas.

Wiser: The competitive major right now is nursing. That's because of limited seats...we can only accommodate a certain number or students and the demand for nursing is very high. So the academic quality of the students that are admitted into nursing is quite strong and unfortunately we have to turn students away to some other programs. But otherwise, there are certain majors that do have particular kinds of prerequisites, like engineering and business and the math courses, but what we see most often with students who apply to UVM is that they typically meet those requirements.