College Success 101 – Class is in Session!


This post is dedicated to all of my high school students applying to college and all of my first-year college students who just went through this process.

When someone writes my biography (Yes, someone will want to write about me!), I want them to write my life out of sequence so instead of starting with my birth I would want them to start with my first job as a higher education professional… an Admission Counselor!! I mean you could start with my birth story since that is my beginning… “It was a cold and snowy day in February…” Yet I don’t think that would give the real context of who I am today. So I would urge my biographer to begin with another so-called “birth” … my first day as an Admission counselor at Carnegie Mellon.

At first it was a job just like any job. I would drag in at 8:30, grit my teeth until 5pm, relax since the day was over, and go home. This lasted for a month until, meeting more and more eager high school juniors with their enthusiasm or smug seniors with their demanding questions, I had my aha moment or “birth” as an Admission Counselor.

I realized I’m a personal representation of a university in all its forms from the academics to student life and research to study abroad opportunities (see I can’t seem to turn it off!). In every presentation, every high school visit, admission interview, application review, and, ultimately, every conversation I have … I’m Notre Dame, or Harvard, or Pitt, or Carnegie Mellon!

Yeah … exactly … it’s huge.

After five years, I learned a lot about higher education in general and college transition specifically. I appreciate my role as that first contact between most families and the college of their choice. I’m proud to be one of the many diverse and multicultural persons of the university. So what I’m trying to say is that I work to help others understand the importance of college access and make the transition as smooth as possible. Yes, I am a person with likes (I love good fattening foods), dislikes (I’m scared of heights), pains (bugs scare me), and joys (colors really inspire me). But I’m a representative of university life to you!

So let me help you make your decision about one of the best times of your life (again it’s ingrained like a computer chip). I accept it, I enjoy it, and I receive real fulfillment from my “calling”. I love it so much that I’m pursuing my doctorate degree in Higher Education Management to look at improving college transition for students. I will continue working in higher education because I know that it is the life for me. It is so exciting to work with such talented and motivated young adults so much so that I see my life continually revolving around student life in one way or another. Now … that was better than any regular ol’ birth story. So there it is folks … my “birth story” as an Admission counselor and higher education professional.

Well, when most people ask me, “So I know you’re an Admissions Counselor but… uh… what exactly do you do!” I grin because I actually do a lot.

Half of my time is devoted to answering all sorts of questions. Normal ones such as, “how many undergraduate students attend this university?” or “How many academic majors do you have?” to unusual ones like “How often are the bathrooms cleaned in residence halls?” or “How fast is the internet connection on campus” (by the way I have no idea but I could find out pretty quickly!). So some topics that I want to address in this post about the college admission process is the University Dating Game and To Be or Not To Be!

First up…

… The University Dating Game!

After researching colleges, you’ve probably narrowed your search. You know what you’re looking for in a college and you’ve picked the colleges that meet those requirements. You’ve found schools that you’re attracted to, now it’s all about making yourself attractive to get the attention of the schools that you want.

So think about the college search like dating… the University Dating Game! This is a good analogy because you’re essentially trying to find a good mutual relationship between you and your future college. What can you bring to a college and how can your college benefit you.

When you first started dating your girlfriend or boyfriend, you used to get all dressed up in your favorite outfit, you’d smell good, and maybe even bring gifts. You made sure to have good conversation and would talk for hours to get to know each other. Well… just think it’s that same way with attracting colleges! You gotta look you’re best when interviewing but also leave a good impression of yourself through your application. You should do your research on each college to find interesting traits and visit to make sure that it is a good fit for you. Also ask a lot of questions to get a better idea about the college.

In college admission, we get your high school transcript but there’s so much more to you than A’s and B’s. We want to see more of who you are so it’s important to work on your resume, essays, and letters of recommendation.

Resumes are always good even if they’re aren’t required because they give us more information about you. Check out for some samples. We simply want a list of activities grouped by relevant categories that shows what you’re interested in, how long you’ve been involved, any leadership positions, and any achievements/awards.

Essays are a great way to get to know you creatively. So use your imagination. Fortunately, some colleges require two essays and I always advise to use one to be creative and imaginative about a memorable life experience or person. Use the other essay to tell us about your intended major or college and how your interests fit with the academic programs and campus life.

Letters of recommendation also give us another dimension to your personality because remember you’re not only dating the person but they’re friends and family too. So if we know you have friends that can say good things about you it’s always a plus.

Now switching gears…

…To BE or not to BE…is a Good Admission Topic!

I’ve talked to many students about their applications and one theme that keeps coming up is… how to be unique.
Many students will say to me, “ You know I really like _ but I know a lot of students who like it too so it probably doesn’t seem original.”
“I like school and I know it sounds cliché but I do really like to study!”

My answer to these questions is to BE YOURSELF!

So what if you really love LEGOS! It’s a free country so you can love LEGOS and even play with them while you eat dinner if you want! And YES… most engineering students like building blocks! So the lesson here is not to think of new hobbies to seem unique. It’s not about what you do but, more importantly, what you do WITH your interests.

For example, a student really likes cartoon anime but what is she/he doing with this interest? Are you drawing your own cartoon? Are you visiting anime conventions around the country? Did you create an anime club?

It’s the depth and time that you put into an activity that makes me as an Admissions Counselor look twice at a candidate. I not only want to know what interests you but how and why? For the admissions process, it doesn’t matter that other people share your interests but what is it about that activity that really interests you? Why is it meaningful to you? What do you want to do with this interest? I mean come on all I’m asking is more than one word answers!

The application process is about marketing yourself, so you want to stand out and look unique, but we’re not asking you to invent the next iPhone or Google Company! We want you to describe yourself through your activities so that we get a complete picture of who you are as a unique individual. So you like spoken word but what is your style? Have you performed? What is your favorite piece and why?

Trust me… if you’re a cello playing swimmer that also plants trees on the weekend
a car mechanic, candy-stripper, and graphic artist.
…Then you’re unique!
It’s all about depth…on the surface people may look similar but the more depth you get in your application the better! Just remember that you can do it quickly and effectively …in other words you don’t have to be long-winded!

Every basketball player enjoys playing basketball, but for different reasons or they have different favorite teams. To me reading applications is almost like attending a FIRST Robotics competition… although every team is given the same instructions on how to build the robot, every team builds a very different and unique robot.

So again BE YOURSELF (see you can’t be anymore cliché than that!) in the application process. The key is to go in depth in the interviews, questions, essays, resume, letters of recommendation, and application. Remember you can go in depth in a creative, quick, and effective way. It takes some work but it definitely shows as I read an application of a likely candidate for college admission. Isn’t that the purpose of all this work anyway!


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