How to Create a Strong College Application


Ken Lund

Tori Essex was an admissions counselor at the U of M. She worked to admit students and help them with the overall application process.

“The essays are more important in some ways [than the rest of the college application], especially because it’s a more holistic way of looking at an applicant,” said Tori Essex, a past admissions counselor at the University of Michigan (U of M). She worked not just to admit and decline students, but also to help them in the stressful period of college applications.

People like Essex are an underutilized resource at every school. I spoke with two admissions experts at the U of M to get the inside scoop on the dreaded process. Essex was an admissions counselor at the U of M’s Penny Stamps School for Art and Design (Stamps). I also spoke with Lindsey Taggart, a senior recruitment coordinator at the U of M’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

“The first part of the job is communicating and connecting with students, and the second part is gauging their fit,” Essex said. “What people were usually most surprised about was that I would still talk to them about their overall college search process.”

She also helped students find what would be best for them.

“We are people too\; the reason you do this job is to connect with high school students, not to read 300 essays in two weeks,“ Essex said.

It can be scary to sit down with an admissions counselor or reach out to a school, especially if you are worried about coming off wrong. But visiting the school and starting to email them early can ensure that they know your name, as well as proves that you are a determined candidate and are very interested in their school. Between two applicants that looked very similar on paper, “having that personal connection and engagement made a big difference,” Essex said.

If you are too shy or nervous to email your top schools, Essex suggests practicing with a local school that you would also be interested in attending. Essex said that she and her colleagues were very gracious and accommodating with students. Even if you think that you are being judged, Essex and her colleagues were never in the mentality of judging students or thinking of their emails as silly and uninformed.

In Taggart’s case—that is for the whole U of M—the applicant pool is too large to track every student’s communication with the school. Instead, students can show their interest with the “Why Us” essay on the application. Taggart explained that it is important to do your homework about the U of M and its particular programs before writing that essay. Researching academic features of the school and having specific reasons why you want to go really help.

Now you know a little bit about how the admissions office runs, but what matters the most on your application?

For an art school like Stamps, Essex recommends maintaining good grades to show the school you can keep up academically and can listen to instruction. The admissions office looks at applicants on a case by case basis, and at many schools, your grade point average (GPA) is recalculated. This is a positive thing as it levels the playing field, since different high schools may weigh GPA differently. At an artistic school like Stamps, a more holistic approach is taken to the admissions process, giving all students a chance.

“If you’re taking AP (advanced placement) or IB (international baccalaureate) classes, you are willing to challenge yourself,” Essex said when asked about how AP/IB classes affect your chances. “I think there’s a balance. I don’t think there’s a golden rule that applies to all students.”

For the non-art schools, the guidelines are a bit different. Taggart told me that the U of M focuses on three aspects of a student’s academic application: grades, test scores and how rigorous their course load is. They are looking for students who challenge themselves with what is available for them, and that they don’t penalize students with certain classes (such as AP or IB classes) not available to them.

Two applicants can look nearly identical in technical scores, so what makes an application stand out and be able to rise above the rest?

As many know, a strong essay makes a huge difference. Essex would often get the question if her team actually read the essays, she told me,

“Students would ask if we actually read their essays — yes, we spend many, many hours reading these essays.”

But a great essay is not an easy task.

“A great essay is respectful, well organized, but then isn’t necessarily dry and boring and like a three point [essay] and, it’s still showing some personality,” Essex said.

She also told me that the people at the admissions office can easily tell when an essay is “copied and pasted” for multiple schools. To avoid that, write the “Why Us” essays from scratch, even if you are reusing some of the content. Also, make sure to mention visits with the school and show the admissions team that you are dedicated to their school.

The most commonly made mistake Taggart saw in an essay was not using the space to your full advantage. Repeating information and accomplishments already stated in other parts of your application does not help you as much as essays can. Another common error is that the essay is not in the student’s own voice and it’s clear they have gotten too much help from their parents.

There are ten spots on the Common App for listing activities, but Essex wouldn’t necessarily recommend filling all of those spaces up. She finds that listing a crazy amount poses the question, how engaged can you really be in all of these? She suggests “picking the ones that are the most meaningful, perhaps the most relevant to what you want to study.”

What are your strongest extracurriculars? Those related to an area of interest, especially opportunities sought outside of school and leadership positions, as well as impactful, self started activities. Essex gave the example of starting an Etsy shop versus joining the ceramics club. The first shares a bit more and shows that you are more willing to push yourself. Extracurriculars outside of school can show that you seek opportunities outside of what is easy.

Hopefully, the seniors reading this are mostly done or putting finishing touches on their applications, if not, uh oh. Essex compares waiting till the last minute with applications to cramming for a test.

“If you’re not ready in October, you shouldn’t have to cram to be ready by December.” Essex said “Although admissions counselors understand you want your application to be the very best it can be, submitting your application a week before the deadline shows better planning than submitting it the night it’s due.”

Not only does applying early show the school that you are more committed, it also can take the stress off the rest of the year and get you back your results quicker.

Essex says that the many terms used to describe when to submit your application can be confusing (early decision, early action, binding, and non-binding for example) but there is no penalty for applying early to the U of M.

Taggart mentioned that applications open in August and it is beneficial to begin then.

Essex also wants to take the stress out of not knowing quite what you want to study.

“It’s completely appropriate to continue exploring while you are a student here, she said.

Taggart said that when she was in high school, she picked a college where she was not happy and was able to switch and end up at a better place. She wants to take the stress out of not knowing where you want to go or what you want to do immediately. She also said that the U of M offers many programs to help find their passion and an applicant being undecided does not hurt their admissions chances.

“If you’re doing the steps, you’re going to end up somewhere,” said Essex. “If the student is talking to me, or other admissions counselors, they’re taking the right steps.”