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US Admissions FAQs Answered by a Former Ivy League Admissions Officer | Part 2

MAY 15, 2021

In Part 2 of our ‘FAQs Answered by FAOs’ series, Ben describes common mistakes as well as the most important parts of the application, and answers questions about applying early to university and choosing the right schools to apply to.

This blog is the second in a three-part series of Frequently Asked Admissions Questions answered by former Dartmouth College admissions officer, Ben Schwartz. In part two, Ben answers the following questions:

  1. What are some common mistakes you’ve seen from otherwise qualified applicants?
  2. What are the advantages of applying in the early round? Do schools give preference to early applicants?
  3. When choosing where to apply, should I cast my net as wide as I can or zero in on a select few?
  4. What’s the most important part of my application in the eyes of admissions officers?

Ben studied Government and Education Policy at Dartmouth, and after completing a post-graduate fellowship in West Africa, he returned to the university to serve as Assistant Director of Admissions. Ben has also served on the Dartmouth Alumni Council and chaired the Admissions and Enrollment Committee. Additionally, Ben holds an MPA from Harvard and an MBA from MIT. Today, he runs youth leadership development through a nonprofit organization called Sage Experience.


1. What are some common mistakes you’ve seen from otherwise qualified applicants?

I think the biggest mistake I see from students is not taking the time to capture their contributions and impact in the community on their activities lists. For example, if a student spends five hours per week on student government, I don’t want to read something obvious like “I was elected president my senior year of the Student Government Association and served in sophomore and junior year as vice president.” Instead I want to hear how that student “Fundraised $3k for Leukemia research; Pioneered ‘virtual prom’ with over 500 attendees; Advocated for extra mental health counselor during COVID.” Now I see the student’s skills and impact and those details will help them stand out from the other 25,000 student leaders.

One other common issue is that the “well rounded” candidates fall flat because they lack something special that stands out. When a student leans into one or two unique experiences and interests, I can easily grasp what they care about and how they have achieved at a high level. But when a student talks about 10 totally disparate experiences, each one feels small and not particularly significant. Show us your enthusiasm for something special about you, whether it’s potato farming and environmentalism or 10th century Arabic poetry. 

2. What are the advantages of applying in the early round? Do schools give preference to early applicants?

The early application process intentionally offers students who have done their research and know they want to apply to a particular college the chance to show their interest and get a decision several months before Regular Decision candidates. From the admissions officer perspective, I see early candidates as committed to our school. Early Decision is binding, so I know that if we admit you, we will expect to see you in our incoming class. This helps us build a strong backbone of enthusiastic students. Early application pools also tend to be substantially smaller, so from a mathematics and psychological vantage point, it is easier to stand out among fewer other candidates. If you’re certain a particular school is your top choice, you should apply early (and if you’re 100% certain you would attend if admitted, then early decision is right for you).

3. When choosing where to apply, should I cast my net as wide as I can or zero in on a select few?

Build a balanced college list. This means you apply to schools across a continuum of selectivity. Some counselors advise applying to schools that fit into baskets of “reach, realistic, and safety.” I try to think of it this way: what’s the most selective admit rate you have a chance at, and at what selectivity are you effectively guaranteed to gain admission? 

A rule of thumb to evaluate your chances is to consider how you stack up in your school. If you’re in the top 5% of your class, you probably stand a chance at a highly selective college admitting around 5%. This means a school admitting around 5% is a fair high-reach. A school admitting 10% is a fair reasonable-reach, while a school admitting 15% if a good target, and 20% is likely safe. Be careful to apply to a balance of schools from realistic to hard-reach. Avoid applying to 10 schools that admit less than 10% and then one that admits 20% as you’re likely to miss out on great schools for you that admit 11-19%. 

4. What’s the most important part of my application in the eyes of admissions officers?

Colleges and universities are first and foremost institutions of higher education, so this means your academic track record is critical. Students who do not seem ready for the most rigorous university based on their transcript have little chance of admission. Remember though, your transcript is not your GPA — an average of four years — rather, your transcript is a four-year story, so an upward trajectory to all A’s in junior or senior year remains promising. Testing is typically just used to confirm our sense of your academic readiness, so you should invest your time over the long-term in your courses and extracurriculars to demonstrate your intellectual curiosity (to show us in admissions you are about more than grades and scores).  


NEXT WEEK: Read Ben’s thoughts on the elimination of the SAT Essay and Subject Tests, as well as his advice on choosing a unique and authentic essay topic and when to start working on your college applications!

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