When contacting admissions officers, what factors should you consider?

As usual, as the August to February admissions frenzy rolls back around, I find myself reading more and more college admissions blogs, thinking about what might be most valuable for my students.  Recently, I found myself on a USC blog post called “making the college admissions process about you”.  And I was struck, not by the words of the article, but by the student comments at the bottom.  And the first thing I noticed was, wow, I can identify the internationals right away!  The second thing I noticed was how unfair it was that an international’s lack of familiarity with the process might detract from his/her application. Here are some thoughts about any contact – big or small – you may have with a university: commenting on a blog, attending a presentation, asking a question in an online chat, etc.

First of all, universities file everything.

You email someone – it gets filed.  You make a phone call – it gets filed. You send in a poem – well, you get the idea.  What does this mean for you? Well, most importantly, this means that all contact should be treated as important.  You are making impressions on the admissions office as a single body despite speaking to a different person each time. Here are some big red flags that I’ve noticed with international students in particular:

1. Asking questions that can easily be answered on the university website

This isn’t fair to us as internationals.  The process is so overwhelming that when an admissions officer visits, or a phone call begins, and that person cheerfully says, “Ask me absolutely any questions you might have,” it becomes extremely tempting to use those people as guides to the process.  And often it is quite alright to ask a single question with an easy answer.  But when a student starts asking numerous questions like, “When are your deadlines”, “What tests do I need to take to get in” or “Do you have study abroad programs”, I see the admissions officers recoil slightly.  They want to answer intelligent, curious questions – questions about student life or campus culture or famous professors, for example.

Let’s look at this well-meaning response from Sam:

The unfortunate truth is that, apart from some of the most selective or diverse schools, (and USC is the 21st best in the country and very selective by the way!), many US universities assume that students have dedicated guidance counselors at school.  So, sometimes, unfortunately, they think these questions are just laziness or a lack of desire to do the research (with a counselor or without). So, ask lots of questions, but not the ones that can be answered with a little more effort on your part.

2. Pay attention to your use of language

The student question above also brings me to my second point. This student is from India.  Being bilingual is a fantastic achievement.  But even though we should be appreciative of her ability, we notice instead her spaced out punctuation, grammatical mistakes, and poor sentence structure.

Here, in the Caribbean, we have it worse in some ways.  We don’t even get the tiny amount of respect afforded to someone for whom English is a second language.  And yet, for many, that is exactly what speaking proper English is.  Creole/ patois/ pidgin languages have their own sets of rules and studying Caribbean Studies, which codifies and applauds these rules, can make speaking standard English even harder.  Just remember, when you write or speak to university representatives, use standard English where possible, even in a simple web chat or quick conversation.

These two points can be daunting and students may already be thinking that they just won’t speak up. You definitely should ask questions! Admissions officers love seeing genuine interest.

3. One easy mistake to fall into is to let your counselor or parents do the talking and emailing for you.

This isn’t really a good look.  College is the time in your life when you are supposed to become independent, successful adults.  And one indication of that is your ability to handle communication on your own.  Get lots of guidance if you need it, but always take responsibility for being proactive about following up.

4. As you put yourself in front of admissions officers in any capacity, be aware that they may look you up.

Make your Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. private if there is anything inappropriate there.  Better yet, pull everything inappropriate down completely until this period is over. Make sure your email address is something normal.  Ladiesman1234@xyz.com is not someone to be taken seriously. Create a new email address if you need to – in fact, this can be fairly useful for keeping all your university related information completely separate.

5. Don’t reach out to a lot of different people in the admissions officers with the same question.

Remember, you should be treating all the admissions officers in a school as one body.  I remember being so excited, at first, when a prospective student asked me some insightful questions about the application process for Wharton.  That same night, I discovered that he had emailed almost all of the other thirty-nine Welcome Committee members (then current students who helped prospective and admitted students to navigate the process).  We were all extremely put off and one person was tasked with replying politely to convey how serious we felt about crafting thoughtful answers and how irrelevant we felt when students solicited advice from too many similar sources.

My final takeaway – part summary, part new advice, as conclusions should never do – is that you should never make the mistake of assuming that anyone who works in an official capacity at these universities is your friend.

Treat them with the genuine respect and affability they deserve – be friendly and engaging – but never devolve into the speech patterns or topics that you explore with your peers.  I look forward to comments and questions below!

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