Top Tips from a Former Stanford Admissions Officer

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Madeleine Karydes
Madeleine Karydes

Madeleine attended UC Berkeley and double-majored in English and Media Studies. She is now an integral part of the Empowerly team.

Looking to catch up with the current state of affairs in college admissions right now? Tune in for the latest top tips from Empowerly counselor Alix for the scoop.

About Alix:

With 10+ years of experience working in college admissions, Alix is a former admission officer at Stanford and University of Chicago. With over applications read, he is a self-identified college nerd who shares secrets of highly selective college admission offices with families. He tells it like it is. His students have been accepted to Ivies, UCs, and most top 40 colleges.

What are the most common concerns for students and families looking at college applications right now? 

“Obviously it depends on the grade level. Most urgent issues for seniors right now are post-pandemic changes. 

The UC system is moving from requiring test scores to now being completely test blind. The quantity of essay edits have increased. Students are concerned how admissions officers are evaluating students if they are losing a quantitative metric. For juniors, they’re wondering if things will return to the way things used to be before they graduate. We want to have as many options as possible.”

Test-optional trend: will it stick? 

“Even prior to the pandemic, schools had been moving in the direction of being more test optional. The pandemic exacerbated that. It’s great for students that are better at writing or that have good letters of recommendation. Applications are so long, there are already enough ways to properly review an applicant. [Not to mention,] many admissions officers are still using predictive or real test scores to make judgement calls.”

How do you approach writing a great essay? 

“Start early… Lean into your weirdness. Students are more frequently willing to be weird and be themselves. If 100 kids are writing the same things, admissions officers get bored. Be granular. It’s not enough to like history, but what specific era do you like?” 

Alix also offered an example: a student wrote on civil war drums and how it related to the rhythm of his own life: “Lean into your love for learning.”

What do you think about the increased demand for “angular applicants”?

“100 percent true [that colleges want to see that]. Everyone is well-rounded; being perfect on paper just gets you to the starting line. Some students have incredible extracurriculars or have a close relationship to a teacher.” Alix encourages students to think beyond the box and specialize deeply in one or a few key fields.

Are there any silver linings in long-term COVID impacts on students? 

“One silver lining is that this happened to everyone.” So those who went above and beyond, Alix pointed out, can take that context into consideration as well: “Students that went above and beyond in a perilous situation come out on top. Maybe you couldn’t bond with a teacher, but what else did you do? In a 26-page application, you’ll have the opportunity to show that.”

Letters of recommendation: how can students connect with their teachers and mentors? 

High school choice is important, Alix emphasizes. “I’d be kidding myself [to say] the system was equitable. It’s not. But part of the application on the admissions side is a school profile, which shows the student to counselor ratio. That’s taken into account. For students, talk to your counselor about specific details you want mentioned, like something angular about yourself. Take the agency. The system isn’t perfect. Counselors are in tricky situations and the students are as well. In some schools, the favorite teachers get asked for a ton of recommendation letters, so it’s better to go to the teacher that will get less requests, but will have time to put more attention on the essay.”

Are you optimistic about changes to make college admissions more fair?

“In the overall landscape when we’re talking about admissions, there are 25 schools where everyone wants to go that have record low acceptances. For those schools, “fair” is always tough. Admissions is an art and a science. The science is the quantitative data in an application, but the art comes down to an admissions officer’s preference. 

Counselors preferences will be hard to change. To your point, I think there are more standards where we can be more equitable, not equal but equitable. Something like the high school profile is a step in the right direction. Movements are happening, a little slower than I’d like, but they’re happening.”

How can students stand out if they don’t feel special, or find their weirdness? 

“Kids are kids when they’re with kids. Kids are weird. Sometimes they’ve been trained to not show themselves with adults. Get students to talk more about who they are when adults aren’t around. You can have fun with essays, you don’t need a serious tone. Taking risks in writing is really important for students trying to get into selective schools.”

Increase in non-traditional learning journeys? 

“The increase in students looking for gap years has been tremendous. Gap years have gone up quite a bit,” Alix noted. “We’re in a precarious situation where we don’t quite know what will happen. There’s also a real increase in the number of students who want to stay close to home. It makes sense.”

Any advice for students curious about transfer pathways from a two-year school to a four-year later? 

“The interest metrics are there for students wanting to transition, but the actual transfer rates are low. Be tenacious if you want to do it. Look for folks in your life to support you, because you will need support to get there. Life does happen, and if you happen to have the means to jump into a 4-year transition, you should do it.” 

Is Gen-Z more price conscious than previous generations in regards to loans and financial aid and tuition fees? 

“Yes, we see that. There’s a lot more skepticism, some of it healthy. There’s data now out that college doesn’t make everything equal. As a counselor, presenting them with the data and letting them make the most informed decision works best. All I can say is, statistically this is probably the best option for what you want to do.”

Are there still benefits of attending a traditional college? 

“College is a great place to hit your head and learn about the pain. You have the opportunities to be treated like an adult without the consequences. It’s a perfect learning ground. A lot of these other programs aren’t set up like that — they’re only to teach you how to be certified for a certain profession. If you do hit your head and you don’t have a safe place, or a helmet, it can really hurt and you can run out of time. 

The advantages to college persist even as the world changes. You need to learn how to be an adult, make mistakes, and you need to have something to fall back on when you change your mind on what you want to do. ”

Final thoughts

Well said, Alix. If you’re wondering the same things about your college applications experience, you’re not alone! What’s more, great Empowerly counselors like Alix understand what students need to succeed, and they’re all here to help you. Reach out below to talk with one of our Enrollment Team members and discover your Empowerly journey.

Questions? Let us know!