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Do's and Don'ts for applying to college from Brandeis's Andrew Flagel

Posted by Leslie Anderson  August 16, 2013 04:19 PM

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Andrew Flagel is senior vice president for students and enrollment at Brandeis University and has worked in college admissions for more than 20 years. Here are some tips compiled from his blog at My College Options, a free online college planning website.

How important are summer jobs and experience?

It’s no question that summer conferences, camps, seminars, and similar activities can be incredibly educational, add great perspective, and develop lifelong and critical networks for students’ future career paths. They won’t, however, make a huge difference on a college application.

Is it better to get all As taking easier classes or Bs in advanced placement?

Generally, more competitive courses look better on a transcript and prepare you better for college. You are probably also aware that at the most competitive colleges, most of the applicants will have both the great grades and the hardest courses.

That being said, every dean I’ve talked to agrees that there is no reason to get out of hand, and that taking a HUGE number of AP/IB/Honors/Dual Enrollment courses isn’t necessary. It is likely, however, that challenging yourself by taking SOME of these advanced classes is probably necessary to be seriously considered at the most competitive institutions.

So, you should strive to have at least SOME of these advanced courses, but you don’t have to have a HUGE number. Got that?

Advice on the college essay?

One of the questions I get asked regularly is, “what topics do admissions officers want for essays?” I have this bad habit of telling the absolute (and generally unhelpful) truth, “We want to know more about you.” ...All you’re really trying to do with your essay is give admissions officers some reasons to admit you.

This generally involves trying to tell them two things: the first is what’s great about you. This is no time for modesty! You can use whatever hook you want, but in the end your essay should tell the reader a bit about how great you are. The second thing, equally important but much easier (and something that should take up little space), is why you want to attend that school.

How involved should parents be in the process?

While (parents) need to be involved and engaged, the reality is that MOST students report that they are satisfied with their choices of schools, and even that they were admitted to their top choices (despite all the media hype about how many students get denied). In other words, letting your kid own this decision has a lot lower probability of disaster than you might think from reading their Facebook updates.

Students being in charge is particularly important in the admissions, scholarship and financial aid processes. Despite how complex they are, you will find admissions offices MUCH more receptive to inquiries and requests from college applicants than from parents. While I often question this bias, the reality is that when parents call and write instead of the student, it can have a reverse effect, giving the impression that the applicant isn’t interested enough to be the advocate.

You can read more of his views on applying to college in this interview, conducted on the eve of yet another busy admissions season.

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at

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