Issue 16: Ask your recommenders to show you their letter, says Princeton admissions interviewer

Exclusive Insider Interview: Admissions Interviewer, Princeton University

Why admissions officers are biased. Why “need aware” isn’t as scary as it sounds. What happens when admissions officers disagree. Why this campus prioritizes mental health over cutthroat academic rigor. How exactly applications are evaluated in each round. Whitman College admissions officer Henry Whipple gives SocratesPost the exclusive insider scoop on everything you wanted to know but never figured out.

Maurice Ewing college admissions newsletter

Credits: Peter Searle

Mercy at SocratesPost: You have an interesting story about getting a negative recommendation letter from your high school math teacher. What would you tell our readers about recommendation letters?
Maurice at Princeton: In high school, I aced a math class. I assumed that it was math and very objective, but I always got the signal my teacher didn’t like me and didn’t give me a good recommendation. He didn’t. I applied Early Action to 3 or 4 schools. I didn’t get into any, not even a waitlist. I asked the same teacher I got the recommendation from and saw the letter.

If you get a bad recommendation from a teacher, admissions officers won’t look at the grade in the class. Ask your teacher if they’ll give you a good recommendation. If you’re willing to give me a good recommendation, that means you’ll trust me enough to show me the letter.

I would tell your recommender, “This is the application I’m putting together. Can I meet with you for 30 minutes to tell you what I do outside of school? This is how I connect to your class. It would be great if your letter can address those things.”

Just by saying those things and having the main outline written down, you’re going to psychologically anchor them to that vision of you. The other vision of you is one of you being a good student. Imagine there’ll be 50,000 other letters saying the same about other students. Orson Welles got a recommendation to Cornell or Harvard and his teacher said he’s a genius. John Nash’s teacher said he’s a genius.

I’m almost certain that I got into Princeton because I worked with a professor on an honors thesis and he told me he was going to give me a really good letter. I’m sure he didn’t betray my trust. That issue is very important because there are a lot of politics. If you’re like my situation, I went to high school without a lot of students aiming at top schools. Your cohort is about 1-3 people. If you go to a top school somewhere, your cohort is about 20 people. They have top scores and rankings. If the same teachers are writing letters and can say something unusual about you but not about your colleague. I’m very big on differentiation and personalization — having a personal relation with the teacher to the extent they know you as a person as opposed to student of this last name.

Mercy at SocratesPost: How should teachers approach recommendation letters?
Here’s a sneak peek at the rest of our conversation…
Mercy at SocratesPost: Do you feel like there’s a secret to getting in?
Mercy at SocratesPost: What advice do you have for Princeton hopefuls or applicants vying for a spot in a similarly selective college?
Mercy at SocratesPost: Do you find any difference between admissions in “elite” or more selective schools versus less selective schools?
SocratesPost brought on Badri J., a Hyderabad-based cartoonist, to create original, college admissions-related cartoons just for our readers. We know college admissions is hard, but as Lord Byron put it, “Always laugh when you can: it is cheap medicine.” Find more of Badri’s work on Instagram and Twitter. Enjoy!

Dear Socrates Q&A

This week, we selected a question from Tita in New Jersey.

“Why have university acceptance rates gone down?”

Actually, overall university acceptance rates have gone up. This might surprise you because of all the articles you read in the news about increasingly tight competition for college. Although acceptance rates have dropped in many name-brand universities like the Ivies, overall acceptance rates to college in the U.S. have risen from 64.7% in Fall 2013 to 65.4% in Fall 2016. SocratesPost wrote a Skinny on this one in a previous issue. To read it, click here.

But you may be wondering about acceptance rates at elite schools. To answer your question on why acceptance rates have dropped among elite schools like Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Wesleyan, we’ve come up with a formula that describes why.

Here, we break it down.

1. More applicants. According to NACAC’s 2018 State of College Admissions report, 4% more first-time freshmen applied to college in Fall 2017 than Fall 2016. During that same period, 8% more international students and 3% more transfer students applied. You’re competing against a bigger pool.

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The Skinny

This week, SocratesPost got you the Skinny on getting financial aid at Boston University. Even if you’re not applying to BU, a selective, popular U.S. university, there’s something here for everyone to learn about paying for college. Every college uses the CSS Profile and FAFSA, so there are useful nuggets here.

Senior assistant directors Liberty Collom and Ken Kowalczyk from the Boston University financial aid office conducted an hour-long seminar answering all your questions on how BU gives aid.

SocratesPost attended and summarized the seminar for you so you don’t have to.

A few complex topics and answers we’re reporting back to our readers:

  • What is Boston University’s scholarship assurance?
  • Does BU meet every student’s full financial need?
  • What percentage of freshmen who apply for aid actually receive money?
  • Do financial aid forms matter for merit scholarships?
  • Does BU award financial aid to international students?
  • How specific do we need to be when explaining a “special financial circumstance?”
  • Do you take household debt into consideration when giving aid?
  • What if my parents have a lot of money in their retirement accounts? Does that mean I’ll get less aid?
  • Which parent should apply for aid if my parents are not together?
  • Will I get more financial aid if I apply before the deadline?

A few issues ago, we covered the basics of merit scholarships and how they differ from other forms of aid. To catch up, read it here. Because financial aid is an extremely complex topic that differs vastly for each individual, we’re breaking up our financial aid-related articles.

Want to know how Boston University gives financial aid? We’ve prepped a quick read for you.