Issue 24: Should you name drop on your college app? An admissions officer weighs in

The biggest problem with teacher recommendations and how that influences admissions decisions. Name-dropping university staff in admissions essays. How thorough school research can trump a lower GPA. How leaves of absences during high school affect a student’s chances of getting in. Soka University admissions officer gives SocratesPost rare insights on the biggest questions we have. This week, we continue our in-depth conversation with Aaron. Plus, based on the suggestion of a reader, here’s a city profile on Aliso Viejo, California — home of Soka University.

Our take on Aliso Viejo, CA — home of Soka University:

Located midway between Los Angeles and San Diego in California, Aliso Viejo is a coastal suburban community (pop. 52k) alongside the Pacific Ocean. SocratesPost is headquartered just 30 minutes away and we can confirm Aliso Viejo has lovely weather, sunny skies and low rainfall throughout the year. It’s adjacent to some retirement communities, many wilderness parks, and the world-class Laguna Beach. Some might consider it a boring town but it’s safe, quiet launchpad to outdoor activities. In fact, many Orange County residents drive to Aliso Viejo to hike, mountain bike, and run the hills. However, if you’re looking for a city experience with nightlife and cultural opportunities, you would have to drive 1.5 hours up to Los Angeles or 2 hours down to San Diego. It’s not exactly a small town, however. There are shopping plazas with restaurants and stores within Aliso Viejo. Less than 30 minutes are larger cities like Costa Mesa and Irvine, which boast more attractions for college students. Keep in mind that Aliso Viejo is a suburban city with homes and shopping centers very spread out. Public transportation is virtually non-existent and students would need a car to get around.

Exclusive Insider Interview: Admissions Officer, Soka University

Mercy at SocratesPost: What’s a big issue you see in the teacher recommendations that students submit to Soka?

Aaron at Soka: Certainly proofreading. it was a big sort of issue that had come across I guess more so this year than in years past. I know depending on where you are, which school districts, and your caseloads. It’s can be really high and it’s hard to just crank out just volume of letters of recommendation. But I think it’s tough whenever you have either the wrong university or college name in the letter, or moreso the students name.

So if I’m reading about Jane and all of a sudden we’re talking about Steven on the same page midway through, I am wondering if these are Steven’s extracurriculars or now Jane’s. It could sway a decision one way or another. It’s in the students, well, counselors’ best interest to look out for this student. I don’t know if there’s a way that you can proofread or maybe you can have TA’s come in and read your letters day to day. But if there’s one way to kind of catch those errors, I think that’d be really helpful to us. Because again, you want to have sort of the full scope of the student on the letter.

Mercy at SocratesPost: How does that affect your opinion of the applicant when their teacher messes up the recommendation?

Aaron at Soka: If it’s a teacher? I’m kind of questioning their relationship. I think to a certain extent when it’s a counselor, I’m much more lenient. School counselor, you’ve got 500 plus students. With a teacher, it’s kind of surprising. I’ll wonder, “Did you really have a good relationship with that individual? Are you as close knit as you say you were?” It can kind of hurt, but I don’t hold it 100% heavily against a student. I know that sometimes you’re scrambling to get letters. Sometimes you have a teacher that you really want to learn from. But they’re swamped or they have a cap for the year. “I can’t write more than 35 because I want them to be so high quality.”

Mercy at SocratesPost: That’s true.

Aaron at Soka: And we’ve all been there, well, the number of us had been there. I do my best to keep it all in perspective.

Mercy at SocratesPost: What are some other aspects that frustrate you when you read applications? One thing that you mentioned last time was when they tried to name drop who’ve they met at Soka, that’s one thing. So can you talk a little bit about that and then anything else that frustrates you?

Aaron at Soka: Whenever you’re writing a letter, we’re going to know who’s on campus, who works in what department, who the deans are, et cetera. I’d really rather hear more from you and why you feel you want to be at the university specifically. The fact that you’ve talked to a coach and talked to a dean, it’s all good stuff, but we know who our colleagues are and we know that they are definitely, hopefully great ambassadors for the school. I would just continue to draw from those conversations and hopefully sort of sew that into your essay in one way or another; take what you learned from them and kind of recreate a better, stronger understanding of the university. Writing about the people you met doesn’t do much for you necessarily.

Mercy at SocratesPost: One thing I’ve heard college consultants say is that admissions officers want to be surprised in any way they can be. It doesn’t matter if you’re not following the rules as long as you surprise them. What do you think?

Subscribe to read if admissions officers like Aaron want to be surprised or just want you to follow directions! Plus how impressive research on a school might trump lower GPAs → 
Here’s a preview of the rest of our conversation! Subscribe to read the rest and support our ad-free newsletter.

Mercy at SocratesPost: I recently read in the news, some colleges are extending their application deadlines because they are struggling to meet their enrollment numbers and they’re unsure because of how the common app works if those students will actually matriculate and commit to that school because it’s so easy to send out eight different applications now. What is your take on that? Is that something that you’re concerned about and how do you work around that?

Mercy at SocratesPost: So in the last week or so since our last meeting, have you learned anything new or have you experienced anything noteworthy when reading applications?

Mercy at SocratesPost: What do you mean by profound?

Mercy at SocratesPost: If their ability to articulate the school’s history and values matches with their own values, how does that help their application? If maybe their grades or their recommendations or other parts of their application just aren’t that good, does it offset it just because they’re so interested and so knowledgeable about the school?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Interesting. I had some readers write in and ask how do colleges look at leaves of absences during high school? How should they approach that so that they don’t jeopardize their chances of getting into the colleges they want to?

Stay tuned for more of our exclusive insider interview with Aaron next week!

Dear Socrates Q&A

This week, we selected a question from Tasnuva, a 9th grader in New York:

“What if my school doesn’t have a Math or Science Olympiad? What should I do instead?”

Hey Tasnuva, I’m assuming you want to join Science Olympiad or Math Olympiad because you’re interested in deepening your knowledge in math and science outside of class. You might even already have a college STEM major picked out and you want to show colleges you’re extracurricularly involved in STEM. Or you might just want to make sure you even like math and science to study it for four or more years in college. All great reasons to seek out Science or Math Olympiad.

The fact that your school doesn’t have Science or Math Olympiad is not necessarily a bad thing. I see it as an opportunity be involved in two other ways.

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SocratesPost is always on the frontlines scouring the news for relevant updates in the college admissions landscape. We look for anything that can help shape our understanding of the latest trends in admissions and help our readers see the direction in which we’re moving. Questions we explored this week:

  • Will the government start taking student loan repayments straight out of your paycheck?
  • Student loans rose to a record high delinquency this quarter. What’s to blame?
  • A mom is worried that college admissions is rigged against her white, upper-class son. What should she do?

Get answers below.

Feb. 13, 2019 — We might see student loan repayments taken out of paychecks in the future.

  • What? GOP lawmakers are proposing wage garnishment to repay student loans.
  • Why? Student loan balances have swelled to an average of $30k, up from just $10k in 1990. Delinquencies are at a record high of $166 billion. Students loans are expected to rise to $22 trillion by 2022.
  • What this means: If you or your kid is considering taking out student loans, think about whether or not the cost of college tuition is worth it. Would your child’s proposed career pay enough to cover those costs? Consider the cost of colleges before accepting an offer. If you need financial aid, would applying Early Decision hurt your child’s chances of getting most grants and scholarships?