Issue 26: Columbia College admissions, plus EC strategies on the Common App

Exclusive Insider Interview: Admissions Officer, Columbia College Chicago

What college essays should entail, how to deal with hovering parents, typing out college essays on your cell phones, and the three red flags a candidate won’t succeed at Columbia. SocratesPost interviews admissions officer Margaret Jones of Columbia College this week for her exclusive insights on what’s behind the admission door.

Mercy at SocratesPost: Margaret, can you tell me about your experience working in admissions?

Margaret at Columbia: When I was in college, I was a tour guide for undergraduate admissions. I started the summer after my freshman year of college and worked through my senior year, so May of 2014 I believe, until graduation in May of 2017.

During that time I also was an intern at a high school and the college guidance office. They gave me a little bit of an extension of admission experience just to work with students and lot of different schools. And then shortly after my graduation from my college, I started working at Columbia in July of 2017. I’ve been working there for little over a year and a half, and it’s been a great time.

Mercy at SocratesPost: That’s exciting. Where were you a tour guide?

Margaret at Columbia: I went to Concordia Chicago. I got to stay in the area. Definitely two very different schools as well. I got to see a lot of different aspects of admissions in the way that different schools do things.

Mercy at SocratesPost: So what’s a day in the life of Margaret today at Columbia College reading applications?

Margaret at Columbia: At Columbia, we are divided into territories. My territory is the north and the northwest city of Chicago schools. I primarily have Chicago Public School applicants now, which is definitely its own type of territory and something that is a challenge for me. But also it was something that I enjoy doing, because a lot of the students from CPS come from the same background that I do – low income, first-generation college students, and a lot of our students are of color as well. It’s definitely a population that I’m passionate about, which I enjoy being able to work with them. Depending on the time of year, I have a ton of applications that I read. So it kind of just depends on the day to be honest.

Mercy at SocratesPost: So how long does it take for you to review each application? I’ve heard some people in admissions say, “we only get two to three minutes to read your application. Try to get everything out three minutes.” How long does it typically take you?

Margaret at Columbia: Because of the population that I serve, it oftentimes is unrealistic to review an application in three minutes, especially because we do require two short answer types of questions. They’re a max of 250 words, so I have to read both of those. I do like to do a detailed review of transcripts, in the sense of I’m going to look at their core grades. But also, since Columbia is more of an arts focused school, I like to see what kind of grades students are making in those art classes as well.

I divide my review up into two parts. I’m looking at your core GPA, if you submit your test scores, but also your writing and often want to look at your art grades and creative grades. Also if you submit any type of work for scholarship review or anything like that. I also like to look at that stuff as well. So generally, it takes me about five to seven minutes, depending on the application.

Mercy at SocratesPost: Okay, cool. So it seems like you might be able to get through quite a lot everyday if you only did applications.

Margaret at Columbia: Yeah.

Mercy at SocratesPost: You were talking about looking at the students and applicants’ art grade. What types of applicants impress you the most?

Here’s a preview of the rest of our conversation! Subscribe to read the rest and support our ad-free newsletter.
Mercy at SocratesPost: That’s really good to know. You were also talking about the two short essay questions. What do you like to see out of those essay questions?

Mercy at SocratesPost: On the flip side though, some students try to get their parents or older siblings or teachers write their application for them. Has that ever happened to you, where you thought, “I know you didn’t write this. I think your mom wrote this”?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Do you ever write a negative review for a student if their parents are overly involved because you keep hearing from the parents but not the student?

Mercy at SocratesPost: I was on the website and I was looking at your application materials and I didn’t see a section for recommendation letters from teachers. Do you require recommendation letters from teachers and if not, what is the thought process behind that?

Mercy at SocratesPost: You were talking about the committee. So can you kind of walk me through the process of the application: when you get it, is it you who reads it first and then you present it to the committee or how does that work?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Okay. What are the three biggest red flags that an applicant won’t succeed at Columbia College?

Mercy at SocratesPost: That’s super helpful. Margaret. Sometimes students have to take a medical leave or some sort of leave during high school. Maybe they’re doing something else or they just aren’t able to be in school for that time for some, for whatever reason. So how do you address their leave of absence if you see in a transcript that they weren’t enrolled in school for like a year or two?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Okay. Do you recommend if a student is going through a hard time in high school to reach out to you guys and let you know and ask you questions about how they can work around that or do you prefer to reach out to them?

Stay tuned for the remainder of our exclusive insider interview with Margaret next week!

Dear Socrates Q&A

This week, we selected a question from a parent named Jacqueline in Grapevine, Texas:

“How do you list international awards, illustrations credits for a book published internationally and Founder and President of a 501c3 on the Common App? How do you decide where to put each extracurricular?”

The Common App allows you to categorize your extracurriculars achievements into groups such as Academics, Art, Career, Journalism/Publication, Community Service (Volunteer), Social Justice, and more. Because many extracurricular activities fall within multiple categories, it can be confusing to decide where to put each one. I use a two-step strategy to decide where to place each one. This strategy helps create the applicant’s personal brand, thereby allowing the admissions officer to envision the type of student and contributor he’ll be on campus. Lastly, the specific words your child uses to describe his role or accomplishments can help tarnish or boost his personal brand.

Step 1: Pick the category with highest relevance to the activity.

Step 2: If there are multiple equally relevant categories, pick the category most related to your intended major.

For example, since your child is a published illustrator of an internationally-acclaimed book, that achievement could fall under either art or journalism/publication. However, since he is applying for a theater major, it makes more sense to categorize it as art as opposed to journalism/publication. Theater is more often considered art, not journalism. When application readers look at your student’s application, they will be able to imagine him as an artist who has relevant experiences to contribute to his other performing arts peers.

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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 students need to earn higher SAT scores than before to get scholarships?
  • Can college applicants pay to see their admissions results and confidential application comments in advance?
  • Does getting into your dream college mean a “happily ever after?”

Get answers below.

March 7, 2019 — Eager college applicants awaiting admission decisions get to purchase their confidential application file — from hackers

  • What? College applicants to Grinnell, Oberlin, and Hamilton received emails asking for money to see their confidential application documents, comments, and results. Hackers had gotten into the system and were holding applications ransom, demanding 1 bitcoin (nearly $3,800) for full access to their files. The schools affected used the application system Slate. The incident has been reported to the FBI and no applicants were reported to have fallen for the scam.