Issue 20: An admissions officer advises on how to best find fit and how two sentences can make or break your essay

Exclusive Insider Interview: Admissions Officer, Whitman College (2/3)

What happens when a fight breaks out in the admissions office. What admissions officers prefer not to see. How much time they truly spend reading each application. What types of applicants impress them the most. The most memorable encounter with an applicant. Whitman College admissions officer, Henry Whipple, continues to tell SocratesPost what’s behind the scenes in the admissions office. To catch up from last week’s conversation, click here.

Mercy at SocratesPost: Was there ever a fight that broke out in the admissions office because someone really wanted someone and someone else who disagreed said, ‘you know what, let’s fight over this!’?

Henry at Whitman: Being my first year at Whitman, I haven’t seen it yet. The early decision committee, thankfully, was pretty smooth because we definitely hit the admissions priorities in terms of athletics and where the recruits come from. There were only one or two disagreements between athletics and certain talent scholarships that went out to students. The early decision round tends to have a higher acceptance rate because in a way it’s self-selecting. The students who apply have tended to usually be interested in Whitman for a long time and can really articulate why they see themselves thriving here. It’s easier to admit them just because they really advocated their way to Whitman. So, there wasn’t too much disagreement there. I would definitely expect there to be disagreement in the regular decision round, just because, again, we all have our interest from regional areas and different things that play in. It ultimately just comes down to laying the ground rules at the beginning and having all of the officers agree with each other that we’re going to have biases, we’re going to have certain attachments to kids and if it gets too heated, the director’s word is final. He’s been here for four or five years so he knows what the institution needs and what the president is looking for in terms of admissions and if a decision is made, it is for a reason. It’s not just throwing you down because you’re a new officer or because we don’t like your certain area – there’s always going to be a reason to it. Even if it’s difficult, he has to make sure we’re still respecting each other even if we have disagreements.

Mercy at SocratesPost: How much time do you spend reading each application?

Henry at WhitmanI would say it differs. Some applications take longer to read because there’s just more of a personal background to it that they bring in and there’s context that we need to understand: their academics and their writing and their extracurriculars. So, especially if you’re unfamiliar with an area, it takes more time because you have to get to know what the area is like for a second before you actually read it. I would definitely say in the two to four-minute range or so is probably pretty typical for the essay. It’s pretty unlikely that it will go back and be fully reread for a second time.

Some essays are read once and then you go over it again to see if they can take anything important from it. Ideally, the biggest thing is you want to keep within the pretty short window of time. As an applicant, you were told in school to write a strong hook and grab your reader with the first paragraph, and in a way it’s true. You need to pull the officer in with some captivating way from the get-go so that they’re not going on autopilot reading the essay.

Mercy at SocratesPost: What types of applicants impress you the most?

Henry at Whitman: One side of it is the ones who can articulate why they’ve pursued the things they have and why it motivates them. Even if a recruited athlete has been playing baseball since they were four years old, I want to know when I interview them or in their application why they choose to do so. Not to hang on their achievements and the fact that they want to play in college, but what makes them actually want to keep doing it. Being at Whitman especially, I would say perhaps more important to us than seeing ten AP’s on the schedule is you taking four or five that are particularly in your areas of interest. On the flip side of the extracurricular, if you have a certain academic interest in an area that you really want to study, it’s not the end of the world if you haven’t taken an AP in every single core subject if you’re able to show us why you took the ones you did and how it furthers your academic interests and what you want to study through college. Then you’ve reflected on where your academic strengths, weaknesses and interests lie and you’re ready to come into college where you pretty much have total control of how you structure your courses. You’re ready to come in, take full advantage of that, and own it.

Mercy at SocratesPost: Yeah, that sounds different from many other admissions offices who say that the more APs you have, the better. Whitman wants to see your concentration of APs relating to what you are actually interested in, especially because you’re going to be at a liberal arts college and you have say over your coursework.

Henry at Whitman: Yeah, of course, the more APs you have, it definitely helps when we’re looking at your rigor. But it’s by no means a situation where we’re going to separate everyone who does nine APs from everyone who does five APs, then pretty much cross out the five APs. It’s important to get sleep as a high schooler and take care of yourself and not just run yourself into the ground. If you, as a student, are unable to manage that in high school, and you’ve spent so much time trying to up your rigor, then you can’t maintain a healthy mental lifestyle. We worry about that in college because at home, you have your family and other people that take care of you on a day-to-day basis and support you, but college is a time of independence. So, if you’re going to come into Whitman and struggle with that, it may not be the best fit.

Mercy at SocratesPost: That’s valuable. What is something that you often see in applications or essays that you would prefer not to see?

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 get this question a lot from my readers: how do I find the best college fit for me? From your perspective as an admissions officer, what is the best way to figure out fit?
Mercy at SocratesPost: Okay, yes, those sure are great: rigor, geography, community… For students who are out of state or are abroad, what is the best place for them to figure this out, if they can’t visit? Let’s say they only have access to the website and maybe emails of students or admissions officers. How can they best figure that out without having to fly the 3,000 miles to come visit campus?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Can you tell me one memorable positive encounter with an applicant and one memorable negative encounter?

Stay tuned for more! Coming up next week: the remainder of our in-depth exclusive interview with admissions officer, Henry Whipple, at Whitman College.


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 Sundar, a student in California:

Do two or three sentences in an essay change the reader’s point of view, especially applying to Ivies and other top schools?

Yes and no. Even if everything else on your application was impeccable, a two- to three-sentence blunder in your essay, can move you from the admit pile to the reject pile. However, on the other hand, if your application was already weak, two or three Pulitzer-worthy sentences in your essay probably won’t give you a leg up. That said, if everything else in your application is solid, three extremely positive sentences in your teacher recommendation letter can make a difference.


With acceptance rates at top schools being so low, many of their admissions officers have fewer than three minutes to review the entire application that you spent months working on. Recently, admissions officer Henry Whipple of top liberal arts college, Whitman College, confirmed that he gets only three to four minutes to evaluate an entire application.

Therefore, just two or three sentences of mistakes, though seemingly trivial, can stop an admissions officer from rooting for you.

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The Skinny

Does it matter where you go to college? Ask anyone and you’ll get a vastly different response from each person. To many Asian immigrant parents, the answer might be a big resounding “yes, but it must be name-brand and highly selective.” To many self-made millionaires who dropped out of high school, the answer might be “no, start making money as soon as you can. Don’t buy the bullcrap of higher education institutions.” To those who went to college and are doing alright in life, the answer might be something like “college is what you make of it.” I’ve heard all of these responses and everything in between from a vast array of people.

Why we reviewed “Does It Matter Where You Go To College?”:
Most of the dialogues we hear involve a form of “where are you going to college?” But we rarely hear students or parents discuss the merits of even asking that question. Does it even matter where you go? If so, why? If not, why? Before we delve into creating college lists and visiting campuses, we want to help you understand the ways that your chosen college will matter.

Why this is relevant to the college admissions process: Understanding the economics of college outcomes before you apply can give you a broader perspective on what to expect when you graduate college and best to prepare for that now. It’ll alleviate the stress of blindly applying because everybody else is.

So what does the research tell us about whether or not it matters where you go to college?

We reviewed this recent Atlantic article that delves into the importance of your college name and got you the skinny on the 4 most important takeaways!

Continue to read the 4 most important takeways →