Issue 27: Backdoors to Columbia admissions, plus when to start studying for the ACT/SAT

Reaching out to admissions officers if you’re having a hard time in high school. How financial aid affects an applicant’s admission chances. How interviews really play into the admission decision. Changes in the admissions field. The biggest misunderstanding about getting into Columbia. The backdoor to getting into Columbia. SocratesPost wraps up our conversation with Columbia College Chicago admissions officer, Margaret Jones, with her best piece of advice. To catch up from last week’s interview with Margaret, click here.

Our take on Chicago, IL:

Columbia College is right in the middle of downtown Chicago, accessible by public transportation (the “L,” the city’s elevated train). The campus buildings are spread out so there isn’t a cohesive “college campus” feel that one might imagine when attending college in the U.S. A student at Columbia might not live on campus and instead commute to class from another part of the city. Columbia happens to be located right next to one of the city’s main large parks (Grant Park) which is adjacent to Lake Michigan. The views are great, but that also means it isn’t very walkable, especially because Chicago still isn’t very densely populated for a large city. Chicago isn’t known for its outdoor activities so a student wanting to both study art and go hiking or mountain biking on the weekends would find Chicago lacking! However, Chicago is the place to be for students interested in nightlife, art, cultural festivals, and music.

Exclusive Insider Interview: Admissions Officer, Columbia College Chicago

Mercy at SocratesPost: 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 if they don’t say anything, you reach out to them?

Margaret at Columbia: Either way, to be honest. We’re probably going to find the information regardless but we prefer for you just to go ahead and be upfront and honest with us. Especially for something personal or something that was out of your control, we want to know that because it points to the way that you perform under pressure as well. We really want to know that information, so it’s great for them to be upfront and honest. But we’re going to reach out to them regardless and let them know. Like I said, we’re here for them too, so they shouldn’t be nervous to do that at all. We definitely encourage that.

Mercy at SocratesPost: How does financial aid affect an applicant’s chance of getting admitted?

Margaret at Columbia: Oftentimes, we don’t even have financial information on file to look through with the applications. When I’m reviewing an application, I’m not going to go check and see if we have a FAFSA and if we know ahead of time. To be quite honest, we let that play out after you have been admitted. So once you’ve been admitted, that’s when we try to pull your FAFSA data. We don’t even pull FAFSA data if you haven’t been admitted yet, just to prevent you from getting an award letter before your acceptance packet and things like that. So we don’t even pull that data into our system after it has been released to the student.

Mercy at SocratesPost: I think that makes it easier for some of the families who are worried about the cost of college, who also might think if they can’t afford it entirely, they won’t get in.

Margaret at Columbia: Yeah, for sure.

Mercy at SocratesPost: Do you ever encounter the students either in an interview or they come to you in the office or they do a tour? Do you meet the applicants before you review their application?

Margaret at Columbia: Sometimes I might meet them at a college fair in the fall or a high school visit or sometimes they do come in for tours and events like that on campus. I generally have met most of my students and if I haven’t met them, I always send them a personal invitation to our Admitted Student Days just to let them know, “Hey, I’ll be around on these days and I’d love to meet you” and things like that. I try to meet my students before the application process, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen. Sometimes students just don’t have the time or the freedom to get down to campus as easily.

But for some students, they don’t want to miss school and their parents want to come along and they can’t miss work. So I try to work with them and let them know I am here. Sometimes I host coffee chats where students and families can meet me at a Starbucks or something in their area where we can answer any questions if they can’t come to campus.

I try to meet all my students ahead of time, but sometimes, like I said, it just doesn’t work out that way. But I try to at least to know them by name and try to get to know their face at some point during the cycle.

Mercy at SocratesPost: Do you think it ultimately helps their application if you were able to meet them before you review it?

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 was wondering what changes have you noticed now as an admissions officer from when you applied to college back in the day?

Mercy at SocratesPost: What is the biggest misunderstanding that applicants have about admissions at Columbia?

Mercy at SocratesPost: That’s great. What about students who are interested in studying art for the first time formally? They have an interest in it, but maybe they don’t have a portfolio that they can show you yet. Is it okay that they don’t have previous experience?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Great point. Some people think that there’s a backdoor to college admissions. If they have something concerning on their transcript or something else, they can try to get into college a different way. Do you think there’s a backdoor to getting admitted into Columbia?

Mercy at SocratesPost: I saw on your website that you guys have rolling admission, some schools give preference for people who apply early. Do you do that too or does it not matter when you apply?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Margaret, what is your best piece of advice for a student who wants to get into Columbia?

Mercy at SocratesPost: That’s super helpful. And what questions did I not ask that you wish I asked?

Mercy at SocratesPost: That’s really great advice. Do you interact with the current students on campus?

Mercy at SocratesPost: That’s so interesting. So when you’re talking to the tour guide, what do you understand from them in general as being their favorite and least favorite parts about Columbia?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Is that where you offer the overnight stays or do applicants have to connect with a current student and see if they’ll host?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Thanks so much for your time and insights, Margaret.

Stay tuned for a new exclusive insider interview next week!


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


“When should a high schooler start studying for the SAT tests? Is it worth it to get a tutor to learn how to take the SAT and ACT tests?”

Most high schoolers take the SAT or ACT in their junior year of high school. Senior year is generally too late because that’s when applications go out. Taking the test in freshman or sophomore years is possible, but many students and parents believe that merely undergoing high school coursework in sophomore and junior years will help them better perform on the test without additional tutoring.

Oftentimes, the works cited in the verbal sections of the ACT and SAT are novels or other texts covered in Honors English, AP Lang, or AP Lit. Likewise, the math sections do cover more advanced topics that many students don’t learn in their high school math classes until at least sophomore — if not junior — year.

As a high schooler, I took the SAT in the fall of my junior year. I would recommend that students take it the August/September before junior year so they can focus on the test without the demands of schoolwork and extracurriculars during the school year. Most students are either still on summer break in late August/early September or have just started their school year. They’re less busy.

If they bomb the August/September tests and wish to retake it, they’ll have multiple chances to register throughout junior year.

But when should you start studying for it and should you pay a tutor to help?

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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:

  • What’s the speedy skinny on the latest college admissions scandal?
  • What will happen to student loans under Trump’s 2020 budget proposal?
  • Why did Stanford students sue colleges like Stanford, UCLA, Georgetown and Yale?

Get answers below.

March 12, 2019 — The largest college admissions scandal in U.S. history happened

  • What? Over 50 people have been indicted by the U.S. government for giving or accepting bribes to cheat the college admissions system. Examples of cheating: wealthy parents paying millions to college consultants to fabricate test scores, athletic accomplishments, and race to get into elite colleges; university athletic recruiters accepting hundreds of thousands in bribes to vouch for these fabricated candidates; test prep proctors accepting large bribes to correct wrong test answers before they are graded; college consultants using fake charitable organizations to collect exorbitant fees. This has caused widespread debate on wealthy privilege, corruption in higher education, American racial divide, and the unregulated private college consulting industry.