Issue 60: “I love looking at extracurricular activities”

“Sometimes people think they’re putting on a better act than they actually are,” admissions officer Riley Haris at University of Lynchburg says about falsified activities and essays. SocratesPost and Lynchburg insider discuss most memorable essays, automatic denials, welcome and unwelcome counselor involvement, and what attributes matter most for gaining admission. Plus, how being one of five siblings taught her how to spot a fib. Lynchburg is featured as one of the Colleges That Change Lives.

Exclusive Insider Interview: Admissions Counselor, University of Lynchburg

SocratesPost: Riley, thanks for joining us today. How did your background bring you to your admissions career at the University of Lynchburg?

Riley at Lynchburg: I come from a very large family, and I think that plays a role in my entire experience and in what I do for work. I went to Syracuse University for my undergrad, and I majored in policy studies with the intention of going to law school. During my senior year, I started as a student teacher at an inner-city school in the area. I worked in a science classroom, but a lot of the kids were preparing to go to college, and they inspired me to look into working in higher ed and see what everything is like on that side because these kids are coming from an inner-city school with not a whole lot of support. They’re great kids but have challenging life stories, and I wanted to see how that would translate with getting into college. So, I made the decision to transition to a career in higher ed and abandon law school because it probably wasn’t going to be fun anyway. I started as an admin, which is the most accessible position to get at a university without having a master’s degree. It gives you the chance to be involved in higher ed, but also to take that time off before you get your master’s.

SocratesPost: How did you decide on Lynchburg out of all places?

Riley at Lynchburg: I went to a small high school, and I thought I wanted to go to a small school for college, and so I looked at going to Lynchburg for undergrad. But I originally wanted to major in Communications and Syracuse has the number one communication program, and so I ended up at Syracuse for the program, not necessarily the snow or the cold or the location or anything like that, and then ended up not even finishing the program I started in. And then, when I decided that I wanted to go back to a school, it was really important for me to work at a school that I liked and that I believed in what they were doing. To me, that was Lynchburg. When I heard that they were hiring, it made sense to go back in that direction and see what role they could play in my life, since it hadn’t been for undergrad.

SocratesPost: It sounds like in your admissions office, there might be people coming from all different backgrounds. What is the training like for newcomers in that department?

Riley at Lynchburg: It’s a bit of a sink or swim situation. You can talk to your supervisor or your coworkers any time about how you should handle the phone calls from frantic parents or the questions you get from kids or how to deal with people at college fairs, but there’s no training like experience. So, you go through everything and learn as much as you can about the school, especially if you aren’t a graduate of the institution, and then you have to get involved. There are counselor workshops from different professional organizations, and you shadow experienced coworkers before you go out on your travel season and start answering calls and answering emails. So, there is a little bit of being thrown into it and learning as you go, which some people don’t like, but it’s definitely the easiest way to navigate through everything in the profession. I can’t imagine just reading a manual on it and then being told you’re good to go. There are so many different aspects to it.

SocratesPost: And speaking of emails and calls, what is a typical day like for you?

Riley at Lynchburg: It fluctuates a lot. I’m the kind of person who grew up checking my email, and I used to love it. Now, I don’t like it as much.

During travel season, sometimes I’m getting up at 6:30 or 7 to drive to a school for high school visits or college fairs, so I don’t check my email at all because I don’t have time.I put in a 17 hour day, and eating was the most significant thing that I did that day.

Other times, it’s sitting in my hotel room, and answering emails, reading applications, calculating scholarships, responding to students and parents. So, it can change day-to-day.

SocratesPost: What is something most people don’t realize about working in admissions?

Riley at Lynchburg: What some people don’t realize is that during the fall travel season, we still work on the weekends. We might have a fair on Sundays, or we have to travel to our next destination on a Saturday, or parents will forget that it’s a Sunday and, knowing that we technically have the day off, call anyway. There’s no consistency with what I do on a daily basis.

SocratesPost: Wow. So today is a Sunday. Are you working from home or from the office?

Riley at Lynchburg: I am working from my hotel. I have not been home in about a month and a half. Part of that has been my choice. My territory is a little farther away from Lynchburg, so I like to do a little self-care and not make the drive every single weekend. Sometimes it’s easier for me to stay at a hotel. So, I haven’t been home in a month and a half, but I’ll get to go home next weekend, which is exciting. So, my “office” changes look a lot. I always say that Starbucks is the coffee shop I go to work, and if I ever want to enjoy coffee, I try to find a local mom-and-pop kind of shop. Trying to differentiate when I work and when I don’t.

I have not been home in about a month and a half.

SocratesPost: What’s the story behind how you chose your admissions territory?

Riley at Lynchburg: My territory is a few different states. I travel to Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and I technically have Ohio, but we don’t travel there too much. So, the territories are pretty big. And that varies from school. It made the most sense to take these territories because I’m originally from Pennsylvania, and I went to school in New York, so I know the areas, and I can talk to people in ways that they would understand or make references that they would know. Parents can be a little different depending on where you go geographically, so you have to have a particular personality to deal with parents. But territory assignment can vary; the longer you’re in admissions, they tend to put you closer to home or your home base, so a lot of the people in our office who’ve been here for a while have territories closer to Lynchburg. They might handle the Virginia territory, or they will have a local area, and the newbies get sent a little farther away.

SocratesPost: What have you noticed are the biggest differences between parents in Pennsylvania where you went to high school in parents New York where you went to college?

Riley at Lynchburg: Yes, absolutely. New York has the SUNY school system, so a lot of parents in New York don’t want their kids going too far away. Lynchburg is a good eight-hour drive, so my recruitment is going to be a lot more challenging with trying to convince parents that it’s good for their kids to go to school so far away, or we can offer them scholarship money to be around the same cost as a SUNY school. Whereas if I’m in Philadelphia, which is only five hours away, it’s easier for me to pitch an easier time getting home for visits. We do have to market the school accordingly, and you have to know your market. You also need to know the type of schools that prospective students currently go to. It’s not necessary for me to talk about the transition to college if the kids are going to boarding school because they already know what it’s like. Whereas if you’re in the middle of nowhere, upstate New York, it’s a lot different; the transition and first-year programming will be important in the pitch.

SocratesPost: What tools and resources do you use to fully understand the high schools that you’re talking to? Do you get sort of a profile from the counselors there or do you just have to do your own Google search?

Riley at Lynchburg: There is a little bit of both provided resources and doing our own research. Sometimes I think people don’t realize the amount of data that goes into this preparation. We look at attendance numbers or deposits, and we do a lot more recruitment in areas where we get more deposits; it makes sense to target areas that we know work. And then we’ll take a week or two to focus on areas where we want to do more exploration of the schools in that area, feel out if it’s worth going to or not. And so, I talk to coworkers that have done my area, and I do read the school profile. Sometimes the counselors will send these profiles to us in advance so that we have an idea of what the students are like, but a lot of what we find is in our own research. The worst thing you can do is start talking about the different sports programs for men and women to an all-boys school. If a lot of people at a school do equestrian, I’ll talk about the equestrian program because it might appeal to them. Or if the school has an IB curriculum, I’ll talk about the IB program that we have. You do need to know your audience going in because it can get a little redundant and a bit awkward if you don’t.

SocratesPost: How many schools would you say you visit a week during travel season?

Riley at Lynchburg: In our office, a good, productive day is typically three to four high school visits during the day and a college fair at night. Sometimes the high school visits are 15 minutes, and you’re just dropping off materials, or sometimes it’s a full hour with a presentation. But we strive for as many high school visits in the day as we can, Monday through Friday. Sometimes that will change because of driving or when there isn’t a fair to attend, because there’s nothing you can do about that.

SocratesPost: And how do you squeeze in time to read application during a day like that?

Riley at Lynchburg: Either I have to get up really early, or I have to stay up really late in order to read my applications. We also have a great support network between coworkers; we have a database of applications and can see who has what number of applications to read. If one coworker has a lighter travel day, they might pull some of your applications and do an initial review process for you, which is really helpful because there have been days where I know I have 12 applications to read, but I’m also about to put in a 13 hour day, so I’m just focusing on staying hydrated at that point. So, having good coworkers and people who are aware of these situations is definitely helpful.

SocratesPost: It seems like even if you’re in a different territory, you might be working with your co-workers assigned to different regions?

Riley at Lynchburg: Absolutely. And I keep notes of conversations I have with students, maybe if they bring up things about their home life, or switching schools, or having to take Regents Exams in New York if they have never had to do that. Then if other people have to review those applications initially, they can see everything through my eyes and understand the conversations that I’ve had with those students. When people share these things with us, we want that to help influence the admission decision in a way that will make it better for the students, whether that’s them coming to our school or not.

SocratesPost: And speaking of the review process, what is that like for you? I know that some schools have a first and second reader, and then the application goes to committee if needed. What is the path of an application at Lynchburg?

Riley at Lynchburg: Since we’re a pretty small school, it’s usually the person who has that territory doing the initial review. If it’s a yes, we send it to another person who confirms that they meet the requirements or if our GPA recalculation was done right. However, if it’s a waitlist, a deny, or further requirements (such as submitting their first semester grades from senior year so that we can review it for their best academic profile), then those will go to yet another person; we have a person who is in charge of the “if, maybe, buts”. So, we don’t have to suffer too much just because we’re a smaller school.

SocratesPost: What’s an example of your influence on an application?

Riley at Lynchburg: I had an experience where I met a senior at a fair in the third week of September. And sometimes since they’re a senior, they already kind of know what they want, and I might not be able to reach them. But this student became so interested in what I had to say, and they submitted an application. They got accepted maybe three days ago, and they were so excited when they got the news that they’ve already said they’re going to come to visit. When you get to recruit a student from the very beginning all the way through to the end, it’s exciting because you’re rooting for these kids to come to your school. And even if they don’t attend, I want them to be successful because they seem like great kids. They have a great family, and they’re just so professional and polite. So, it is exciting for us, too. Sometimes that’s what gets me through the long days; meeting those kids, getting to know them, and being a part of their higher ed. It’s not like we’re sitting in our offices trying to ruin dreams.

SocratesPost: What do you mean by that?

Riley at Lynchburg: I had an experience where I met a senior at a fair in the third week of September. And sometimes since they’re a senior, they already kind of know what they want, and I might not be able to reach them. But this student became so interested in what I had to say, and they submitted an application. They got accepted maybe three days ago, and they were so excited when they got the news that they’ve already said they’re going to come to visit. When you get to recruit a student from the very beginning all the way through to the end, it’s exciting because you’re rooting for these kids to come to your school. And even if they don’t attend, I want them to be successful because they seem like great kids. They have a great family, and they’re just so professional and polite. So, it is exciting for us, too. Sometimes that’s what gets me through the long days; meeting those kids, getting to know them, and being a part of their higher ed. It’s not like we’re sitting in our offices trying to ruin dreams.

SocratesPost: Very true. What characteristic traits or attributes of students do you look for that make you remember them?

 

Riley at Lynchburg: I love looking at extracurricular activities. It seems funny because everyone thinks classes and GPA and test scores matter the most. But we also want to see that you were involved. I’m also more likely to remember kids with essays based on their interests. I remember one where they wrote about starting a coin selling business when they were in tenth grade and how they were interested in that because their grandfather got them into it. Knowing what the kids have been involved in and what they do outside of class, and how that will translate to a future career shows more. To me, that will prove more business skills than an intro to business class you took in tenth grade. That matters so much because school is more than just sitting in the classroom, and we understand that as admissions counselors. So, I love seeing that involvement, whether it’s in the community, in the school, or on their own time.

I’m also more likely to remember kids with essays based on their interests.

SocratesPost: Recently, there has been the college admissions scandal and students submitting overly edited papers or even extracurriculars they never did. When you read applications or talk to students, are you able to tell when something is falsified?

Riley at Lynchburg: Yes, definitely. Sometimes we do interviews at Lynchburg where kids will come and talk to me to understand the process better; I’ll tell them about financial aid or classes. Sometimes it’s the interactions between the kids and their parents where you can tell something about that kid because they will talk about something and it might sound rehearsed, or the parents look a little surprised, or someone in the room looks a little taken aback or a little stiff. You can tell when they’re just throwing it out there because mom or dad wanted them to mention that they’re taking six AP classes, or you can tell if they don’t care about track and field. Sometimes people think they’re putting on a better act than they actually are. But even admissions counselors were at one time trying to talk ourselves up in the same process, so we know.

SocratesPost: Wow. It’s impossible to hide your feelings and emotions in the room.

Riley at Lynchburg: Exactly like I’m one of five siblings, and we all have our ways of fibbing, so I feel like I know a few tricks in the book.

SocratesPost: Oh wow. It’s interesting to know that you’ve sharpened your interpersonal skills just from having so many brothers and sisters. I never thought of that as an attribute to your job, but it absolutely is.

Riley at Lynchburg: Being a former foster kid has been a huge part of my life, and not many people have that kind of outlook or perspective, so it has helped me with building stronger rapport with kids and their parents. Even with being able to have interactions with people who have had a harder go at life than myself.

SocratesPost: That’s certainly a unique perspective that helps make connections. When you’re talking to parents and students, I imagine the questions they ask you are a little different. What do you think are the major differences between the questions from parents and students?

Here’s a preview of the rest of our conversation! Subscribe to read the rest and support our ad-free newsletter.

We can give them the degree and the piece of paper … but the name won’t get them everywhere. It’s really up to the kid to make that happen. So, then you have to look at the kid and ask what they are going to do that’s going to make their time at Lynchburg worth it.

SocratesPost: I know some admissions counselors have great relationships with either high school counselors or private counselors that students hire themselves. As an admissions officer, how do you feel about communicating with school or private counselors versus students themselves?

SocratesPost: That makes sense. When was a time you met a prospective student and thought this person just probably won’t be a good fit at Lynchburg?

SocratesPost: What clues do you look for to figure out if a prospective would be a good fit?

SocratesPost: Are there times when you read an application and you know it’s an automatic deny?

SocratesPost: Thinking back to the essays you’ve read, which ones still stand out to you today?

SocratesPost: Essay coaches or even English teachers teach their students to surprise their application reader and impress them, to make sure that they’re not falling asleep reading your essay. But it sounds like sometimes it’s nothing more than writing something that connects with that individual reading it.

SocratesPost: How do you think your preference for relatable stories differs from the approach at other schools?

The criteria and perspective for reading an essay can also be the difference between smaller schools and bigger schools or private versus public. That’s why you can’t ever say that all institutions are the same…

SocratesPost: Thinking back to what you said about the second reader, tell me about a time you disagreed and what did you do about it?

SocratesPost: What’s it like working in your office? Can you tell us a little about the admissions office culture at Lynchburg?

Stay tuned for the remainder of our exclusive insider interview with admissions office Riley Haris next week!

Dear Socrates Q&A

This week, we selected a question from from Sanjana, a student in Schaumburg, IL:

“What can juniors do to make the college application process easier senior year?”

It totally makes sense why you’d want to make senior year easier. High school seniors applying for college have a really tough time and here’s what I think makes it brutal:

  • Crafting a winning essay that encapsulates who you are (and only the good parts) in a short amount of time 
  • Knowing you’ve done enough research to narrow down your list of college choices — will I really want to be that far from home? 
  • Finding a major while simultaneously asking yourself will this major define my career? Will I be able to switch out of it if I don’t like it? What if I don’t know enough about it and am committing too early? 
  • Hearing good or bad stories related to college admissions from family, friends, peers, older classmates, etc. 
  • Keeping your teachers happy by keeping up your grades, your swim coaches happy by hitting your senior year PR, your club members happy by planning brand new events, your parents happy by applying to their dream colleges… the list goes on… oh, and scoring your highest SAT/ACT score yet
  • And all at the same time, writing more essays, supplements, and doing more administrative work than you’ve ever done before

Wow. (Or, yikes, should I say?) With all of those — and more that I probably missed — tasks, expectations, and pressures, it’s smart to think ahead and see how you can lessen your load.

Here’s what I think you can do to make the process easier next year:

1. Broaden your knowledge about colleges by researching them online, calling, talking to alums or admissions reps, or even visiting if it’s feasible. This usually takes the longest and cramming it last minute during first semester senior year or the summer before school starts will stress you out. There are SO many options and some that you’ve never heard of. Researching should be fun and exploratory — and not an added pressure to your junior year list of to-do’s.

2. Sign up for our mini e-course to start brainstorming your essay. Don’t start writing it. Just get your ideas flowing and understand yourself a little more than before. Have you heard that authors sometimes take years to write a book? They’re still thinking about it the whole time. Start milking your ideas and by the time you’re ready to write, you’ll have a solid understanding of what you stand for. Join the free course here.

What will mean the most to share your true identity is your essay. Find ideas on how to get started here.

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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. Headlines we explore this week:

  • New financial model: This college slashed tuition and asked donors to make up for lost revenue. Which college was it and did it work?
  • These two public colleges will soon merge into one… Which ones and where?
  • This college professor believes in “ungrading” and getting rid of TurnItIn.com. What’s behind this theory?
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