Expert Admissions hosted a webinar to give you the insiders’ perspectives on college admissions. Our guests were Marina Wencelblat Fried, Associate Director of Admissions at Cornell, and Sam Prouty, Director of Admissions at Middlebury. They answered questions about standardized testing, how applications are read, what makes a great essay, and more. Keep reading for highlights from the conversation, and watch the webinar above.
There are different processes for reading applications at Cornell and Middlebury, reflecting the different institutional structures of the colleges. At Middlebury, students apply only to Middlebury College as a whole, while at Cornell, students apply to one of eight different undergraduate colleges.
At Middlebury, each application is read by a minimum of two admissions officers, and if they move forward to the committee process, they’ll be read by a committee of four. Students do not have to declare a major when applying because Middlebury does not admit by major.
At Cornell, the admissions process varies among the undergraduate colleges. There will always be more than one person reading each application, whether it’s two admissions officers, a committee, or an additional faculty member for portfolio reviews. Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences does not admit by major, but some of the other undergraduate colleges do (like Agriculture and Life Sciences).
Prouty and Fried caution students not to try to strategize applying to an “easier” major to better their chances of admission. If a school admits by major, it can be more difficult than you might think to make an internal transfer, and — perhaps most importantly — it’s apparent when a student’s profile doesn’t indicate a good fit with the program they’re applying to.
What makes a standout application?
Both admissions officers emphasized that numerical factors are not what stand out in an application. Many students have excellent grades and test scores. Cornell’s stance is that about 80% of their applicants could be academically successful at a highly selective college or university. What helps distinguish one highly qualified applicant from another are the qualitative aspects of the application: the essay, letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities. These components of the application give readers a sense of who you are as a person and as a student, as well as what matters to you. Remember that colleges are not just admitting students; they’re admitting future roommates, teammates, and friends.
Middlebury emphasizes that they are truly test-optional. Last year, they had about 50% of applicants submit test scores, and about 50% of admitted students had submitted test scores. Middlebury also only looks at the superscore that you submit — the best scores on each test section from different test dates.
Cornell’s undergraduate colleges have different testing policies. Three of the colleges are test-blind, so scores will not be considered even if they’re submitted. Cornell also emphasizes that the test-optional colleges are truly test-optional. They allow students to self-report scores, including superscores.
Both Fried and Prouty stressed that cliché essays don’t work and gave some examples of what those might look like. Prouty said he likes essays that are “about something small and uniquely you.” It’s often easier to get a sense of the student’s personality, interests, and voice when they write about something seemingly mundane but genuinely meaningful.
Fried added that you don’t need to write about a major life event or tragedy, you need to reveal something particular about yourself “at the ground level” — personality traits, quirks, things that make you you. She also cautioned against essays that are about another person who has impacted you. Often, the essay reveals too much about the other person and not enough about the applicant. Fried further reminded students that the supplemental essays shouldn’t be an afterthought because they help establish that crucial fit between the student and the college.
They each shared a few examples of essay topics that were insightful, captivating, and revealing and offered advice for how students might tackle more sensitive essay topics about struggles they’ve overcome.
When it comes to sending additional materials beyond what’s required in the application, different schools will feel differently. Prouty indicated that Middlebury will read additional materials that are genuinely relevant to a student’s candidacy. If you have a special talent, they’re happy to see evidence of it even though they don’t admit by major. Portfolios (for dance, film, studio art, music, etc.) will be sent to faculty for review.
Fried advises that, for Cornell, if it’s not required, you probably shouldn’t send it. There are a few exceptions, and faculty may be called in to review additional materials.
We ended our conversation by asking our guests to describe how they would answer their own school’s essay prompt. Prouty shared with us his topic for a personal statement, and Fried shared her response to the supplemental essay for the College of Human Ecology.
To hear their responses and get more details on the topics covered in the webinar, watch the webinar at the top of the page. You can also check out our previous webinars with admissions officers for more insights from behind the admissions desk.
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