Advice for College from Higher Ed Experts: John Chopka, Admission

How can students get a leg up in their college search? What makes an application stand out? And what are admission counselors really thinking when they look at those applications, anyway? John Chopka, VP for Enrollment Management at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, answers our questions.

Vice President for Enrollment Management, Messiah College

Originally Posted: Apr 18, 2012
Last Updated: Apr 18, 2012

Ever wish you could get the college facts straight from the source—those higher ed MVPs like deans of admission, directors of financial aid, and executive coaches? Well, we’re bringing you the next best thing: a one-on-one chat with the people at the top! So keep reading for an expert take on the ins and outs of admission, college life, and campus survival.

How can students get a leg up in their college search? What makes an application stand out? And what are admission counselors really thinking when they look at those applications, anyway? John Chopka, VP for Enrollment Management at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, answers our questions.

And if you have more questions you’d like to see answered by the experts, just check out our Ask the Experts section and send us your suggestions!

Admission Insights and Advice

What does achieving a higher degree mean in today’s world?

One of my favorite presidential quotations is attributed to Abraham Lincoln who stated, “I will study and prepare and perhaps my chance will come.” Indeed, his chance did arrive. His desire to study and prepare served our country well. In today’s world, having an education gives us an opportunity to serve in a greater capacity. One may not aspire to be a U.S. president, but higher education is often necessary to help us achieve certain positions of influence. Certainly, the case can be made that those with higher education earn more throughout their careers than those who forego formal schooling after high school. In our society, it even extends beyond achieving the bachelor’s degree. Certain professions require advanced degrees or certifications. Finally, some of tomorrow’s jobs and careers do not even exist today, so knowing how to learn and obtain transferrable skills will keep one relevant in a quickly changing marketplace. In all of this, the best advice is to take on the attitude of a lifelong learner—invest in your own continuous development and improvement. Study and prepare . . . perhaps your chance will come!

How can students new to the admission process start their search?

The interesting thing about today’s colleges and universities is that they are searching for you. First, I tell students to realize that you are a “hot commodity.”  Today’s competitive landscape and shrinking high school demographics (in many regions) puts the student in the driver’s seat when it comes to navigating through the college selection process. Students are in high demand! 

While various college guides and rankings can provide insight regarding some of an institution’s quality measurements, it’s important to keep in mind that these tools are merely a starting point for students and their families in their college search. Some important factors that are not measured in various guides and rankings that contribute to the overall “fit” for an individual student include cost and financial aid; campus life and quality of facilities; international study and internship programs; setting and geographical location; and the strength of cocurricular programs such as residence education, service learning, college ministries, and athletics.

It is good to know that the same source of institutional stats from which U.S.News and other publications conduct research is available to the public. It is called IPEDS and is housed on a government-sponsored website called the Center for Education Statistics. Other media rankings can be found on sites like and And several companies publish guides and rankings (CollegeXpress, The Princeton Review, Peterson’s Guide, etc.). In all of this, some important information regarding outcomes (placement into graduate schools, jobs, awards, etc.) must be sought directly from the institution. Ultimately, the best solution for students and their families is to use a variety of research and communication tools to find the college or university that is right for them. The best research is conducted by visiting campus and meeting the faculty, students, and staff that bring the college’s mission to life.

What makes a student’s application stand out?

While admission counselors enjoy seeing the common “stats” that a student reports (test scores, grade point average, class rank, etc.), we also appreciate knowing what motivates a student to learn. Behind all of the statistics and lists of activities and achievements is a real person with goals and dreams. Students who are able to articulate who they are and what they hope to become will catch the eye of an admission committee. It is important for students to be genuine and true to themselves in what they present in college application materials. A little creativity does not hurt!

What are some common admission and/or application mistakes students should avoid?

I realize that today’s student is often over-committed and extra busy. With that, I must caution students to carefully consider what they include in their application materials. Some more common (and easily avoidable mistakes) include:

  • Spelling and grammatical errors in the application or essay
  • Listing the wrong college in the materials or on the envelope
  • Overestimating self-reported grades and test scores
  • Having mom fill out the application or write the essay
  • Forgetting to sign the application or pertinent accompanying statements and documents

College Insider Scoop

What is, in your opinion, the best way to spend a weekend on campus?

Colleges and universities can offer some of the best venues for the arts, athletics, lecture series, films, etc. For a prospective student who really desires to get a feel for campus, it is a good idea to take advantage of an overnight stay. Weekends offer opportunities to experience both formal and informal events and activities. If your interest is in athletics, ask to attend a game or contest in your favorite sport. Perhaps you enjoy drama—ask for tickets to an upcoming theater production. If you want to see what weekend life is like, stay in the residence halls and attend meals or a coffeehouse on campus. There are so many special events on a college campus. You should be able to experience something that will be both enjoyable and informative as you seek the best college fit!

Name one can’t-miss event at Messiah College.

Messiah hosts a plethora of special events, concerts, camps, and athletic contests. U.S.News & World Report recently named us as #3 in the nation for soccer fans, so I would definitely recommend taking in a game at Shoemaker Field. In fact, Messiah is the only college in NCAA history to win dual national championships in the same sport in the same year by both their men’s and women’s teams—not only once but three times! There are also high-quality music and theater productions. In the winter of 2013, we will open our new High Center for Worship and the Performing Arts. This new state-of-the-art venue will host a variety of concerts, productions, and lecture series. Messiah College also hosts prominent national speakers, recently including Fred Barnes, Dinesh D’Souza, Joni Eareckson Tada, Henry Louis Gates, Tracy Kidder, Jonathan Kozol, James Leach, James McBride, Mark Noll, Laurie Polich, Richard Stearns, Beverly Daniel Tatum, Jim Wallis, and Philip Yancey

Where is your favorite place to eat on or around campus?

My favorite place to eat on campus is the Larsen Student Union’s eatery, The Union Café. It was recently awarded a Silver Medal from the National Association of College and University Food Services. This award was based on a variety of aspects of The Union Café’s menu and service, including atmosphere, nutrition and wellness offerings, online ordering capabilities, and menu variety. It is a great dining experience in a cool venue!  

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