A Look at College Admission From a Top Official

Getting through the college admission process can feel like stumbling around in the dark, so let a real-life college admission expert guide you and share her top advice.

The best way to understand the college admission process is to ask someone who’s been there. And we have an expert here to answer some of your most frequently asked questions about getting into college! Read on to learn the ins and outs of today’s admission landscape from a current Vice President of Enrollment.

Stefanie Niles 

Stefanie Niles, former President of the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC)the leading national organization for college admission professionals—has worked inside college admission offices for decades. Niles is the current Vice President for Enrollment and Communications at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, and previously held top admission and financial aid positions at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania; Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia; and DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.

I met Niles at a conference for the Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling, and we got to speak about her career path, the importance of the college essay, and some other key issues students and parents find important: tuition, what colleges want from students, getting in, and how students can stand out on their applications. She shared her insight on how to guide students through the stressful process, and now we’re sharing it with you.

What are the biggest challenges facing the college admission world today?

One of the greatest challenges facing college admission (and the one that keeps me up at night) is the escalating cost of college. More and more students and their families are being pinched by rising tuition and financial aid packages that don’t meet their demonstrated financial need. I believe that, as a nation, we’re going to have to address this critical issue in the next decade, or we’ll continue to see more colleges close and fewer students seeking higher education options as the market is too expensive.

Related: How to Figure Out Your College Costs

What do you wish students knew about college admission?

There are so many terrific college options. I wish students knew that it isn’t critical to secure admission at a select group of eight, 12, or 20 colleges but that there are many places where students will be challenged, motivated, and can grow skills to be productive adults.

What do you wish students knew about you and your admission colleagues—the people who say “yes” or “no” to their applications?

Like many who work in college admission, my overarching goal is to help as many students as I can access a college education, regardless of where they choose to enroll. While the college admission process can be stressful and challenging, 99% of the individuals who work in college admission do so because they want to assist and support students in finding the right college fit. You don’t have to go it alone. I’ve counseled many students about the college search and selection process—many of whom were interested in the institution for which I worked, but often those who weren’t!

Students are often reluctant to email or call a college admission office; is it okay for a student to contact the admission office with questions?

Almost any college admission counselor, regardless of the institution for which they work, will sit down with a student and help them sort out their interests and needs as they relate to the college experience. So in short, yes, it’s okay.

Your career has focused on liberal arts colleges—what draws you to the liberal arts?

I love the broad range of skills that a liberal arts education offers to students. A liberal arts education helps develop the ability to think critically and analytically, communicate effectively, solve problems, and work collaboratively with others. These skills are necessary to manage today’s challenges—and those we’ll face tomorrow. As many of the jobs individuals will hold 20 years from now don’t even exist today, having a background that encourages creativity, ability, and flexibility will be best suited not only to fill the jobs of tomorrow but to identify the problems we face and help create the jobs that will enable us to address them.

Related: Great Colleges for the Liberal Arts

What’s your message to parents who believe their student won’t get into a “good” college?

A “good” college is any place where a student will thrive; where he or she will be exposed to new ideas, new challenges, and perspectives different from their own; where the student grows intellectually and personally; and where they have the opportunity to take advantage of experiences that’ll open their minds to different experiences and cultures that can shape their professional journey. 

My son was accepted to 10 colleges (which sounds like a lot!), but he had such a hard time choosing among them, as each offered him distinctive, interesting, and challenging opportunities in settings where he felt he would both fit in and be challenged by a new environment. It was an eye-opening, real-life example for me of how there are many great choices, not just one right fit for a student!

How important is the essay inside the college admission offices where you’ve worked?

The essay, in my experience, definitely matters in an admission committee’s overall consideration of a student’s admissibility to an institution. Many liberal arts colleges find that the essay can provide insight into both how a student might fit into an institution and if they possess the basic writing skills to excel in that environment. I’ve definitely seen a poor essay, submitted with an otherwise solid application, keep a student from being admitted. I’ve also seen a particularly strong essay, submitted with an application containing some red flags, tip the scale toward a positive admission decision. 

Related: How to Write a Great College Admission Essay, Step-by-Step

What else do you look for in an application essay?

It’s important to assess how well a student can write. Can they construct a coherent sentence? Can they follow directions regarding length? Do they use correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation? I also want to be sure that students address the question asked of them in a way that gives me insight into who they are. I believe that a student should write about what is important and meaningful to them, and that feeling will shine through their essay.

As college admission changes, where does the essay fit?

Certainly, at liberal arts institutions, I believe that essays will remain a critical part of the application process. Good writing is a skill that will stand the test of time, and liberal arts colleges will continue to require that their students use their writing abilities to express themselves effectively. A strong college admission essay is the first step on a long path toward securing a high-quality college education and developing the skills necessary to be successful in one’s future career.

What’s your top tip for students writing any type of college admission essay?

Have someone else review your work. No matter how good of a writer you are, it’s important to have another set of eyes on your work to avoid any errors—big or small—that you might overlook.

What are the biggest mistakes you see in the college admission essays you read?

I’ve seen a lot of careless mistakes—like misspelling the name of the major you wish to pursue. I’ve also seen many students write an essay as if they were typing a text, without capitalizing words and using little punctuation. But the biggest mistake is not putting in the appropriate effort to write the very best essay you can. An essay doesn’t have to be long to be a high-quality piece, but care needs to be taken to answer the question you’re asked and to be thoughtful in both what you say and how you say it.

Related: Top College Essay Tips From Admission Insiders

What else would you like students to know about the college application process?

Start the process early, ask questions, visit campuses if you can, and talk to current students, recent alumni, faculty members, coaches, and staff members who work at the schools you’re considering. You’ll learn a lot by keeping your eyes and ears open and interacting with the individuals who know the institution best.

Check out our College Admission section for more application advice, and sign up for Wow Writing Workshop’s free college essay webinars! 

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About Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton is President and Co-founder of Wow Writing Workshop, which teaches students and educational professionals a simple, step-by-step process for writing effective college essays so they can stand out and tell their stories. Kim supervises a team of writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the college admissions industry with their unique approach to communicating messages effectively through application essays, including personal statements, activity and short-answer essays, and supplements. From Farmington Hills, Michigan, Kim is also a board member of the Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling.



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