Campus Overload Live with Jenna Johnson:

Dec 16, 2010

Campus Overload's Jenna Johnson chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of interns on her blog each day. In her live chat, she answers your questions about life on campus -- and life off campus, too.

Worrying about early admission results? Still haven't sent in your application? Jenna will be joined by Greg Roberts, dean of admission at the University of Virginia, and Jill Medina, associate director of admissions for Oberlin College, to talk about the admissions process. They'll help you sort out application essays, ACT scores and how to make yourself stand out from the crowd.

The District is covered in a gorgeous layer of snow -- so it's the perfect day to stay inside with a cup of coffee and chat about college admissions, right?

Today, I am joined by two college administrators with tons of wisdom to dispense: Greg Roberts is the University of Virginia's dean of admission. Jill Medina, is Oberlin College's associate director of admissions.

Okay, let's get to those questions....

I'm looking forward to responding to your questions today.  I hope I can be of some help. I'll do the best  I can to get to as many as possible. Fire away.

Greg Roberts

This is Jill Medina, Senior Associate Director of Admissions for Oberlin's Arts and Sciences.  I'm thrilled to be online and available to answer your questions.

You guys have early decision -- then you and Harvard get rid of it. Now you bring back early action and they are apparently thinking about it. Why the change of heart? Is this something everyone does, then everyone stops doing, then everyone does again? Are you doing this to help students or help your admission numbers, or both?

Great question. We eliminated ED a number of years ago primarily because the applicant pool was not socioeconomically diverse.  We stand by this decision but decided to add an EA, non-binding, option for 2012 in response to student interest. Since this is non-binding and does not require a student to lock in in December or January we believe it will result in a much more diverse early pool.

It seems like schools are seeing more and more early applications to I don't see schools eliminating early programs anytime soon.

Do top students HAVE to do early admissions to get in competitive schools these days? And don't students grow and change over senior year? Is it really a good idea to judge them by just up to their junior year of work?

I do think that at some schools it is less competitive if you apply through an early program. That varies with school though. You might check and compare offer rates and the percentage of the class accepted early to get an idea of how beneficial it might be to apply early.

Hi, everyone! I'm a high school junior now and thinking about college. Under what circumstances would you recommend early decision/early action?

Hello junior!  Early Decision is really for students who know that if accepted, they will attend that school no matter what.  Usually it's your first choice college.

Given the rise in tuition cost, how does UVa respond to questions that lower cost universities may be a better value for parents?

Fortunately, UVA has a lower cost of attendance, sometimes significantly lower (compared to out-of-state private schools) and also we have our AccessUVA aid program that is as good as any in the country. Cost of attendance is a HUGE issue. I would encourage all students to consider applying for aid and comparing aid offers before commiting to a school.

Can someone explain the difference between early decision and early action. Are they the same thing?

Typically Early Action is a non-binding application review whereas students applying Early Decision are making a commitment, if admitted, to attend the institution.  This usually also involves withdrawing other applications and not initiating new applications. 

As a homeschooled student, what can I do to be competitive in the admissions process?

Homeschooled students will be asked to meet the same admissions criteria.  Each college may have specific requirements.  Ensure that your homeschool curriculum will not contain deficiencies compared to applicants from a traditional high school. You will want to have well-rounded extra-curricular activities and take advantage of learning opportunities such as classes at a local school, community college classes, and other involvement.  Double check the schools to which you are applying as some do require homeschooled students to visit and interview.

Can you explain why UVa uses the CSS Profile from College Board in addition to the FAFSA report and its own financial aid application, when most other VA schools don't? Any advice for parents in completing this lengthy process?

Most schools ask for information that is not provided by the FAFSA that will help them better understand the families financial situation. We moved to the Profile this year (we used our own form in the past) because we felt it would be easier for families. The Profile is in some ways like the Common Application for financial aid. Basically, we need more information than is provided by the feds form.

What type of information or material is acceptable to add, after the student's application is submitted? Students may want to convey their tremendous level of interest in a particular school (in UVa's case, they are one year too soon to express their love via Early Action), but don't want to overstep. Please offer an example or two of what moves make sense. Thank you.

This will depend on the school the student is applying to.  You don't want to regret not submitting something that might impact the review of your application. On the other hand you don't want to submit piles of information to see what sticks, so to speak. Be judicious but don't hold back if you believe it will help the reader get a better understanding of who you are and what you can contribute to the institution.

Our son applied early decision to a prestigious East Coast liberal arts school. We honestly don't think he will get in... I don't know if he actually wants to go there or would be happy there... Can he enroll and then un-enroll? I feel like we need to talk about this as a family now instead of after the news comes. Am I needlessly worrying?

ED is binding once the student deposits. If admitted and enrolled he would have to cancel his applications to other schools so he would be locked in. Some fear that ED programs push students who are not ready to apply. ED can be a good call but you need to know the school you are applying to is your first choice.  If you apply ED you need to give it a great deal of thought as a family first.

What percent of students pay "sticker price" at UVA? In other words, what percent pay the full tuition without any scholarships, grants, loans, etc.? I realize that there are a lot of factors that impact what a family can pay, but at approximately what family income level will scholarships and grants based on need not be available if the family has two kids in college?

That's a tough one b/c so many factors play a role in the determination of "expected family contribution." Schools will be required by law to post Net Price Calculators on their sites next year. These can provide  a general aid picture for families prior to applying. This might help. About 40% of our enrolling class last year received aid if I recall. I'd have to double check on that but the bottom line is we a. meet 100% of demonstrated financial need and we offer full grant aid packages and cap the amount of loan a middle income student can receive. I hope this helps a little.

I read many times (particularly from Singletary) that one should never apply to Ivy League colleges because they are too expensive. Is this a very narrow way of looking at things. I know for a fact that many of the Ivy League colleges are providing fantastic financial aid packages to students of limited resources. Based on my experience, I say investigate; evaluate all colleges of your choice. If you have a dream of going to an Ivy League apply to the college of your dream, but keep your options open by also applying to other less expensive colleges. In the end, evaluate all options available to you.

That's all very true -- I don't think a lot of people realize that the massive tuition amount printed in college guides is just the sticker price and most students end up paying less. (Here's a piece my colleague Dan de Vise wrote about how the net price of college tuition and fees has actually gone down in the last five years.)

The Ivy League schools, especially, have upped their financial aid offerings, especially to low-income students.

For example, at the University of Pennsylvania all students who qualify for need-based aid will receive it through grants and scholarships, not loans.

Good afternoon. My daugher has been home schooled the past three years. High school was not enough of a challenge as we come from a very small town(moved from LA for family reasons) so we put her in a local junior college for all of her classes and she has made straight A's over the past three years. She got over 2200 on her SAT and did well on her subject tests and while limited in her extracurriculars she is the editor of her college newspaper, in several clubs on campus and has been very active in community projects such as the food bank.

My question is is there anything we should do in the application to further her chances and/or explain home school. We visited all of the colleges she is interested in this summer (including Oberlin) and had interviews where they were offered. She is also applying to safe schools and reach schools and in between.

Great question. We see many more home schooled students than we used to.  In the case of your daughter we will see her courses and grades from the JC. If there are any other courses she has taken we would need to know about them, who teaches them for example, what is the course content, is there a course description you can provide? All these questions would help us assess the rigor of her program. Also include information on what she does for fun, what are her hobbies, favorite books etc. We want to get an idea of who she is and how she's challenged herself, like all applicants homeschooled or not.

Jill - what sets liberal arts schools apart from one another? How does Oberlin compete with the likes of Swarthmore, Williams, Haverford, etc. ?

I can really only speak about Oberlin.  I'm an alum and loved being here and still love working here.  The community draws fascinating, outgoing, enthusiastic, passionate and involved students that come together to make a community unlike any other.  There are some specifics that do separate Oberlin from other liberal arts colleges:  1) Oberlin has a world-reknowned Conservatory of Music.  2) We are larger with 2900 students. 3) Oberlin has a unique history as the first to write a non-discrimination based admissions policy, first to grant bachelors degrees to women along side men, first liberal arts college to sign a charter to lower our carbon imprint.

Greg and Jill, what's the most surprising essay you've ever read?

Hmm, I've read some good ones over the years.  I think of those where students took a risk so I'm not sure I'd say they were surprising but I respected the risk taken. The problem with many essays is that they are too bland. They tell but don't show. Students rely on vague generalizations and the essays don't have much tight focus. I'd need to give this more thought though to come up with a specific example of a surprising essay.  I would avoid writing about your boyfriend or girlfriend and if you took a trip to Costa Rica try to think of a way to make it original.

High school students and their parents freak out about college admissions even though there are plenty of spots in hundreds of schools where they will be perfectly happy and successful. And yet, they still freak out. Why? Why can't we change this?

Students sometimes focus on a small sliver of schools at the top of the US News rankings or in the top 25 in the latest football poll when there are hundreds and hundreds of great schools out there. It's a shame really. The admission process is now highly publicized and we definitely see the intensity level being raised each year.  Student need to think about fit first although I know that's a cliche.  Fact is, it's getting increasingly tough to get in those top ranked schools and that leads to anxiety.  If I had the answer for that one though I'd be a millionaire.

As an international student, what are the changes I need to know about with some schools going from need-blind to need-aware?

Well, some schools will take your ability to pay into consideration when making admissions decisions.  I would direct specific questions to the schools you are applying.

I am thinking of returning to graduate school. I have been told the world of admissions is changing: that now students make one application that is used by many schools. How does that work? Also, is there a similar system for graduate schools?

I am not as familiar with grad school admission unfortunately. I am not aware of a universal form b/c grad schools or so individualized.

I was recently accepted to my first-choice program for an advanced degree, however, I think I've, unwittingly, alienated the department liaison with new students. ...

Before I applied, I sent a short, polite e-mail with some basic questions about the program to admissions, who forwarded them to this particular person. She wrote back with one-world, unclear answers. I sent another polite reply asking for clarification and again received short, curt answers and apologizing for not understanding.  ... A few months later, I was weighing five offers and this school was very late (nearly three weeks) with its decision. Again, I politely e-mailed her, letting her know the school was my top choice and asking whether she had an estimate regarding admissions decisions. ... She finally e-mailed back "yes," which with no formal offer letter, replied, "Thanks for your e-mail. Does "yes" mean I've been accepted?" I got a curt "yes."

After I was admitted, I went for a visit and found the professors to be warm, welcoming and appreciative that I'd made an effort and was interested in the program. ... I fear that this is a preview of things to come in the program, but I've talked to current students who assure me she's nice and just stressed out.

How do I repair this relationship now before school begins in January? I have a million questions I need to ask and am hesitant to ask a single one. I hate to have an attitude that I'm paying nearly $50k/year for this program and deserve some answers, because they have a wait list of nearly 400. ... Thank you!

First off, you got into your first-choice program! CONGRATS! I hope you are properly celebrating :)

Now... just from reading everything here... I think you are worrying about something you don't need to worry about. The important thing is that you got into the program, and everyone except for one person has been warm, welcoming and appreciative.

Some people just aren't very warm over e-mail. Some people just aren't very warm and friendly over all. And anyone who has to work with new students is probably flooded with e-mails and questions from super excited and eager students who want to be instantly liked.

I would just drop the issue all together, unless something else happens. And best wishes getting that advanced degree!!

Lots of great questions so far! Keep them coming!

Several of the students at my daughter's school use paid college admissions coaches during the application process. What are your thoughts about this? Can you, as admissions officers, discern when an applicant has had assistance, and does it make a difference?

I think paid consultants are unnecessary.  Schools have dedicated and hardworking and experienced counselors whose job it is to assist students as they navigate the college admission process. I know some outstanding consultants who do impressive work for free in low income areas but by and large these consultants charge a hefty fee for their services.  We can often tell which applicants are too polished but I imagine there are some cases where this might slip by. 

For profit schools? What's their fate in Congress this week? How does this affect the higher ed system as a whole?

I'll be honest and say that I am less familiar with the issues surrounding for profit schools.  I'm sorry I cannot be of more help.

I just got rejected by my top choice of business school for their full-time MBA program. I would like to contact the admission office there and ask a staffer to review my application with me and let me know what I can do to make my application stronger for next year. In your experience, are admissions offices open to requests like this?

I cannot speak for our MBA program as I only work with undergraduate admission. We do however talk with students about their admission decision if they have questions.

Jill and Greg, I would love to hear what you personally tell students when they ask you why they should attend your schools?

Most will mention outstanding faculty, facilities, diversity of the student body etc.  Fact is, colleges are amazing places.  I try to highlight what I think distinguishes UVA. I talk about the people, the opportunities (especially if I know what they want to study), the culture. UVA is a special place (granted I'm biased).  There is a history of service and a focus on citizenship and integrity and good character.  I guess you could say we are grounded in Jeffersonian ideals. It's a place that has a nice blend of academic and social as well. Students say they work hard and play hard... Plus Charlottesville is a nice college town and a fun place to live.

I'm sure you hear this question all the time, but what is the most important thing in a student's application -- test scores? grades? activities? essay? solving world hunger before the age of 13 and speaking 12 languages?

Great question!  Speaking for a small liberal arts school, we actually review application holistically and look at all material submitted.  The centerpiece of the application is the high school transcript, the glue of sorts.  We look at the rigor of curriculum and success in high school.  For us, the essays, letters of recommendation, and scores are what help to round out the application.

What's your take on the UC System raising tuition and reorganizing admissions numbers? Do state schools ever look to other states as examples of admissions?

We keep our finger on the pulse of what's going on across the country among other publics especially.  These are difficult times financially for many public institutions. We are experiencing some of that here in Virginia. There are serious discussions taking place currently at UVA about future enrollment growth and tuition and funding.  I expect this will be something we will continue to discuss for the next several years.  The UC system seems to be in a more difficult situation than most. We do learn from the experiences of others and our administration and faculty do have discussions with their counterparts at other flagship publics.

How does your school promote themselves? Pamphlets? Viewbooks? Online videos? What's the most creative way to lure students in?

I think that Oberlin, like many schools are moving toward the internet and websites to reach out to students who may be farther away.  We have some great blogs:  and they are a great way for students to learn about what campus life is like just as one example.

What was your college application experience like? Do you remember what any of your essays were about?

Unlike many students of today, I didn't visit any of the schools to which I applied. I also typed each application on a very loud and clunky typewriter!  My essay was a very poor attempt at describing my personality. I also made the very poor choice of putting my parent's favorite school at the bottom of my list, simply because it was their favorite and I thought they knew nothing about me! In the end, I did listen to them and they were right. I do want to point out that I did apologize when I was 30!

Thank you to all who submitted great questions. This can be a very stressful time of year with deadlines and decisions.  I hope we've been able to be of some help to you.  Happy Holidays and safe driving to the folks in DC!

Thank you for logging in today. I enjoyed answering your questions. I hope it was helpful.  Good luck with your college search.

Greg Roberts

Today's chat was one of those times when I stand back and just let our guests take over answering questions -- I learned so much today, and I hope you did, too. A very special thanks to Greg Roberts and Jill Medina!

Have a great week -- and good luck on those finals!

In This Chat
Jenna Johnson
Jenna Johnson writes about college students and campus trends for the Post. She also runs the blog "Campus Overload," which chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of Hill interns.
Gregory Roberts
Gregory Roberts has been the Dean of Admission at the University of Virginia since 2009 and served as Associate Dean of Admission at UVA from 2003-2009.
Jill Medina
Jill Medina serves as the Senior Associate Director of Admissions for Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH. She has read applications for students applying from DC, Maryland, VA and Delaware for 10 years. She joined the Oberlin staff in 1997 and has been in Arts and Sciences Admissions since 2000. Prior to joining the Oberlin community she served as an academic advisor at Phoenix College, Phoenix, AZ working with low-income/first-generation college students. From 1990 through 1995 Jill worked in the private, non-profit sector with Asian Pacific American civil rights organizations. Jill is a 1988 graduate of Oberlin with a BA in Art History.
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