#124 Application Tips from a Former Admissions Counselor with Heather Parry Transcript


Lisa Marker Robbins 00:57

In today’s competitive admissions landscape, the journey to college can feel like navigating a maze without a map. Like other parents, you may be wondering, what will it take for your teen to unlock the door to their first choice College? To help us figure it all out. Heather Perry, an independent college counselor shares invaluable insights from her experience. As a former college admissions reader at the University of Washington. Heather provides a behind the scenes look at how the admissions process works at large universities. She sheds light on how applications are evaluated admits the ever increasing massive volume of applications. From the importance of providing clear context for any weaknesses to aligning activities with your team’s intended major will explore key strategies for a better college application experience and maximizing your team’s chances of success in this competitive landscape. So if you’ve ever wondered what will happen after your team, hit submit, this episode is for you.

Lisa Marker Robbins 02:09

Hether Perry, welcome to the show.

Heather Parry 02:12

Thank you so much. I’m happy to be here today.

Lisa Marker Robbins 02:15

Well, it’s not often that we get to speak to somebody who has been an actual application reader at the college level. And I know you’ve you’ve learned so much through that. So I thought, Okay, let’s get the inside scoop from somebody who’s on the other side. And you know, it’s timely as we were talking before we hit record, because this is going to come out about the time that rising seniors should be diving right into those applications if they don’t want to have a stressed out fall, right?

Heather Parry 02:48

Indeed, yes, I always recommend students make solid progress, July, August before school starts, depending on what part of the country they’re in. Otherwise, the fall will be a little hectic, and maybe not putting your best foot forward. So

Lisa Marker Robbins 03:06

yeah, you gotta keep your grades up to I mean, some colleges are asking for those mid year grades. So here in Ohio, we get out of school high schoolers get out before Memorial Day. So I always say by June 1, you should be taking some kind of action, if you want to be having an easier fall of your senior year, which for us starts in early August, which is wild.

Heather Parry 03:28


Lisa Marker Robbins 03:32

So okay, so we really like want to focus in on research university, like that’s where your experience is right at research, large research institutions. And coincidentally, and I looked this up in the US Department of Education dataset. While there are tons of liberal arts colleges out there, and fewer research universities, 71% of students are going to attend a research university. So the numbers tell us already that for our listeners, this is a really important topic. It

Heather Parry 04:07

is. And you know, we’ve seen increasingly over the years that people are looking beyond their state borders as well. So it’s not just looking at your home, State University, your flagship university, but people are flying across the country to go to other state universities. There’s a lot of nuance behind what holistic review looks like at different schools. Well, I think we’ll talk about that today.

Lisa Marker Robbins 04:32

No, it’s interesting, because that term gets thrown around. You know, I always I always have to remind myself, a Heather and Alisa are so up close to this topic, that we have all these assumptions of what things mean and what they are. So let’s hit pause before we get into what happens with the reader in the admissions office. And let’s just define colleges are saying all the time universities were saying all the time. Oh, we do a holistic review. What does holistic review even mean?

Heather Parry 05:03

Well, the fun part is it depends on the school. So for the most part, they are considering things beyond just test scores beyond just GPA. They’re looking at the context of what’s available at your high school. They’re looking at the context of what courses you even have access to what kind of a community you’re coming from, they’re looking at activities and resume, they might be looking at an essay or multiple essays. So there’s a lot of flavors of holistic review. But primarily, when I go to admission, visits myself, you know, I’m asking a little bit what’s below the surface of that holistic review? And I’m usually that one voice in the audience that is asking questions, annoyingly, but you’ll get a lot of different answers.

Lisa Marker Robbins 05:55

So what like, give me an example, if in this could be even because parents can ask the same questions we, as independent counselors would ask. And they’re sitting in the audience of a general session. And of course, parents, students, you should be raising your hand and also ask them the questions. Sometimes it’s easier to be braver like us because this is what we do for a living. But what would be a good example of a way to dig beneath the surface to see how that college is defining holistic review?

Heather Parry 06:25

So I there’s a few different components that I think can come into play. One is, are they asking for a high school counselor to provide context on that high school? Whether that’s a school profile, which is often published on the high school’s website? Or is available in the counseling office? That’s going to give some data points? How big is this school? What’s our college going culture? Like? Do we offer APS or IB classes or an alternative? Do we have any special curriculum that’s available to students or special requirements? Sometimes grade distributions in there? It really depends. But I’d say asking whether or not the college looks at the school profile, or counselor components could be one question. And or if they ask for teacher recommendations, or allow outside recommendations. So essentially, is the context in that holistic review coming from just the student? In their own self reported information? Or is their context coming from other sources, the high school itself high school counselor, or teachers?

Lisa Marker Robbins 07:37

So by by sheer numbers of applicants that these large some of them larger than others, research universities might have? Do you see that they tend to lean towards staying with just the students application, which for many of these is going to be the common app? Because it’s just volume? Right? Is that the issue?

Heather Parry 08:01

That’s definitely an issue. Having been in an office where I was reading 1000 Plus applications per season.

Lisa Marker Robbins 08:10

Wow, how many more do you do in a day?

Heather Parry 08:13

50 per day was usually the goal. So you’re not necessarily reading every single day, it’s your other, you’re doing other tasks. But it’s a lot, though your highest.

Lisa Marker Robbins 08:23

I mean, I know this, but I want to hear straight from you. Like if you if the expectation was during, you know, from the time they’ve they’ve received and they’re starting applications, and they’re starting the review to when they’re going to give decisions. And you have are going to read 1000 applications and that cycle. And on a reading day for you. That’s 50 I’m doing I’m pretty sure you probably slept and ate in there somewhere. So how much time are you giving to a single application?

Heather Parry 08:58

Usually, by the time I had it dialed in a little bit more 10 minutes, max.

Lisa Marker Robbins 09:05

Okay. Everybody hear that? Like, if you’re multitasking, you should stop and hear that, yes, you’re gonna put months into this. But the reader is going to spend about 10 minutes at a research university that is overwhelmed with numbers of applicants. Expect about 10 minutes from a season and it sounds like you probably spent a little bit more time when you are novice.

Heather Parry 09:28

Yeah, 10 minutes or so to get the main points. And this was added at the time we were not on the Common Application. University of Washington has since moved to common application, which simplifies some things complicates other things. But yeah, for the most part, you are diving in there right away. You want to have everything disclosed as much as possible on the front end, you don’t have the time and energy to look something up, you don’t have the time and energy to reach out for clarification, whatever is presented, that’s what you’re going to use and the review.

Lisa Marker Robbins 10:08

Because I mean, you and I both as independent counselors have heard over the years that, oh, this liberal arts college reached out to my student to ask for clarification on something. And there, you know, I remember years ago, Wittenberg, which is north of Dayton, Ohio, one of my students had applied there that I was working with, this is a long time ago. And they were test optional, even back then before the surge of test optional, which I think yesterday, we had three colleges go back to requiring test scores, we are recording in April. So that continues to morph and change every day. But, you know, Wittenberg is a small liberal arts college and the admissions department actually contacted my students said, I would remove your AC T scores from your application, you will fare better in our admissions process and with our aid process, and so but whether they’re tiny, they’ve got the time to do that. But a large research university is not going to do that.

Heather Parry 11:12

It is not although I will say a few exceptions. From my time, I did see a resume item that was competitive hula hoop, I wanted to know what that was, I looked that up. But that’s a very rare occasion and a day where I happen to be in a mood to want to look something up. But nine times out of 10, you’re gonna take what the student provides. And the onus is really on the student with a school like that, or the University of California system, where they’re not receiving outside documents, they are receiving everything from the students words in their own writing, even a self reported transcript. That is all on the student to clarify, to get the contact. Yes.

Lisa Marker Robbins 11:55

So I guess if if this exists on a continuum, and the extreme one side that we’re talking about with research universities, family should assume that they will look at what the students submitted on the app, not go out to look at the transcript, maybe not even read the recommendation letters is just what’s in that file right in front of them. And in the extreme, then that’s all you get to you that you’re going to read to make a decision about the student. And so, boy, that’s better be good, right? Correct.

Heather Parry 12:31

Yes. And again, and I will say sometimes, it’s clear that they do not accept any of those outside materials, or they do not want a transcript mailed or sent in or whatever have you. But sometimes it’s a little bit murky. And I found this, especially as some of these bigger universities have moved to the common app, which has some standard components to it. But doesn’t necessarily mean that each school is downloading and viewing each of those components in the same way. So just

Lisa Marker Robbins 13:00

because it’s asked for on the application, particularly maybe in the common app, doesn’t mean that the school is going to take time to read it. Correct. So let’s, I know, I mean, obviously, we’re not meaning to scare people or make people nervous. But it’s really to take seriously the process by which you go through as you’re putting your application together. So you have every opportunity if you land at a school, where there’s they’re highly time constrained. And they’re not going to take as much time right, so let’s talk about how to help the student shine. So what would be like a first piece of advice that you would have for our listeners,

Heather Parry 13:45

I think taking ownership of your GPA, dips in particular, that’s a contextual piece that sometimes people want to want to avoid or stay away from that semester, sophomore year, where something was going on at home, something serious, or where there was, you know, a health issue with the student, or where the student was competing at a high level in gymnastics, and they were traveling every week and missing school on a regular basis, or they transition to a new school. And it took a little while to figure out how to be successful there. I am all about students sharing and owning that part of their journey. Because if it’s not explained in any way, the admission counselor again at that larger school is more than likely not going to follow up to ask, Hey, this looks kind of weird, where you got to see in this class, but everything else is an A, they probably won’t follow up. So it’s on the student to give a little context and there is an additional information section in the common app and many other applications where you can give some Some of that background information. And I highly encourage students to use that. Well,

Lisa Marker Robbins 15:05

and also I’m going to add, like, if you change schools during high school, there’s an addition that’s going to trigger an additional question that says, Why did you change schools? Correct?

Heather Parry 15:18

Yes. So I do also have students do that part. Obviously, if that’s part of their journey, sometimes they have a little extra context to provide their to or there’s some other components beyond just family move. So it might be addressed in the other section as well. But definitely, if it’s flagged, do it.

Lisa Marker Robbins 15:39

Yeah. Well, and I’ve had students before, say, so that literally listeners it says, additional information. That’s not a word that Heather and Lisa are making up. It says additional information. And there’s a box that you can type in, in sometimes kids feel like that’s an extra essay. But it’s not an essay, like, what do you what did you as a reader, I’m sure you cringed when it started turning? Because it’s 650 words that are allowed with that. So what do you as a reader want? When you’re looking at that additional information for context about something? Not so good, that needs some explanation?

Heather Parry 16:17

Yes, please do not write another essay. For the sake of the tired admission reader, it does not need to have a multi paragraph flow, no hook. And all of those, how to write a great college essay thinks that is really for context. And I’ve had students have multiple different components go there. So it could be three sentences on one part of their background they need to clarify, it could be another couple sentences on another background piece. It doesn’t need to flow in a way that an essay does. It’s more again, that contextualizing of what they’ve done, what they’ve chosen, what their journey has looked like, through college or through high school as just right, just get to the point I had that has where dates can be important, or even just like really the logistics of it. From this state to this state. I was traveling significantly. And that’s why my grades dipped, or this was contextualizing in really specific terms.

Lisa Marker Robbins 17:20

But I’ve had, I had Andy Borst, on the podcast when he was at UI, UC as admissions director, and he said, we give you 150 words to tell us why you want that major. And please just tell us why you want that major. Do I don’t need an intro, I just Just give me the information there another large research university, which brings up the idea of major like, what’s your advice at these types of large research universities?

Heather Parry 17:50

Yes, and this has, I think, definitely been a big shift over the past decade or so is larger research universities, taking major into consideration and the review. And it’s no surprise that there are some areas that are trending, anything in STEM, business, Nursing and Health Sciences. Those are really popular areas. And they don’t necessarily have the capacity to serve every prospective student who wants to go into those highly in demand areas. So I have seen schools, such as University of Washington that previously admitted students more generally to the university pivot to admitting students by either a college or even into a specific major, partially to make sure they’re able to serve their students on campus and have reasonable class sizes and resources for them. But also, because they want diversity and incoming students, they don’t want a campus full of everyone with the exact same interest. So I have seen that really take shape over the past few years. In particular,

Lisa Marker Robbins 19:01

we did a research, because, as you already know, my passion is college major and career coaching help helping teens figure this part out. But we did a research project, which we’re sharing the data widely, because we really feel like colleges need to be trans, more transparent on this. It’s something that’s changed. We need transparency. So we reached out to the 50 state flagship, so it would be the University of Washington here in Ohio would be Iowa State. And we asked them like, Are you admitting directly to major What are capped or competitive majors? What are majors that you have to apply to as a 12th grader, or you’re not going to be able to switch into later. And we found that other than there were only eight of the 50 states that said, we don’t admit to major. We were admitting either all or to directly to some majors. All but eight states but even four of those eight states have a required question on the common app that says what Is your intended major, even though you can’t get into this major right now, tell us what you intend for it to be. So they’re, they’re going to be using that for something. So it was only four states in the United States that their policy was we don’t admit to major, you don’t even have to tell us what you think you may be kind of maybe want to do.

Heather Parry 20:17

So yeah, definitely backed up by the data that I’ve gotten is, is moving in that direction. And so I think for students and parents on the research side, and maybe in that campus visit, that could be a question, Do you admit students by major, are there certain majors that, again, are off limits, or are very tough to be admitted to after you’ve enrolled at the university. And if you’re not able to visit campus, I am always on the side of trying to get it in writing from the college. So emailing your admission counselor, making sure you’re looking through the website. And just looking at how that school is considering nature,

Lisa Marker Robbins 20:59

we actually, well, I was gonna say, we actually what we did was the we emailed all of those 50 universities, and we check how they represent themselves on the common app. So we’re sharing with our listeners, an email, our exact email template that we use. Now, I want to say, parents, it’s not your job to email the university, this should be coming from your kiddo. So if anybody wants our data set and our email template that students can use, they literally can copy it and just paste it into an email to the to any university is that flourish, coaching co.com, forward slash majors. And I’ll put that in the show notes. Because I just want to arm people to get that information, you need to be a wise consumer. So when I think about choice of major that also brings me to think about things like the Activities section, because that’s, you know, the activity section A lot of times has evidence as to why you’re choosing that major. And so how does the reader look at that activities or extracurricular section?

Heather Parry 22:02

Yes, definitely an important piece that I would say, from a former admission counselor who would read that section, make sure that you’re also putting some solid time and energy into those short activity descriptions, or a why this major essay, and not just solely focusing on the big scary 650 word college essay, because we they will notice, if there’s a big discrepancy in quality, or writing style or voice between those different writing sections, so that’s my aside. But when it gets to selection of major and showing alignment, again, that has become I think, more important, and especially I think, for students seeking admission to those more popular or in demand majors. So that can take a couple of forums, school clubs and organizations, that’s pretty clear. If you are in a Future Business Leaders Association, or a DECA club or robotics team. Right. I think that students should also expand that to hobbies and interests and self teaching. If you it’s

Lisa Marker Robbins 23:12

great advice, like if I want to hear what you like, okay, hobbies interest in like, what does that look like? Like, what would you even name an extracurricular that’s like that?

Heather Parry 23:23

Yeah, so I usually just say independent study, and or hobby, or whatever that activity is. So I’ll say for example, this past year, I worked with a student who built an arcade game system. I don’t know the logistics of how that worked. But kind of trying to note that as self study, independent study, independent project, what they actually made or produced, try to include a little bit of how they sourced materials, or what programming languages they had to use, or what tools and equipment came into play. That’s one example more on the technical side, crafts, art, visual art, performing art things. Students can talk about that, again, if it’s done on a more independent basis, or if they have a jam band with their friends that plays occasionally at coffee houses, great. Anything and everything beyond sitting in a class or online in a class, I think merits inclusion and especially if there’s any possible tie in with your academic interest area.

Lisa Marker Robbins 24:40

So let me ask you this, there are 10 and on the common M, there are 10 slots didn’t 10 activities that you can identify. So when we I think you’re I love the wisdom and like let’s expand this beyond the school. related or your paid job. But as we expand it, and we’re getting into things that maybe actually those are the things, those cool things that they’re doing that really can set the student apart and demonstrate PhET. I think what, what came into my mind was, oh, gosh, well, now a student might have 13 or 14, and they only get to pick 10. Like, do you have advice of like, what should make your top 10?

Heather Parry 25:25

That’s a good question. So I have occasionally had students group activities together, or sometimes something that happened in ninth grade only gets trimmed. Or there is always the Additional Information section, that’s always the fallback. And I do occasionally have students use that where there is something meaningful beyond 10 activities that merits a separate little writing section, where it’s not captured in another essay. So I do, within reason suggest students use that space, but usually only for one or two activities beyond the 10. Usually, they can condense things down enough to fit in the allotted space.

Lisa Marker Robbins 26:11

Well, I like what you said there about, like, maybe that’s an extracurricular activity that you had, but it didn’t there’s not room in the 10. But maybe you wrote about it in your community essay, or one of the other, you know, the why this major essay or something like that. So that’s good advice. And again, don’t overuse, it makes me curious, we brought up the Additional Information section. And I regularly hear kids say like, oh, well, if there’s a box, I’ve always been told, like, if there’s an opportunity, do it, what percentage of kids I have no idea what you’re gonna say on this one? What percentage of worthy good application students not kids who just kind of threw together and didn’t do a good job? Would you say use that when you were reading in this is totally spitballing. This is non scientific information? Would you say you were seeing something meaningful, and you know, using that additional information, because I think kids see feel pressure to put something

Heather Parry 27:12

there, I would not see it that often. To be honest, probably 20 25% of the time, students would have some meaningful context to add in. And even in my student pool right now, my current, you know, rising juniors, I’ve talked about it with a few students, but it’s not the vast majority. So most of the time, I do think the application captures what it needs to capture. It’s just again, if there is something that’s a gap, or a red flag, or a dip, or something crucial to understanding who you are as a student, that is not captured anywhere else. That’s where that can come into play.

Heather Parry 27:55


Lisa Marker Robbins 27:56

I think, is wrapping it up. You know, at the beginning, you said, Well, Lisa was reading 50 applications a day. And I was spending about 10 minutes on an application. So if you, if you add something in that additional information, and it’s really not that meaningful, you were just trying to put something to fill on a box, because it’s there, what’s going to happen is it’s actually going to take up time your the readers time to read that instead of maybe spending more time on something that’s more significant, right?

Heather Parry 28:31

I think there’s definitely truth to that. So context and sharing is great, but oversharing. Or, again, using that as an extra essay, or rehashing things that are already coming through loud and clear elsewhere, that’ll start to maybe annoy the reader a tiny bit, whether or not they’ll admit that as they’re reading, it might get into their brain a little bit like, okay, you don’t really need

Lisa Marker Robbins 29:01

need to do this. There was a lot of what I don’t need here. I always say to students, and I’ll just say this in parting, I say, here’s what I want you to imagine. This reader has been reading applications all week. And I always tell them, they’re going to spend six to 10 minutes on your application reading it. And your application comes to the top of their pile at 445 on Friday, and their colleagues are waiting for them and the office to go to happy hour and start the weekend.

Heather Parry 29:35

has definitely been my situation. So that’s a real situation, real situation.

Heather Parry 29:42

And that’s the part of this whole process that is terrifying and frustrating is there. It’s not a perfect system of numbers only if you’re catching a human being on a certain day. of the week in a certain mood or in a certain, you know, a certain level of desire to read more, or just take what’s there at face value.

Lisa Marker Robbins 30:10

And, or, well, I think the context is good because it says like, Don’t repeat what you just finished with. Like, don’t repeat yourself. Don’t add things that we don’t need. Like, give me the highlights be comprehensive. But don’t be annoying. If we’re gonna shoot really straight with the students that we’re serving. Because that’ll give you the best chance and on Friday at 445 They’re probably not going to look up what’s competitive hula hooping? Accurate. Other this was so enlightening. Thank you so much for making time and helping our listeners. And I know you’re a fantastic independent counselor. If people want to learn more about you or working with you, where can they find you?


Yeah, so again, my name is Heather Perry and my website is Perry cc.com. That’s P A R R Y. CC as in college counseling.com.

Lisa Marker Robbins 31:11

And we’ll put it in the show notes. Thanks, Heather.

Heather Parry 31:13

Thank you.

Lisa Marker Robbins 31:19

Thank you to Heather Perry for a deep dive into the intricacies of college admissions. As we wrap up, I want to leave you with a practical resource that builds on what Heather was teaching on the importance of aligning activities to the major your teen will apply to, in order to further enhance your understanding of admissions by major download our blueprint to understanding admissions by major it’s found at flourish coaching co.com forward slash majors and a link to it in the show notes. This comprehensive guide will provide you with invaluable insights and strategies tailored to help your family navigate the admissions process with confidence. If you have a friend who is drifting through the admissions process with their teen, instead of being intentional, like you are by listening to today’s episode, please share this episode with them. And while you’re at it, it would mean the world to me if you’d take time to rate and review the podcast to help us resource more students to launch into a successful future. Thank you for listening to College and Career Clarity, where I help your family move from overwhelmed or confused to motivated, clear and confident about your teens future