During College Admissions Process, Little Things Can Tip the Balance

Updated Sep 25, 2014
Nathan Lockett, who makes admission decisions at George Mason University, encourages applicants to highlight what they’re passionate about.Nathan Lockett, who makes admission decisions at George Mason University, encourages applicants to highlight what they’re passionate about.

Of all the things that can help a student get accepted into the college of his or her choice, few things can do the trick like a good story about passion and hard work.

And so it was with the applicant to George Mason University who—when it came time to write his college admission essay—decided to write about the time and effort he spent during his high school years to restore a 1970s’ El Camino that he had been given in the eighth grade.

“He talked about how he worked at a job to make money so he could buy parts for his car, and this relationship he built with this Vietnam veteran down the street who had been a mechanic in Vietnam,” recalled Nathan Lockett, Associate Director of K-12 Partnerships in the Office of Admissions at George Mason University.

The story was powerful, Lockett said, because “it showed how hard this kid was willing to work at something.”

“That interest, even though completely unrelated to anything you think about when you think about applying to college, was better than anything I had ever read,” Lockett said of the student, who aspired to get into GMU’s engineering program.

“And I accepted him to college,” Lockett said. “He got accepted because that just seemed amazing to me that that kid could be dedicated for that amount of time.”

Lockett, who makes admission decisions for applicants to GMU from the Washington, D.C. area, shared the anecdote the other day with a group of high school seniors during a presentation at a back-to-school event for a college access program called Capital Partners for Education.

The presentation represented a rare opportunity for the students—many of them first-generation college students—to get timely tips from a decision-maker at one of the nation’s selective universities.

Students and parents told Diverse they appreciated the chance to interact with an insider as they gear up to submit college applications of their own.

“It’s always good to hear directly from admission counselors,” said Sherletta Barrow, who is working on her bachelor’s in human relations at Trinity Washington University and whose son, Rick, 17, aspires to study aerospace engineering at MIT.

Rick Barrow took advantage of the opportunity to ask Lockett about websites to find scholarships—something that Lockett recommended students seek even if they already have a full ride to college.

“Look for scholarships all the way through college,” Lockett said. “You don’t have to look at things like the Gates Millennium Scholarship, which pays for all four years of college. Very few students get those.

“You should look at the tiny scholarships: $500, $1,000. There’s millions of them out there that not many people apply to,” Lockett said. “Is $500 going to change your ability to pay for college? Probably not. But it buys your books for a semester. If you put a bunch of them together, it can make a difference.”

Lockett touched on a variety of other topics—from the pros and cons of attending different types of institutions to the benefits of getting a job on campus—and offered a series of tips to help students enhance their chances of getting accepted into the college of their choice.

Those tips included:

• Pick a passion. “Admissions officers don’t care that much about you being well-rounded,” Lockett said. “If you’re passionate about something, that’s really a lot more important than joining a million extracurriculars.” He encouraged the students to try to improve the organizations they join and to take on leadership responsibilities.

• Don’t slacken. “Even though 75 percent of your high school career is over, I put a lot of emphasis on this,” Lockett said. “Students whose grades continually go up or are going up at the end of their high school career get the benefit of the doubt. We’re gonna take the student who has the upward slope. We’re going to take the student who looks like they’re improving.”

• Be selective about who writes your letter of recommendation. “Choose someone who can tell a story about you,” Lockett said. “Someone in your community. A coach. Anybody like that, anyone that you’ve had a lot of experience with. Because even though guidance counselors write really good letters of recommendation, they often don’t tell us a lot about who you are as students, because they’ve only met you three, four times.

“Even if you met them 12 times, they still can’t tell us a lot about who you are,” Lockett said. “All they can do is reiterate what’s on your transcript or get something from a report card if they’re really diligent.”

Locket said the best letter of recommendation he ever read was written by a Spanish teacher for a student who had earned a D during her freshman year in Spanish but had improved to a B by senior year.

“What this teacher said was that this student had come in every single week after school and worked on her Spanish skills, worked on her Spanish homework, tried to improve,” Lockett said. “What that told me was this student, regardless of what challenges she faced in college, regardless of how little she liked the course, she was going to put in the work to be successful.”

Afterward, the seniors joined other high school participants of Capital Partners for Education to listen to the collegiate experiences of first-generation college students who went on to successful careers.

Terrence Whittaker, who graduated from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Business, related how, as often the lone Black student in the business school, he was often the last picked to be on a team for a given project.

“I had to be on my A-game, because many people felt like I didn’t belong,” said Whittaker, who is now content specialist at a Virginia-based marketing firm. “That’s just the reality we live in. Keep in mind you have to work that much harder to prove that you belong in the class just as much as they do.”

The day’s events were not all about business. After the presentations students and parents enjoyed a potluck dinner. Then the students and their mentors went outside to play a game of kickball.

Jamaal Abdul-Alim is author of a forthcoming book about the need for better college advising for low-income and first-generation college students. The book ― being published by Teachers College Press ― is due to be released in 2015.