When applying for college, students may wish they had a direct line to an admissions officer. If only they could talk one-on-one, they might discover the secret formula for gaining college admission.

The truth is, there are no secrets for getting into college. Admissions departments tend to be completely transparent about their expectations, and, while they might be extra busy during application season, they are usually willing to field questions from applicants. Just adhere to one rule: Don't ask questions that are already answered on the school's website.

If you're unsure what to ask a college admissions officer, don't worry — we've done the work for you. To answer some of the most common questions students have about the application process, we spoke with Brian Jones, the director of admissions at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Interview With an Admissions Counselor About How to Get Into College

Brian Jones

Brian Jones

Director of Admissions at Minnesota State University, Mankato

Brian Jones has been director of admissions at Minnesota State University, Mankato, for 10 years. Previously, he served as admissions officer and scholarship coordinator for the Office of Admissions. Brian served as the chair of the Minnesota ACT Council in 2018 and is currently the treasurer-elect for the Minnesota Association of College Admission Counseling. He has also served as a prejudice reduction workshop facilitator for the Greater Mankato Diversity Council and was on the advisory board for the Salvation Army in Mankato, Minnesota. Brian expects to complete his Ed.D. in educational leadership in fall of 2020.

What are the first steps someone should take when deciding to apply to a college?

The most important thing is to be thinking about college before your senior year in high school. The more time that you have to think about what you want to do and where you want to go after high school, the better.

I always recommend limit their applications to 3-5 colleges so that they can manage the follow-up work that comes with an application. That means you need to do some research before applying and hopefully visit a few campuses so you have a better idea of what you like.

What are some essential questions to ask college admissions counselors?

Each campus has its own deadlines and processes, so handling each application as its own process is important. Some college applications require essays, while others don't. Some colleges want to hear about your extracurricular activities, while others are mostly concerned with how you did in your classes.

The Best Questions to Ask College Admissions Counselors

  • What are the most important admissions factors at your school?
  • What weight do you put on essays versus other admissions factors?
  • What weight do you put on extracurriculars versus other admissions factors?
  • If I did poorly in one or more of my classes, how can I address this in my application?
  • What are the most desirable qualities you look for in an applicant?

How can students evaluate if a university is a good fit for them before starting the college admissions process?

There is no better way to find out if a university is a good fit than visiting campus. However it's not always possible for students to visit every college they plan to apply to. The most important part about the right fit is for students to understand what is important to them first.

You need to think about how far from home you want to go, if you want to live in a big city or a small town, and those types of things. You don't have to know what you want to major in right away, but you should be thinking about what you are interested in. It doesn't help you to apply to a college if they don't offer majors in the area that you want to study.

What do you feel is common knowledge among admissions officers, but that most students don't know about the college admissions process?

I think students and families are really concerned about sharing something that will disadvantage them in the process. The reality is that admissions staff are really looking for as much information as possible about who the student is and their ability to be successful in college.

For example, if a student takes the ACT or SAT test a second time, it doesn't matter if their score goes down; we are only concerned with whatever the highest score is. Students put too much pressure on themselves to submit the perfect version of themselves when the greatest advantage comes from being genuine and letting the admissions staff get to know who you really are.

Should students still apply for a college if they are unsure they meet the admission requirements?

Students should not be discouraged just because a college's stated admission requirements or class profile looks to be above them. However, it is important for students to do their homework and find out from the college what they realistically are looking for.

If a student is a really good fit for a particular college and shows interest, the admissions representative can help explain all the possible pathways to admission available. Plus, the admissions representative in some cases can advocate for the student through the process. They can only do that, though, if the student has engaged with the admissions staff, asked good questions, and demonstrated that they are a serious applicant.

A college student raises her hand in class

What is the best way students can make themselves stand out in their application?

The two most important pieces of advice I can offer are to, first, answer the specific questions being asked by the college. Don't just submit a generic college essay to every campus you apply to. Research why each college would be a good fit and respond directly to whatever questions or prompts they include on their application.

Different campuses will have subtly different characteristics that are important to them and you can tell what those are if you have done some research and carefully read each question.

Secondly, students should be genuine. Don't write about things that they think the college wants to hear, but write about who they actually are and why they want to attend our college.

What are some of the common mistakes you see students making during the college admissions process?

Students are often not engaged enough in the process for themselves. Parents and family members play important roles in the college search process, but too often when we deny a student, we hear from the parents and not the student.

Part of our job in admissions is to help educate students about how to be successful in college and the first step is to be engaged in the process for themselves. Parents want what's best for you, but they aren't the ones that are going to enroll with us for the next four years.

Talk with your parents about your college search and ask them for help with your applications, but make sure that you are developing a relationship with the admissions staff and asking some of the questions for yourself.

What admissions requirements are considered to be the most important?

Without a doubt, the grades students receive and the classes they have chosen to take throughout high school are the most important factors in the admission decision. That doesn't mean that students can't get admitted if they had a bad year, but performance in core courses is the most important factor.

If students struggled during a certain semester or took some classes that they wish they wouldn't have, those things can be addressed through the application process. But students absolutely must present their complete academic history with as much context as necessary in order for colleges to make an admission decision.

What factors are considered to be less important in the college admissions process?

Standardized test scores are not nearly as predictive of a student's ability to be successful in college as grades. For some campuses, extracurricular involvement can help demonstrate a student's well-roundedness, but none of that matters if a student hasn't addressed their academic performance and how it has prepared them for college-level work.

Two couples walk through a college campus, with one doing a piggy back ride

If I belong to an underserved population of students, what is the best way to make this clear in my application?

This is where being genuine and authentic in answering application questions can be most beneficial. Students who belong to underserved groups can speak to how that has impacted their education and how it has impacted their college search. By addressing these experiences and even sharing their concerns about what belonging to that population might mean for them in college, we can factor some of the disadvantages into our admission decision.

Many of our campuses have student organizations and resources available to students of color and first-generation students, and if we know that students identify with an underserved group we can help connect them to those opportunities on our campus right away.

How much does prestige matter when applying to schools?

The dirty little secret I like to share with students and families is that there is more than one "right" college for each student. I think it is so sad how much pressure students put on themselves to be perfect so they can get in to the "perfect" college.

With all of the stress on their mental health that young people have, college selection shouldn't add to this. By doing research ahead of time and identifying what is important to you, it is possible to find a number of campuses that are a good fit. You don't want to apply to 12 colleges, but you do want to apply to more than one.

Prestige will cause pressure for students who haven't thought hard enough about what they really want out of their college experience or explored enough campuses to understand the differences. Once you are admitted and make the choice of which college to attend, it is up to you to make the most of that choice and embrace the campus. You can be successful just about anywhere you decide to go as long as you are committed to it.

Do you anticipate any major changes in the college admissions process over the next several years? If so, what are they?

I think the growing trend of campuses becoming "test-optional" and a lessening importance of standardized tests for admission decisions will continue because the tests are not as predictive of success as other factors.

Unfortunately, I also think that colleges are going to become more and more desperate for student enrollment as the demographics of our country change, and this can be detrimental for students. If colleges are incentivized to act dishonestly in the recruitment process, then students will have a harder time making the right choice. I think the cost structure of higher education is currently unsustainable for families, and I'm optimistic that change is on the horizon.