12 Secrets of College Admissions Officers

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IStock

Higher learning can be a lofty ambition. For the class of 2020, Harvard received 39,041 applications for admission. They accepted just 2106. In 2016, Cornell admitted 14 percent of prospective students. Even the comparatively welcoming University of Virginia greeted only 28.8 percent of applicants.

Vetting these thousands of hopefuls are college admissions officers, typically alumni of the school who review applications for the best, brightest, and most valued would-be graduates. To learn more about the process, mental_floss spoke with several former admissions officers on what happens when your condensed life story hits their desk.

1. IT CAN MATTER WHO YOUR PARENTS ARE—BUT NOT FOR THE REASONS YOU THINK.

While it certainly can’t hurt to have parents donating enough money for a new building on campus, it’s far more likely your mom and dad will impact your application in a different way. “Context is everything,” says Stephen Friedfeld, a former admissions officer for Cornell and co-founder of AcceptU, an admissions counseling service. “If a student is coming from a background where their father is a lawyer and their mother is a doctor, the expectations are going to be higher regarding grades and extracurricular activity. Conversely, if a student came from a family without a higher level of education, I revised those expectations.”

2. YOUR HIGH SCHOOL MATTERS, TOO.

Officers will always have a profile of your high school, whether it’s part of your application or as an electronic resource. “If someone is coming from a very challenging high school, there’s some forgiveness for slightly lower grades or class standing,” Friedfeld says. But if a school has a relatively low percentage of students that go on to four-year colleges, you’ll have to work harder to impress. “There’s a concern if we admit a student like that, he or she won’t fare well because they’ve been under-prepped.”

3. DON’T SUBMIT A PHONE BOOK.

Rachel Toor worked in college admissions at Duke before writing a book, Admissions Confidential. (Toor's next book, on writing essays, is due from the University of Chicago Press in fall 2017.) “Two letters of endorsement are enough,” she says, “unless a third can really shed new light on the student.” The record at Duke was 32 letters, though Toor once heard Georgetown had an application with 70. “We used to joke that the thicker the file, the thicker the kid.”

Joie Jager-Hyman, a consultant at CollegePrep360, has heard the same line. “It means that weaker applicants often send more supplementary materials to compensate for their lack of credentials. So a lean file with excellent versions of all the required material is best.”

4. YOUR HEALTH CONDITION MAY NOT MAKE FOR THE BEST ESSAY.

As most any college application advisor will tell you, the essay is your chance to personalize your file, turning it from a sterile collection of grade point averages to something with a beating heart. While most any topic will work in the right hands, dwelling on your chronic medical conditions may not be best, Friedfeld says. “I understand it affects them meaningfully, but it might be better to choose something other than an ailment to make the essay more positive.”

Other less-than-optimal clotheslines: poetry, or how you cope with privilege. “I’d rather read about a student learning French cooking at home than learning French because their family vacationed in Europe,” Friedfeld says.

5. THEY NEED TO FALL IN LOVE WITH YOU.


“I tell kids that their job is to make the [officer] fall in love with you,” Toor says. “I’ve written many notes to students asking them to meet me as soon as they get to campus.” Friedfeld says universities are essentially looking for community residents with a four-year lease. “As an admissions officer, you’re picking people to enroll in your community, your space, for the next four years. They’re going to choose who they like and who they want to get to know.” At AcceptU, Friedfeld hands out sample essays, then asks students their thoughts. “They’ll say they liked the writing. It’s not about that. It’s about whether you liked who wrote it.”

6. THEY DON’T MIND GETTING SOME ART.


A portfolio of photography, illustrations, or musical recordings isn’t a bad idea even if you’re looking at a non-art major. “I think it’s great to submit that stuff,” Friedfeld says. “At Cornell, we’d send music to the recording department and they’d rank it from one to four.” (Admissions officers might have tin ears.) While a negative rating won’t hurt, a positive rating could be the small boost that makes a difference. “You’re showing a passion for a hobby.”

7. REIN IN THOSE EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES.

Captain of nine different squads? Different sport every year? While you may think you’re showing diversity, you may actually be convincing the admissions office you can’t sit still. “To put down ‘volleyball in grade nine’ is not really enhancing your application,” Friedfeld says.  “It’s just pointing out you didn’t stick with it.” Instead, opt for four to seven extracurricular activities and commit to them. Even starting a blog is worthwhile. “Founding a club or starting a program in your community shows initiative. Teaching yourself to play guitar is viable, and it’s something people don’t think about.”

8. APPLYING EARLY CAN BOOST YOUR CHANCES.

Submitting applications to colleges in late fall has its advantages. “Applying ‘early decision’ is undoubtedly a boost at almost any college,” Jager-Hyman says. “Several years ago, Harvard researchers did a study that found that applying 'early decision' gives students the statistical equivalent of 100 extra SAT points after controlling for factors like legacy status or being a recruited athlete.” But, she cautions, selective colleges will still turn you away if you’re not a fit: It’s best to keep your targeted schools reasonable.  

9. DON’T BE RUDE TO YOUR GUIDANCE COUNSELOR OR TEACHER.

They can have a pretty big say in what happens after graduation, particularly when it comes to recommendation letters. “People write stronger and better letters for students they like,” Friedfeld says. “And a guidance counselor may not like a family that’s rude or pestering. It may not be a negative letter, but it will be modest.” An exasperated teacher may write that a student will “come into his own.” That’s code, he says, for someone immature.  

10. THERE WILL BE ARGUMENTS OVER YOU.

Admissions officers typically need to make a case for borderline applicants at faculty meetings. This is a good thing, since having a passionate advocate means your application stood out—but it also means not everyone is going to agree. “80 percent of students who apply could do the work if they were admitted,” Toor says. “We all have our personal predilections. I like angst-ridden poets with green hair who like to go riding, while a colleague might like eagle scouts. You make an argument for the kid you like the most.”

11. DON’T HAVE A GOOFY EMAIL ADDRESS.

Doing everything right on your application can be undermined with a return email address of beerpong59@aol.com. “Maybe if a student is phenomenal, but if it’s on the cusp, it can break an application,” Friedfeld says. “You never know who’s reading an application. It could be a 23-year-old liberal or a 65-year-old conservative.” And if your Facebook or Twitter profile consists of you passed out in bars, consider closing or locking the accounts. “Officers look at social media to help figure a student out. Deleting it or locking it is the way to go.”

12. BRIBES WON’T HELP. NOT EVEN TWINKIES.

Toor recalls reviewing applications that came with some not-quite-subtle attempts at currying favor. “I was invited to a cattle ranch in Argentina once,” she says. Another time, she asked a student during an in-person interview to reveal something interesting. He said his nickname was “Twinkie.” A week later, Toor got a box of Twinkies in the mail. “People do whatever they think is going to help them.”

All images courtesy of iStock.

This Course Will Teach You How to Play Guitar Like a Pro for $29

BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images
BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images

Be honest: You’ve watched a YouTube video or two in an attempt to learn how to play a song on the guitar. Whether it was through tabs or simply copying whatever you saw on the screen, the fun always ends when friends start throwing out requests for songs you have no idea how to play. So how about you actually learn how to play guitar for real this time?

It’s now possible to learn guitar from home with the Ultimate Beginner to Expert Guitar Lessons Bundle, which is currently on sale for $29. Grab that Gibson, Fender, or whatever you have handy, and learn to strum rhythms from scratch.

The strumming course will teach you how to count beats and rests to turn your hands and fingers into the perfect accompaniment for your own voice or other musicians. Then, you can take things a step further and learn advanced jamming and soloing to riff anytime, anywhere. This course will teach you to improvise across various chords and progressions so you can jump into any jam with something original. You’ll also have the chance to dive deep into the major guitar genres of bluegrass, blues, and jazz. Lessons in jam etiquette, genre history, and how to read music will separate you from a novice player.

This bundle also includes courses in ear training so you can properly identify any relative note, interval, or pitch. That way, you can play along with any song when it comes on, or even understand how to modify it into the key you’d prefer. And when the time comes to perform, be prepared with skilled hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, bends, trills, vibrato, and fret-tapping. Not only will you learn the basic foundations of guitar, you’ll ultimately be able to develop your own style with the help of these lessons.

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10 Secrets of Ice Cream Truck Drivers

asiafoto/iStock via Getty Images Plus
asiafoto/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Ever since Good Humor founder Harry Burt dispatched the first jingling ice cream trucks in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1920, kids and adults alike have had a primal reaction to the sight of a vehicle equipped with a cold, sugary payload. Today, ice cream trucks spend May through October hoping to entice customers into making an impulse beat-the-heat purchase. To get a better idea of what goes into making ice cream a portable business, Mental Floss spoke with several proprietors for their take on everything from ideal weather conditions to police encounters. Here’s the inside scoop.

1. IT CAN GET TOO HOT FOR BUSINESS.

The most common misconception about the ice cream truck business? That soaring temperatures mean soaring profits. According to Jim Malin, owner of Jim’s Ice Cream Truck in Fairfield, Connecticut, record highs can mean decreased profits. “When it’s really hot, like 90 or 100 degrees out, sales go way down,” Malin says. “People aren’t outside. They’re indoors with air conditioning.” And like a lot of trucks, Malin’s isn’t equipped with air conditioning. “I’m suffering and sales are suffering." The ideal temperature? "A 75-degree day is perfect.”

2. THEY DON’T JUST WANDER NEIGHBORHOODS ANYMORE.

An ice cream truck sits parked in a public spot
Chunky Dunks

The days of driving a few miles an hour down a residential street hoping for a hungry clientele have fallen by the wayside. Many vendors, including Malin, make up half or more of their business by arranging for scheduled stops at events like weddings, employee picnics, or school functions. “We do birthday parties, church festivals, sometimes block parties,” he says. Customers can pay in advance, meaning that all guests have to do is order from the menu.

3. SOME OF THEM DRIVE A MINIBUS INSTEAD OF A TRUCK.

For sheer ice cream horsepower, nothing beats a minibus. Laci Byerly, owner of Doodlebop’s Ice Cream Emporium in Jacksonville, Florida, uses an airport-style shuttle for her inventory. “Instead of one or two freezers, we can fit three,” she says. More importantly, the extra space means she doesn’t have to spend the day hunched over. “We can stand straight up.”

4. THEY HAVE A SECRET STASH OF ICE CREAM TO GIVE AWAY TO SPECIAL CUSTOMERS.

A picture of an ice cream truck menu.
Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

The goal of any truck is to sell enough ice cream to justify the time and expense of operation, so freebies don’t make much sense—unless the truck happens to have some damaged goods. Malin says that it’s common for some pre-packaged bars to be broken inside wrappers, rendering them unattractive for sale. He sets these bars aside for kids who know the score. “I put them in a little box for kids who come up and ask if I have damaged ice cream,” he says. “Certain kids know I have it, and I’m happy to give it to them.”

5. THEY’RE CREATING CUSTOM ICE CREAM MENUS.

An ice cream nacho platter is shown
Chunky Dunks

While pre-packaged Popsicles and ice cream sandwiches remain perennial sellers, a number of trucks are mixing up business by offering one-of-a-kind treats. At the Chunky Dunks truck in Madison, Mississippi, owner Will Lamkin serves up Ice Cream Nachos, a signature dish that outsells anything made by Nestle. “It’s cinnamon sugar chips with your choice of ice cream,” he says. “You get whipped cream, too. And for the ‘cheese,’ it’s a caramel-chocolate sauce.” The nachos work because they’re “streetable,” Lamkin’s label for something people can carry while walking. “The next seven or eight people in line see it, and then everyone’s ordering it.”

6. THEY DON’T ALWAYS PLAY THE ICONIC JINGLE.

Before most people see an ice cream truck, they hear that familiar tinny tune. While some operators still rely on it for its familiarity, Malin and others prefer more modern tracks. “Normally we play ‘80s rock,” he says. “Or whatever we feel like playing that day. We rock it out.”

7. POP CULTURE CHARACTERS ARE SOME OF THEIR BEST SELLERS.

A Captain America ice cream treat
Doodlebop's

While adult customers tend to favor ice cream treats they remember from their youth, kids who don’t really recognize nostalgia tend to like items emblazoned with the likenesses and trademarks of licensed characters currently occupying their TV screens and local theaters. “Characters are the most popular with kids,” Byerly says. “SpongeBob, Minions, and Captain America.”

8. THEY KEEP DOG FOOD HANDY.

At Doodlebop’s, Byerly has a strategy for luring customers with pets: She keeps dog treats on hand. “The dog will sometimes get to us before the owner does,” she says. “If the dog comes up to the truck, he’ll get a Milkbone.” That often leads to a human companion purchasing a treat for themselves.

9. SOMETIMES RIVALS WILL CALL THE COPS.

Though there have been stories of rogue ice cream vendors aggressively competing for neighborhood space over the years, Malin says that he’s never experienced any kind of out-and-out turf war. Ice cream truck drivers tend to be a little more passive-aggressive than that. “I have a business permit for Fairfield, so that’s typically where I’m driving,” he says. “But sometimes I might go out of town for an event. Once, a driver pulled up to me and asked if I had a permit. I said ‘No, I’m just here for an hour,’ and he said, ‘OK, I’m calling the cops.’ They try and get the police to get you out [of town].” Fortunately, police typically don’t write up drivers for the infraction.

10. SOME LUCKY CUSTOMERS HAVE AN APP FOR HOME DELIVERY.

An ice cream truck driver.
George Rose/Getty Images

Technology has influenced everything, and ice cream trucks are no exception. Malin uses an app that allows customers to request that he make a special delivery. "People can request I pull up right outside their home," he says. If their parents are home, there’s one additional perk: "I accept credit cards."

This article originally ran in 2018.