12 Secrets of College Admissions Officers


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.


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.”


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.”


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.”


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.


“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.”


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.”


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.”


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.  


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.  


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.”


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.”


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.

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12 Secrets of Spirit Halloween Employees

Spirit Halloween stores are a sign Halloween has arrived.
Spirit Halloween stores are a sign Halloween has arrived.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When Joe Marver founded Spirit Halloween in 1983, he probably didn’t have any idea his seasonal Halloween store would eventually grow to over 1300 locations in the United States and Canada. But now, seeing a Spirit pop-up materialize in a vacant building has become as much of a Halloween tradition as pumpkin carving.

In order to assist shoppers with Halloween costumes, decorations, and animatronic creatures, Spirit employs a small army of seasonal workers. To get a better feel for what goes into this spooky vocation, Mental Floss reached out to several current Spirit Halloween team members. Here’s what they had to say about everything from customers making a mess to the hazards of trying on a mask during this pandemic-heavy Halloween.

1. Most Spirit Halloween employees really, really love Halloween.

Why take on a seasonal job with no potential for year-round work? If you love Halloween and the macabre, it’s a dream job. “I've never once worked with an employee that didn't love Halloween,” Kota, a five-year veteran of Spirit Halloween in Kentucky, tells Mental Floss. “It's something that all employees have in common from my experience … It's a perfect place to meet people with the same interests.”

2. Spirit Halloween employees are supposed to open costume packages for customers.

Spirit Halloween employees are happy to help with your costume selection.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

If a Spirit Halloween employee is eyeing you with a little bit of consternation, it might be because you ripped open a costume package. Owing to issues of loss prevention and hygiene—even before COVID-19 struck—Spirit’s policy is to let employees open items and then package them back up. But not every customer is willing to wait.

“Our employees are supposed to deal with opening and closing each and every package,” Kota says. “This way we don't have to worry about things coming out or going into the packages that aren't supposed to. Although we try hard to make it as easy and friendly as possible, some customers would rather do it themselves wherever they may be standing in the store.”

3. Spirit Halloween employees can’t keep astronaut helmets in stock.

Every season brings a different phenomenon to Halloween shopping. In 2018, it was the popular video game Fortnite. This year, it’s an astronaut helmet. Not the suit, just the helmet. The trend is due to the popularity of a smartphone game titled Among Us, which puts the player in the role of a space explorer.

“Despite what you might think, the suits themselves seem significantly less popular than the helmets themselves for reasons beyond my comprehension,” Derek, a Spirit Halloween employee in New Jersey for the past three years, tells Mental Floss. “It's still just a bit too early to say, but if the helmets keep shipping out at the rate they are, in-store stock will probably remain at a near-constant zero. If I'm recalling it right, all of the stores in my area currently have one helmet if any, and no more than five are being shipped to each store.”

4. Spirit Halloween employees can’t believe customers are still trying on masks.

It's probably not a good idea to try on Halloween masks this year.Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Despite newfound concerns over touching surfaces or being exposed to infectious particles, customers are still willing to try on masks in the store, even though someone else may have already been wearing it. “Ultimately the pandemic hasn't affected my store, aside from everyone needing to wear face masks while they're inside,” Jayme, a Spirit Halloween employee in Florida who’s worked there for four years, tells Mental Floss. “But people still ask to try things on and … they do still put masks on despite orange signs everywhere saying not to.”

Derek agrees. “If you've bought a mask from Spirit in any of the past seasons, there's a very high chance you're one of at least five people who’s worn that mask, and that's a conservative estimate for some of the masks. Despite the rule, I think I've seen that many people trying on [fictional creepypasta internet character] Jeff the Killer masks just in this past week.”

5. Spirit Halloween employees have seen some spooky things.

While a store full of scary costumes and props is a Halloween lover’s dream, some Spirit Halloween employees say it can also be the site of some spooky events. “An associate and I have both seen things swaying on the shelves as if someone walked by it, though nobody else is in the store,” Jayme says. “We've seen a few shadow movements as if people were hiding behind [a] corner. The funniest one [was] at closing time. One of my associates yelled ‘whoo’ and we heard a guy's voice say something in response. It totally freaked him out. It was one of our sound-activated hanging [animatronics].”

But not all employees get creeped out. “As much as I want to say that I've experienced anything creepy or paranormal, the store's about as creepy as a former Circuit City can be,” Derek says. Still, he's seen some strange things. “The lights used to turn off at the exact same time every day for about a month, there's always been the occasional inexplicable bang or creak, and some of the aisles do get messy a bit too quickly. One time, I was working at the fitting room. I sent a kid back with a previously unopened, dry Morphsuit costume [a full-body spandex outfit] and it came back warm and moist.”

Wet costumes aside, Derek won’t declare any paranormal activity just yet. “If I see a kid go flying across the store, I'll let you know.”

6. Spirit Halloween employees wish customers would stop making a huge mess.

Spirit Halloween employees like to keep stores neat.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

Owing to the nature of pop-up stores or the excitement over the holiday, customers at Spirit Halloween stores tend to make messes. Big ones. “You could've just finished putting every mask neatly back on the racks, and half of them will be back on the floor before you've caught your breath,” Derek says. “It seems like everyone takes a little pride in the sections they helped set up and the animatronics they built, and that definitely manifests in how we feel about customers messing with those things.”

7. Spirit Halloween employees would prefer you not use the aisle as a dressing room.

Some customers like to try on outfits in the aisle instead of the dressing room, a habit that predated the current pandemic. (Spirit Halloween fitting rooms are closed this season.) Employees would still prefer you not try to dress—or undress—in the middle of the store. “It's very common to find people, mostly kids, trying on costumes in aisles,” Kota says. “We [did] have multiple fitting rooms to try to stop this from happening, but once again, people would rather do things themselves sometimes.”

8. Spirit Halloween employees move a lot of licensed animatronics.

Animatronics are a popular item at Spirit Halloween.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

Among the most popular items in Spirit Halloween locations are the life-sized animatronics that provide a scary atmosphere for homes or parties. “Animatronics are one of our largest-selling items,” Kota says. “There's a certain group of people that love them and look forward to them annually. Some of our buyers buy them and use them for their haunted attractions. It's always nice to go to one and see a familiar face.”

While Spirit offers a number of original animatronic concepts—the Harvester of Souls being among the more popular—Kota says that customers usually gravitate toward licensed characters. “I've noticed that the most popular animatronics are our licensed ones. Pennywise [from 2017's It] and Sam [from 2007's Trick 'r Treat] have been huge sellers this year as was Michael Myers a few years ago. I've also noticed the ones that stay behind at the end of the season are almost always the swinging animatronics. I think they're interesting, but they don't sell as often as the others do.”

9. Spirit Halloween employees might sell you a used animatronic, but you need to get lucky.

Come the end of the season, Spirit Halloween locations often unload animatronics that were on display and no longer being manufactured. “Older animatronics, if I recall correctly, will stop being manufactured and then sold until it runs out,” Jayme says. “As for the displays, we do sell those at the end of the season. It's just a matter of putting your info on a waiting list.”

10. Spirit Halloween employees meet a lot of cosplayers.

Cosplayers are frequent shoppers at Spirit Halloween.Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It’s not just Halloween customers that Spirit Halloween stores service. According to Kota, cosplayers looking for that perfect accessory sometimes show up. “Spirit actually gets quite a bit of cosplayers and I personally think it's a great place to go for more specific items,” Kota says. “I'm sure we get even more cosplayers than I'm aware of since some customers like to talk about it and others don't say much about it.”

11. Spirit Halloween employees get a steep, steep discount once Halloween is over.

Between the standard employee discount and the after-Halloween fire sale available to customers, Derek says that he can go shopping in November and save a considerable amount of money. It’s one reason he keeps coming back. “It's hard to say no to an 80-percent discount during the November clearance sale,” he says. (The regular discount is 50 percent, and employees get an additional 30 percent.) “There's nothing like rewarding yourself after a busy season by spending $150 on, like, five or six things.”

12. Spirit Halloween employees sometimes get holiday shoppers.

Halloween means holiday shopping for some people.JJBers, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

For some customers, a Spirit Halloween store is a perfect place to start their holiday gift shopping. “I made a friend last year with a kid who comes in weekly to see if we have anything new in yet,” Kota says. “He's maybe about 7 years old and [he] and I go around the store almost every time he comes in and talk about new things and animatronics we have. His parents then secretly go around and buy him animatronics and props as Christmas presents. It's so nice to see his love for Halloween all year round. It reminds me of myself when I was his age.”