If you read the title of this post and got a shiver down your spine, a racing heart, or a tightness in your body, you’re not alone. Many students are afraid to approach professors, admissions officers and other personnel of the college. I totally understand your pain, but if you don’t work through the fear, you’re going to miss out on the opportunity to learn something important and to make a positive impression.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. The college application process is preparation for the “real world.” The journey of preparing for and putting together your college applications should be very similar to how you would approach a job search or a career change. In a job search. you might hear the phrase, it’s not always what you know; it’s who you know. Well, guess what? This mantra applies to college admissions too. So if you can’t make a personal connection with someone at the college, you’re potentially undercutting your own competitiveness.

So why build relationships? Three main reasons:

1) You want to be more than a number in competitive college admissions. Admissions officers have a heap of data to deal with–including essays, recommendations, test scores, and grades. When an admissions officer knows you personally, you can build a relationship that humanizes your identity in the review.

2) To learn the culture of the college. Admissions officers are the face of the institution to prospective students. If you don’t like what you see or what you’re hearing, chances are you might not like it at the college. This rule of thumb goes for the elite colleges too. You have to listen to what college admissions officers are telling you with a
critical ear and reflect on how their message resonates with you personally.

3) To keep in touch. Once you’ve made initial contact with an admissions officer or
professor, you can build your relationship organically by providing
updates and asking thoughtful questions. Remember not to bombard
anyone with emails; you should be able to explain to yourself why you
have chosen to send a particular message to an admissions officer
(and why that timing is strategic).

You might be wondering: Where are the opportunities to build those relationships,
even if I don’t have a connection? Here are four opportunities.

1) College tours and summer programs. Some Regional admissions reps will be willing to
meet face-to-face with students. JHU, for example, has admissions officers who offer admission interviews.

2) Email. To request a meeting (if you go on a tour) or an informational phone call. You can ask your questions over email and offer them the chance to talk with you at their convenience.

3) School and regionally-based college fairs. Regional reps will show up to your local area to represent their college. Before these events, come prepared with questions and do your research ahead of time.

4) Local alumni networks. Learn about campus life by connecting with alumni in your community. This also includes alumni of your high school who may attend colleges you’re interested in.

Aside from increasing your competitiveness to college through relationships, if you don’t ask questions to the people at the college, how will you know why you want to go there? In your essay, you won’t have many reasons to give for why you want to attend other than the presence of “illustrious faculty” and a “prestigious reputation.” But sharing these reasons will make you sound like almost every other applicant, and these reasons are hollow. Why? Because they tell us nothing about who you are and what you would contribute to the college.

In summary, college admissions is NOT a numbers game, reliant only on test scores and admit rates.

It’s a human connection that provides an opportunity for applicants to build awareness about who you are and what you have to offer the world.

When college admissions officers know who you are, they’re going to be interested in you. They’re going to learn about your values and assess if YOU can offer a benefit to them by attending their college/university.

Students can be part of shaping that conversation by reaching out to admissions officers and other representatives of the college.