How Your Student Can Build Connections at Top Colleges—Even If You Haven’t Donated Millions

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If I asked you to offer advice on how to get a great job at a certain company, you would probably suggest the following:

1) Ask a friend or acquaintance who works at the company to tell you about working there, the type of person they’re looking to hire for your position of interest, and, if you have a close relationship with this person, to put in a good word and connect you with the hiring manager.

2) Contact a person in the company (e.g., a department manager) to inquire about the position, develop a relationship with them, and ask them to pass your application materials to the appropriate individuals.

Both of these approaches would beat uploading your application materials to a job portal and waiting for someone to call you with good news.

And both of these approaches emphasize that “who you know” is very important when applying for jobs.

So, why should college applications be any different? Why shouldn’t students attempt to build authentic connections with faculty (and admissions staff) to apply like an insider rather than “cold apply”?

This is precisely what many students from elite high schools do. And this is precisely what I help my students do to raise their chances of getting into top colleges.

Think about it. If two students apply to Yale with similar GPAs and resumes, but one of them has support from a Biology professor, which student do you think will have the advantage to get accepted?

You may be thinking that it would be difficult to develop faculty relationships. You may also be wondering how developing faculty relationships will help your student when it comes time to apply for college.

No worries. I’ll show you word-for-word how your student can authentically connect with faculty and use their connections to eventually bolster their college applications.

How your student can build faculty connections

At any point during high school, your student could write down a list of 9 colleges they're interested in attending. Students should include:

  • 3 "safety" schools: schools they're confident they can get into based on their grades and ACT/SAT scores (if available)
  • 3 "target" schools: schools that they have a solid, but not guaranteed chance of getting into, again based on grades and ACT/SAT scores
  • 3 "reach" schools: schools that they would love to attend, but aren't sure whether they have good enough grades and ACT/SAT scores. Elite (i.e., top 25) schools should fall into this category for most students.

Note: For now, don't worry about how getting this list perfect because it likely won’t end up being your student’s final list. Instead, do your best with the information you have at this time.

Once your student has listed the schools they're targeting and reaching for, it's time to build at least one connection at each school. To do this, your student should identify one faculty member in each target and reach school's major (e.g., the English department if they want to pursue an English major) whose research they are particular interested in.

Note: Again, no worries if your student doesn’t yet know what they would like to major in. In this scenario, students should identify professors in a field related to their interests. For example, a student interested in the life sciences could contact a Biology or Psychology professor. Moreover, they could contact non-faculty, such as an athletic coach if they’re interested in playing a particular sport in college.

Next, your student should reach out to these identified professors via email to introduce themselves. Your student will want to point out aspects of the professors’ research they find interesting. After all, professors spend a lot of time pursuing their research interests and love nothing more than to speak with students about their work.

Your student could use the following email template to reach out to professors:

“Dear Dr. [Professor’s Last Name],

I hope this email finds you well. My name is [Student’s First and Last Name], and I am a [grade in school] student at [high school name] in [city name and state] who is interested in transferring to [university name] in the Fall of [year your student will begin attending college].

While exploring the [major department] faculty's work, your research on [a few words about the professor’s research your student finds interesting] really resonated with me. Specifically, I appreciate how you [authentic, specific reason your student likes a specific work] in [name of the work].

I can only imagine how busy your schedule is, but I was wondering whether you'd be willing to spend 10 minutes over the coming days to answer a few quick questions. I’d like to learn more about your research, and also about getting involved with the [major department] faculty's work if I were fortunate to end up at [university name]. If so, please let me know the best number to reach you, as well as some days/times that work for you. I'll do my best to accommodate.

Regardless of what you decide, I figured I'd introduce myself and thank you for your work. I appreciate your consideration to speak.

Sincerely,

[Student’s First Name]"

Note: Your student should resist copying and pasting sentences from professors’ websites. Instead, they should actually look into professors’ work to write a compelling email, as well as to have plenty to chat about during their scheduled phone call. If a professor does not respond, the student could follow up by email one week later.

During a phone call with a professor, your student should ask a couple of questions about the professor’s work. Then, they should feel free to discuss their academic background and ask any questions they have about the college. At the end of the call, your student should ask permission from the professor to contact them again in the future if and when they will be visiting the school. That way, your student could plant the seed for an in-person meeting and/or the opportunity to sit in on one of the professor’s lectures.

How developing a faculty connection can boost your student’s admissions odds

There are four primary ways that faculty connections can bolster your student’s college applications:

1) Your student will actually learn more about the college and whether it’s a good fit for his or her academic and career goals.

Unless your student visits a college’s campus or speaks with current students, professors, or alumni, they can only really rely on that college’s website, books, and internet forums for information. Given that your student will spend four formative years of their life at that school, it’s important to learn whether he or she will be a good fit there.

2) Your student may be able to pursue research with certain faculty members over the summer.

Casual emails and phone calls can lead to very interesting research opportunities at that university, especially over the summer. Imagine when the admissions committee reads in your student’s college application how he or she took that level of initiative.

3) Your student may be able to request a recommendation letter from certain faculty members.

If your student does end up pursuing research with a faculty member or otherwise gets to know them well, he or she could request a recommendation letter that will speak to their fit with that particular school. For example, who better than a Yale professor to tell the Yale admissions committee that your student would be a great fit with Yale?

4) They will be better equipped to write application essays that ask why your student wants to attend a specific school.

Many colleges ask some version of the “Why Us?” college essay question. For example, they may ask, “Why do you want to attend [college’s name]?”

Most students approach this question by reviewing the college’s website and regurgitating its information. With that approach, your student’s essay will look like every other applicant’s.

Imagine, however, that as an admissions representative, you came across an essay describing virtual and in-person interactions with school faculty, insights gained from school tours, and research at your college that has already been pursued.

Compared with the student who simply browsed the college website and internet forums, who do you think will have the advantage?

Colleges want to know whether your student loves their school. Not only do schools want to admit students who will enjoy their college experience there, but they also want to protect their “yield rates” (i.e., the percentage of admitted students who end up enrolling at their school). Building and discussing faculty connections will be a great help in communicating that level of interest.

Final Thoughts

It’s understandable for you to feel like outsiders when it comes to college admissions, that there’s a game being played around your student. However, it’s not so different from other application processes. Connecting with faculty members will help your student to eventually apply as an insider and boost their chances of getting into their dream schools.

A favor: My students often share creative ways they are building faculty connections. I’m curious, what are some ways I haven’t described above that your student can develop authentic faculty relationships? Please leave your thoughts below. I’ll respond to each one.