WARREN, NJ - James G. Nondorf, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at the University of Chicago, Chicago, Ill., gave insights about applying to private colleges as the keynote speaker at Junior Night, Wednesday, Oct. 14, at Watchung Hills Regional High School.

Nondorf gave tips to parents of this year’s Watchung Hills juniors on how to navigate the admittedly stressful process of applying to colleges and universities. Following Nondorf’s remarks, parents attended break-out sessions with the Watchung Hills Guidance Counselors who are assigned to help their child through the college admission process.
At Chicago, Nondorf is responsible for undergraduate admission and oversees the Office of Financial Aid. He had previously held the position of Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, N.Y., and earlier as Director of Student Outreach and Associate Director of Admissions at Yale University, New Haven, Ct. He received his bachelor’s degree in economics from Yale University, and master’s degree in ethics from Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Ind.

Watchung Hills Director of Guidance Catherine Angelastro introduced Nondorf to parents to open Junior Night. She added that representatives from as many as 125 colleges and universities will be visiting Watchung Hills during the course of this school year.
Nondorf opened his talk by reassuring parents that “now is not the time to panic. “ He acknowledged, however, that the process can be very stressful. Parents have already done for their son or daughter one of the most important things to help them get into college: They have sent them to Watchung Hills, he said.

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To make the stress more manageable, he recommended parents and students chose one day a week as the day when they tell themselves they will concentrate on: Talking about college; researching about colleges; analyzing what the student wants to study in college and narrowing the best colleges to help get the students to that goal; narrowing also the parameters for what colleges are affordable given the budget; and/or mapping out which colleges to visit and when.

Holistic Review
About getting into the University of Chicago, widely understood to be among the best universities in the country, he said that Chicago tends to get as many as 30,000 applicants for 1,500 slots. He added that even though there are slots of only about 1,500 first year students, in fact, as many as 5,000 of the applicants in all likelihood have the academic ability to succeed at Chicago, and many more probably have the academic ability to succeed. He said that despite these numbers, parents should be optimistic that they and their son or daughter will find a college that is the right fit for them, if not Chicago, then one of the scores of other colleges in the country that could be the right fit, or actually might even be a better fit, for them.


Chicago, and colleges like it, use a “holistic review” approach to consider applicants, Nondorf said. Admissions officers consider every item among the many application documents to be important. It is not just college admissions test scores that they value, he said, but also the essays, the teachers’ recommendations, the transcripts, the extra-curricular activities and accomplishments, and the interviews.

With regard to tests and test scores, Nondorf said students and their parents should read the fine print about the colleges where they apply. Test requirements can be found on the school’s Web sites or printed materials, and test requirements do vary.

If a student doesn’t test well on the SAT, and if alternative tests, such as the ACT are acceptable, then take the test on which the student will score higher, he recommended. Some colleges have made standardized tests optional.


Likewise, if a student did well on one section of the SAT, and not on the other, then when taking the SAT a second time, or third time, students should concentrate efforts, preparations, and practices on trying to raise the score in the section with the lower first score, he suggested.


Essays are the part of the application where the admissions officials can get to know the student, and where the student can “come alive” to the admissions official, Nondorf said.
“If you are analytical, be analytical in the essay,” Nondorf said. “If you are theoretical, be theoretical in the essay. If you are funny, be funny. One caveat: if you are not funny and cannot write funny, by all means do not try to write funny in the college essay.”Also, Nondorf said, “If you are having a bad day, do not write angry. Write who you want to be.”


Students should not let or ask their parents to write the essays for them, Nondorf said. Admissions officials have read enough essays over the years to know when an adult is writing the essays. Adults can be critical in the area of proof-reading the essays. Students should have all their essays proof-read, Nondorf said.

“Essays make a difference,” he said. “In the Personal Essay, don’t make it up. Be who you are. In the Supplemental Essay, show how you think.” 

With regard to recommendations, he said, find two teachers of academic subjects, ask them if they will write a positive recommendation for you, and if they will, ask them well in advance of when the recommendation is needed.


“Be nice to them. Send them thank you notes for agreeing to write the recommendation,” Nondorf said. “Thank them afterwards for having written the recommendation.”
The most important document is the transcript, Nondorf said, and the transcript itself is more important than just giving the GPA (Grade Point Average). Admissions officers want to see if the student has challenged him- or herself. They are asking the question: What was the academic rigor of this student’s high school experience.

Extra-curricular achievements as well as work experiences, taking care of a family member, and/or a portfolio that shows achievement can all be good supplements to the application materials, Nondorf said. He cautioned, however: “Do not send videos with music tracks.” Students should prepare for interviews, he said.  “Come prepared to talk about yourself,” he said. This is not the time to be shy.

“And come prepared with a question to ask,” he said. Applicants should show that you have researched the college, that they are curious about what they want to study, and that they want to learn about the nuances of going to this particular college.